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'Zero Dark Thirty' Renews Torture Debate

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. One of the most critically acclaimed and most popular films of the year, "Zero Dark Thirty," is up for five Oscars, including Best Picture. The film follows the hunt for Osama bin Laden and sparked controversy for its depiction of CIA interrogation techniques, including water boarding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

JASON CLARKE: (As Dan) Come on, give it to me. Hasam(ph) was a friend of Gramzi Yusef(ph). You guys met in Iran back in the '90s.

REDA KATEB: (As Ammar) I don't know. (Beep).

CLARKE: (As Dan) The emails to the rest of the Saudi group...

CONAN: Some say these scenes are inaccurate, too graphic or not graphic enough. Some critics argue the film justifies torture. Some complain the film gives away operational secrets and glorifies the CIA. If you've seen the film, how did it change your thoughts on interrogation? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Eve Ensler on V Day and one billion rising. But first "Zero Dark Thirty" and the politics of interrogation. Mark Bowden is national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, author of "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden," and joins us now on the phone from his office in Wilmington, Delaware. Nice to have you back on the program.

MARK BOWDEN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And let's start by stipulating this is a movie, it encapsulates 10 years into two-and-a-half hours, so accuracy is a relative concept. Broadly speaking, did they get it right?

BOWDEN: Yes, I think they did. I think most audiences understand fully what it means when a film says that it's based on a true story, and, you know, in fact, having researched this story and written about it myself, you know, I feel that it very authentically captures both the character and a lot of the details of this story.

CONAN: And details are important. One of the complaints by Senator John McCain, of course himself a victim of torture many years ago, and other U.S. senators who have had access to classified files, is that this film wrongly suggests that the key information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden was a product of torture.

BOWDEN: Well, that's what they say. You know, I think that it is - it's arguable, Neal, whether the information that was produced through these interrogation sessions that involved torture was key. But it definitely did produce useful and, you know, some of the very early leads that eventually took us to Abbottabad.

CONAN: Such as?

BOWDEN: Well, the - you know, the person who led us to bin Laden was a Kuwaiti courier who was known, for many years, to the CIA only as Ahmed the Kuwaiti. His name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, and they eventually, you know, made the connection between the pseudonym Ahmed the Kuwaiti and the guy's real name.

But the existence of this Ahmed the Kuwaiti emerged from some of the most notorious - publicly notorious - interrogation sessions early in the effort against al-Qaida.

CONAN: Yet it would be quite some time before that name emerged and he would lead us to bin Laden.

BOWDEN: Correct, and I think, you know, I think there's a political motive behind claiming that torture played no role in this, and perhaps even an admiral political motive, but the truth is that unless you discount all the years that the CIA was trying to figure out who Ahmed the Kuwaiti was and only begin the story when they made that connection with a real person, it's just not true to say that torture was not a factor.

CONAN: There is in fact a scene in the film, and this is, I guess, just before that pivot, after years of intelligence-gathering, which included those water boarding scenes. The film shows a moment in which a very angry CIA chief raises concerns about the information gathered after years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

MARK STRONG: (As George) There's no working group coming to the rescue. There's nobody else hidden away on some other floor. There is just us, and we are failing. We're spending billions of dollars. People are dying. We are still no closer to defeating our enemy.

CONAN: And some would suggest that those interrogations, then, did not produce any information that was practical, at least not to that point.

BOWDEN: That's correct. You know, I think the film accurately shows the frustrations of the CIA in those early years. They had lost track of bin Laden entirely, and, you know, long after they stopped utilizing coercive interrogation methods, they produced the breakthrough that eventually led to Abbottabad.

So if anything, I've argued that the film accurately depicts the failures and frustrations in those early years when these sorts of methods were being employed.

CONAN: We want to get callers in on the conversation. If you've seen "Zero Dark Thirty," how does it change your opinions on the use of enhanced interrogation? Well, that's what some call it; others call it water boarding, and some other critics would call it torture. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Nick(ph), and Nick is on the line with us from Boise in Idaho.

