On January 3, 2013, Jose Rodriguez Jr., the head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorism Center from 2002 to 2004 and Director of the National Clandestine Service until 2007, took the unique step of writing an op-ed in the Washington Post in order to inform the public that the new movie, Zero Dark Thirty, got it wrong when detailing treatment of prisoners. He wrote: “(the movie) mischaracterizes how America’s enemies have been treated in the fight against terrorism.” He argues very few detainees were subjected to torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”) and after the detainee became compliant, the techniques were halted.
Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA want to control the narrative of who they are and how they do their jobs. History is written by the victorious, and Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA’s denial of the use of torture over the past 10 years is an attempt to do just that. It is done to protect their legacy, ongoing operations, and maybe more importantly, it is an attempt to lay the historical groundwork for future operations.
We are almost forced to take Mr. Rodriguez at his word that Zero Dark Thirty is inaccurate. This is partly because Mr. Rodriguez himself carried out the destruction of 92 interrogation videotapes in 2005 that consisted of hundreds of hours of footage. According to a Justice Department inquiry in 2009, these included interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who did receive enhanced interrogation techniques. The CIA has also classified almost all information relating to torture programs employed by the CIA. Enough information has leaked to challenge Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA’s assertion that the programs did not amount to torture or that a compliant source was no longer subjected to torture. In fact, it is the leaking of the information that truly angers the CIA and the United States government, not the torture. Other analysts and media outlets are arguing about whether or not torture worked, or if the movie represents the actual interrogation program. What is most interesting to me is the decision by Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA (in multiple forums) to publicly decry Zero Dark Thirty as inaccurate regarding torture and how the CIA does business in general.
Considering the infinite number of inaccurate depictions of the CIA currently on DVD or in paperback (many of which show the CIA in a “bad” light), it is very notable this particular movie got such a response. In fact, we should use a CIA interrogation tactic to view Mr. Rodriguez’s denial. In the Washington Post op-ed Rodriguez argues, “He (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) denied any knowledge of the courier, but so adamantly that we knew we were on to something.” The strong and concerted insistence that Zero Dark Thirty missed the mark on torture should, at the very least, make us question the denial in the same fashion. But then, the value of muddying the information is not about convincing others the adversarial information is wrong. It is about creating enough doubt that the sting of the information is diminished. Over time, the official story becomes the “real story,” and the truth fades away.
Mr. Rodriguez has a personnel stake in protecting his reputation and not going to jail, as do other officers in the CIA. However, Obama’s Justice Department already decided in 2011 not to prosecute in 99 of 101 potential cases of detainee abuse by the CIA. Mr. Rodriguez will probably never see the inside of a cell unless a major public campaign took place, and even then it would be doubtful. Regardless, a shift in public perception, domestically and internationally, could renew pressure on the CIA and the United States government to acknowledge the use of torture in the war on terror. At the very least this would greatly reduce the “moral authority” the United States tends to exert.
The depiction of torture in a movie being sold as an accurate portrayal of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden could also jeopardize ongoing operations and relationships with assets in the fight against Al Qaeda and other groups deemed enemies of the United States. By publicly rolling their eyes at the “fiction” of Hollywood, they create doubt in the mind of an asset, or potential enemy, who wavers daily in his intentions towards the United States.
Of course, torture and assassination programs also create blowback. Instead of scaring our enemies, it recruits more of them. It is a balancing act. Create fear in the minds of our enemies (and frenemies) without creating more of them is a constant fight for any counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operation.
Torture is still considered valuable regardless of blowback because intelligence gathering is not always the only objective of an interrogation. The use of interrogations to instill debilitating fear in a hostile population can be found throughout history. Torture is psychological pain as much as it is physical, and not just for the subject of the torture. When torture is used to this end, it is behavior modification through terror. The message is clear–being an enemy of the United States has horrible consequences.
Now that the heavy fighting is done (for now), the United States must attempt to redirect the historical narrative of the past decade. It is imperative for the United States to again wear the clock of benign power leading the way in human rights, civil liberties and freedom. The CIA believes it is in its interests for the international community to accept the narrative, and it is essential for Americans to believe it. Future operations will depend on how the war on terror is defined today. A pliant and supportive citizenry is a must when undertaking intelligence operations, interventions or wars. By keeping the true history of CIA interrogation operations secret, they can control the historical narrative and therefore keep their options open for future operations. They have set a legal precedent for using torture and at the same time created a myth that it was never employed.
By smoothing over the very rough edges of its history, America changes the perceptions and decisions of its future generations, just as America’s true actions abroad shape the perceptions and decisions of the rest of the world. The CIA believes it is protecting American interests by covering the truth, but it does not see the long-term consequences. By not being honest about our actions in this war, American perception of reality grows increasingly different from the rest of the world’s perception of reality. Over time, Americans will not understand, nor be able to predict, the actions of future adversaries because they will not understand from where the actions spring. As time goes on and officers retire, institutional knowledge of the truth goes with them, just as the phenomenon occurs in the general population. Before long, CIA officers believe the story they were taught in school. Put simply, the CIA helps create a false historical narrative, ends up believing it, and then makes decisions based on it – with potentially catastrophic consequences for the United States and the world.