Zero Dark Thirty, the movie drama of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has spawned a wide array of commentary. None is as misleading or morally disturbing, however, as the one from former CIA counterterrorism chief Jose Rodriguez, who seized on the film as an opportunity to defend -- and completely distort -- the CIA torture program he supervised. This from the guy who, ignoring instructions from the White House and CIA, destroyed 92 videotapes depicting the waterboarding of detainees in CIA custody, claiming it was to protect the identities of CIA operatives on the tapes.
In Rodriguez's rosy version of events, the CIA program was "carefully monitored and conducted," bearing "little resemblance to what is shown on the screen." Most detainees, he claims, received "no enhanced interrogation techniques," and for those who did it was only after written authorization was obtained.
Zero Dark Thirty has many factual inaccuracies, about which U.S. senators with access to the classified record have publicly complained. More important is that the film may leave viewers with the false impression that the U.S. government's use of torture was an ugly but necessary part of the fight against terrorism.
In Rodriguez's rewrite, however, the torture program sounds like a well-guided walk in the park. What we know from released government documents and multiple interviews with people in the program, though, is that Rodriguez's description of the program bears little resemblance to reality. Although the CIA did initiate guidelines requiring written permission before so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) were used, the CIA's own inspector general's report says these guidelines were not formalized until the end of January 2003, when EITs were already in use. And though the guidelines were an improvement, the inspector general said, they still left "substantial room for misinterpretation and [did] not cover all Agency detention and interrogation activities."
Research I did for a September 2012 Human Rights Watch report documented the experiences of five Libyan opponents of the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi probably detained under the CIA program. During their time in U.S. custody -- ranging from eight months to two years -- they said they were chained to walls in pitch-dark cells, often naked, sometimes while diapered, for weeks or months at a time; restrained in painful stress positions for as long as two weeks; forced into cramped spaces; beaten; repeatedly slammed into walls; kept inside for nearly three months without the ability to bathe or cut their hair or nails ("We looked like monsters," one detainee said); denied food and sleep; and subjected to continuous, deafeningly loud music. They were held incommunicado with no visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Their families had no idea whether they were alive or dead. From released documents, we also know that techniques like placing a detainee with a known fear of bugs "in a cramped confinement box with an insect," and then falsely telling him it would sting, were approved for use.
Rodriguez claims, "No one was hung from ceilings" in the CIA program. Yet, of the five detainees interviewed for our report, two said they were restrained in cells with their hands above their heads. One said he was kept this way for three days while naked, forced to urinate on himself; the other said he was restrained with his hands above his head for about 15 days, in an extremely cold cell while naked except for a diaper. He was only taken out of the room about five times for questioning. A third detainee said he was restrained with his handcuffed wrists above his head while kept in a tall narrow box with speakers on both sides of his head, just inches from his ears, blasting loud music. He was in this box, naked, without food, for a day and a half. Other detainees have described similarly being restrained from above at what appears to be the same location.
Rodriguez also said, as have other CIA officials in the past, that only three detainees, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were waterboarded in the program -- though the CIA qualified this a bit after our report came out, saying it was on record as having said there were only three "substantiated" cases of waterboarding. Yet one of the five Libyan detainees I spoke with (though not using the term "waterboarded") gave credible testimony that he was frequently strapped to a wooden board, with a hood over his head, while water was poured over his nose and mouth to the point that he felt like he would suffocate. Another detainee said he was threatened with use of the board but that it was never used on him.