NICK: Hi, I saw the movie, and I really liked it, by the way, but I think it strengthened my opinions for the use of interrogation, the fact that it allowed us to find who we were looking for, basically. It got us the answers we needed to eventually capture bin Laden.

CONAN: It was certainly not, you know, direct from Point A to Point B.

NICK: No, definitely not, but it gave us the information that allowed us to source those contacts and find out where we needed to go from the information that we currently had.

CONAN: Did it give you any qualms about the ethics? If there was no ticking time bomb, if there was no plot that was going to be interrupted that was going to take lives next week, is this sort of thing justified?

NICK: I think so, just because I think that while these people may not have been proven to be terrorists, I think if you are associated with terrorists, you've given up your rights to be treated as a normal human being.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much, Nick.

NICK: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Thomas(ph), Thomas with us from Fresno.

THOMAS: Yeah, I strongly disagree with what the last caller said. I think they could have gotten that information in a different way. And if all they got from harsh interrogation was the names of associates, I believe there's other ways to ascertain that information than water boarding someone over and over again.

CONAN: There's no way to know that. There's - the fact is those interrogations did take place, the information did come as a product of those interrogations. There's no way to know they could have been gotten any other way.

THOMAS: Well, I mean, they're saying that it's guilt by association. So just by being affiliated with a terrorist, then, it gives the government supreme power to go after these people and no checks on it.

CONAN: Well, some of them were - none of them have been convicted in any court anywhere as of yet, but people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a self-confessed terrorist.

THOMAS: Yeah, under duress.

CONAN: All right. Thomas, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

THOMAS: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is John Rizzo, the former chief legal officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. He currently serves as senior counsel at Steptoe & Johnson, where he's a member of the National and Homeland Security Practice Group. He joins us by phone from his office here in Washington. Good of you to be with us today.

JOHN RIZZO: Nice to be with you.

CONAN: And you've seen the film? What did you think of it?

RIZZO: I did see the film. Well, first of all, just from a movie-going standpoint, I thought it was a ripping good action thriller, very well-made.

CONAN: And did it get it right?

RIZZO: Well, I assume you're asking about the early scenes on the interrogations. Let me initially focus on that. As anyone who saw the movie knows, it depicted water boarding, and it depicted another technique involving putting the detainee in a box. Both water boarding and the use of a box were indeed among the originally approved set of interrogation techniques that formed the basis of the original FBI program. So in that respect the movie was accurate.

Where I parted ways with it was the manner in which these two techniques were depicted in the movie, the manner by which the interrogator carried out the techniques. Now, I should emphasize that the water boarding and the use of the box, especially the water board, I would never characterize them as benign or innocuous.

I mean, as approved, they were quite aggressive. So there's no gain saying that. On the other hand, the way the water board was depicted, with the water, you know, large amounts of water basically poured into the detainee's mouth with him gagging up huge amounts, the use of the dog collar on him; and with respect to the box the fact that he was jammed into, at least to me, looking at it, it looked like he was being shoe-horned into this very teeny, tiny box.

Now those - in fact - that fact was not the way those techniques were authorized to be conducted and were not in fact carried out that - in that manner. So in that respect, the visual images, you know, I do believe struck me as over-the-top.

CONAN: And what do you say in response to people like Senator McCain, who say that, in fact, no useful information was the product of this torture and that the film is wrong in that respect?

RIZZO: Well, I - you know, this is also the position apparently that's going to be taken in the report that the Senate Intelligence Committee has prepared, which has not been released. I mean, where I come out on this, having lived with this program from the beginning, I found, looking back, it's very dangerous to make, sort of, categorical statements one way or the other that we would never have caught bin Laden were it not for these techniques.

On the other end of the spectrum, I don't - with due respect to those who take this position, seven - this program was carried out, was originally carried out, evolved over the years, was refined, produced thousands of intelligence reports and was conducted, mind you, all those years, by career CIA officers, non-political public servants.

To say - to make a blanket statement that nothing of any value ever came out of these techniques, I just think beggars the imagination. I just don't buy that.

CONAN: Stay with us, we're going to have more with John Rizzo and Mark Bowden after a short break. If you've seen "Zero Dark Thirty," call, tell us: Did it change the way you think about interrogation? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll be right back. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" has been generating Oscar buzz even before its release. It's also invigorated an older debate about the CIA's interrogation techniques. If you've seen the film, tell us: How did it change your thoughts on interrogation? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Mark Bowden, national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden." Also with us, John Rizzo, former chief legal officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. John Riggo(ph), you were - Rizzo, excuse me, you were talking just before the break about these techniques did produce, it seemed to you, useful intelligence. Even if they did, some would argue, these techniques should not be used, and the United States should forego them.

RIZZO: Well, that's - you know, that's the ultimate question, isn't it? I can just tell you what my perspective was, my viewpoint was at the time these were conceived. I was, frankly, involved in this program heavily from the outset. When I first heard about these proposed techniques, I thought they were quite harsh, that they're very aggressive.

I didn't know at that point whether they amounted to torture because, as you know, that's a legal term. More simply, never in my 25 years before at CIA had I the occasion to deal with the torture statute. So I didn't know - first of all, we were not going to ever do anything that was deemed to be illegal. But they were clearly, by any accounts, aggressive.

But, you know, it's important to keep in mind the context of the times. These were conceived, this program was conceived just a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Everyone in the government and in large parts of the country were convinced that another attack was only a matter of time. In that context, in that environment, in that atmosphere, I mean, I don't presume to speak for everyone who was involved at the time, but I thought that if our experts thought that these sort of extraordinary measures were necessary and unavoidable to prevent perhaps another catastrophic attack, I myself concluded that they were not only worth pursuing, but it was our duty to pursue them, to at least confirm whether or not we could legally do them.

CONAN: You were among those who was involved in establishing the legal underpinning for this. Did you ever attend any of these interrogations? Did you ever watch any of the tapes?

RIZZO: No, I never viewed the videotapes, which, as you know, were destroyed without my knowledge several years later. I had lawyers working under me who regularly visited the sites when the sessions were ongoing as part of the review effort. I should if I could note, parenthetically, getting back to the movie briefly, one of the other things about these scenes, the interrogation scenes in the movie that I thought was misleading was the seemingly ad hoc nature by which the interrogator would decide to use the waterboard or jam the detainee into the box.

In fact the actual sessions were monitored by legal personnel, by medical personnel, and every technique had to be fully vetted with CIA headquarters and approved before they could be applied. So that was the other major, I think, misimpression left by the scenes, the interrogations as depicted in the movie.

CONAN: Mark Bowden, I wanted to bring you back in. Given what we've just heard from John Rizzo, does that still fall within the broad framework of based on a true story?

BOWDEN: Yeah, it does. I would think, Neal, that, you know, if the filmmakers had depicted the more clinical methods that John has described, it would have been a great deal more chilling than what we saw, at least, you know, in my way of looking at things. If I wanted to depict something really horrifying, I'd put a couple of doctors in the room and...

(LAUGHTER)

BOWDEN: And have everything very antiseptic and clean. I mean, to me that smacks of, you know, SS tactics or, you know, medical experiments at a concentration camp. So in that sense maybe the filmmakers did the CIA a favor.

CONAN: Karen Greenberg is director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, the editor of "The Torture Debate in America." She joins us now from our bureau in New York. Good of you to be with us.

KAREN GREENBERG: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And your thoughts on the film.

GREENBERG: Well, as you can probably imagine, I didn't particularly care for it. I didn't like seeing torture portrayed for in excess of 40 minutes. And I didn't like the message that it sent, basically what your first caller referred to, which is that it made him think that interrogation and torture worked and worked in a an incredibly important national goal, which was to locate and kill Osama bin Laden.

CONAN: You don't think it worked.

GREENBERG: Do I think that the torture worked, is that what you're asking me?

CONAN: Yeah, you're...

GREENBERG: I think that the Senate Select Intelligence Committee has done a report and that there actually is an answer to this question. And I think they should release it so that the American public or whoever wants to can read through the 6,000 pages that it apparently is.

I think that if it worked, it doesn't mean that other methods wouldn't have worked just as well. You have to really think about how long it took us to get bin Laden. One thing missing from the film, and I think it's quite unfortunate, is the - what I understand from reports and a number of books that have been written is that President Obama came into office with a firm determination to do whatever he could to amass whatever resources he could to get bin Laden.

It's something that's missing entirely from the movie. I'm not saying that the prior administration wasn't committed to getting bin Laden, but there was a renewed energy and focus and intensity and determination. So whether or not it was torture, it doesn't mean that other methods, such as those used by the FBI or any other law enforcement organization, could have gotten from any of the people that led us to bin Laden.

CONAN: And you may be right; nevertheless, that isn't what happened. And do you fault the film for showing what actually did happen?

GREENBERG: We don't know that that isn't what happened, and that's why we need to see the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report because if, as Senators Feinstein and Senator McCain say, the report does not say that torture led to bin Laden, then we need to know that.

And we actually - what this film did was to put us right back into the gray area of he-said-she-said with an ultimate sense on the American public that we can't possibly know, but this film has given us one narrative purported to be based on firsthand accounts of actual events. But we actually don't know.

CONAN: John Rizzo, how do you respond to that?

RIZZO: Well, I agree that the notion that it is ultimately unknowable. This relates to my earlier comment about I think we need to avoid absolutes in this discussion. I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. You know, perhaps if these techniques had not been used, perhaps the same information could have been elicited. I won't say that's an impossibility.

The question is we'll never know. And there was no way of knowing, in those early months after 9/11, when we had our first major terrorists, one thing we did not have was the luxury of time. It was concluded that Zubaydah, Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee, was stonewalling. We were at a crossroads.

Perhaps if the program had never come into effect, the information leading to bin Laden would have ultimately come, but if so, how long would that have taken, when would it have happened. And the final point I would make here, Neal, is, you know, we - it's a mistake now to focus on the interrogation program as having a sole raison d'etre of finding a way to find bin Laden.

The other equally important aspect of the program and motivation for the program was to elicit intelligence that could lead to the unraveling, the exposure, of other potential attacks against the homeland.

CONAN: And did it?

RIZZO: Well, in the view of our professional career analysts and operatives, it did. I mean, it was a very complicated matrix. The interrogation program was only one part of the, you know, the all-out intelligence effort, counterterrorism intelligence effort in post-9/11 years. I will not say it was the only way by which some of these plots were exposed, there were certainly other means. I think the movie actually was good in elucidating that. But it did, it did play a role. Now how big a role, you know, I'm not prepared to say. But I think it's indisputable that it played a role. Even the administration, the Obama administration, has conceded that.

CONAN: Well, John Rizzo, we know you've got another appointment. We appreciate your taking time out to speak with us today.

RIZZO: Well, thank you for having me, Neal, thanks.

CONAN: John Rizzo, former chief legal officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, currently serves as senior counsel at Steptoe & Johnson, where he's a member of the National and Homeland Security Practice Group. Still with us is Karen Greenberg, who's director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and editor of - excuse me - editor of "The Torture Debate in America," and Mark Bowden, who's the author of "The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden." Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. This is Coop(ph). Coop with us from Granite Bay in California.

COOP: Yes. To me, this strikes me as an end-means rationale. I used to contrast the Vietnamese prisoner of war treatment by the ARVNs with our own. And you give the prisoner a bowl of soup and a cigarette and treat him humanely; you usually got more reliable information. Of course, that was - those were not hardened terrorists but...

CONAN: ARVN being the South Vietnamese Army.

COOP: Yes, yes. But you pay a heavy price. Let's assume we did get bin Laden through torture, what are you giving up? Al-Qaida is still out there. You've given - you've gained something important, but you've given up your standing in international law. You've given up that - the ill will that is going to be generated with more terrorists, and you've given up a very poor example for our troops when they're captured and on and on and on. And I used to make that - as a former infantryman in Vietnam, I used to make that point.

And then a lawyer later, as a JAG Corps officer, I used to make that point with commanders. And I think having the combat experience, generally, it gave me some credibility that they appreciated. And I just think it's an awfully heavy price. There's no absolutes, as they say. And sometimes the ends do justify the means, but it's classic rationale. That's my comment. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. And, Karen Greenberg, I would think that would be an opinion you would endorse.

GREENBERG: Well, I think there's a couple of things I'd like to say in response. First is this is the first mention of the legality of it coming up, and I think it's an important point. Torture is illegal under American law, under military law and under international law. The definition of torture was changed in order to allow for this program President Obama, you know, outlawed torture again, restored the way it was in the past. But it's a very important point to make because it infuses this debate because those who participate in it are aware of the fact that before and after this it was illegal and it carries great penalties.

Second thing I want to point out is something about professionalism. The Central Intelligence Agency is an agency that prides itself on its ability to penetrate into foreign networks, to get information, to analyze information, and that is the profession. To yield to torture is such a deep professionalism of what they are trained to do that it's interesting to me that they haven't been more offended by this movie, maybe they have been. And the third thing I just want to bring up because nobody has mentioned it yet is that perhaps the thing that I find most unsettling about this film is the lack of pushback or dissent or contesting the fact of torture in the movie.

There is no character that says, gee, this isn't the way the CIA does things, or this is illegal, or maybe we should think about the morality of it. There's nothing. And as a result, it has a dehumanizing effect I believe on the nature of the story that is being told. And so I just want to make those comments in response to this caller and to John Rizzo's final comments.

CONAN: Karen Greenberg of Fordham Law School. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Mark Bowden, she's right on that last point, and it's a point that others within the film business have brought up as well in criticizing the film as not taking a stand against torture.

BOWDEN: No, it doesn't and nor do I feel, you know, filmmakers and artists are obliged to make a political argument or a statement. It's sufficient at least in my aesthetic if you're trying to tell a true story that you simply, you know, show what happened. And I also disagree with the interpretation of the film. The 40 minutes of coercive interrogation in the beginning of the film are depicted as an effort to try to head off a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, which goes ahead.

They fail to prevent that attack. In fact, they make a point in the movie of noting that their efforts to interrogate this guy failed, and he's shown to be giving them, you know, misinformation as they're, you know, pushing him into this box. So the interpretation of the film which says that that long interrogation sequence in the beginning demonstrates the usefulness of torture methods I think just fails to read the movie correctly. So, you know, I don't agree with the interpretation of the film. I do agree, however, that it's right to ban these methods, and that the price that you pay for using them, except in very rare instances where you might forestall a tragedy is too great.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. This is Dan. Dan with us from Jacksonville.

DAN: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

DAN: I've got two points. The first one is the reason why Senator Feinstein and McCain have come out against it is because it opens up our troops to those same techniques. I was an intelligence analyst in a human intelligence unit for over six years in Korea and in Iraq. And I do believe that if a prisoner is unwilling to talk that it does make them eventually want to talk. And once you get into that position where they're talking, you can then find out the truth from the lies. But if they're not willing to talk at all from the beginning, you've got to encourage them. I hate to say it that way, but that's the facts.

CONAN: I'm hearing two things here, Dan. One, that it can be effective. Two, that even if so, it exposes our troops to that same brutal treatment.

DAN: Yes. And that's why the Senate report probably won't be released is because it probably did encourage them to talk. And it therefore shows that it does work, and, therefore, our troops are going to be subject to it in a regular conflict. And the treatment that our troops receive from the terrorists, cutting off their heads is not going to change whether it works or we outlaw the techniques.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And thank to our guests as well. We've already said goodbye to John Rizzo, but Karen Greenberg, thanks very much for your time today.

GREENBERG: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, editor of "The Torture Debate in America." Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His piece is "Zero Dark Thirty is Pro-Torture" ran on The Atlantic website last month. Thanks very much for your time as always.

BOWDEN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Up next, V-Day's 1 billion rise up and get down to take a stand against violence against women. Eve Ensler joins us after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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