The Right Opinion

Torture Helped Get bin Laden?

By Jonah Goldberg · Feb. 7, 2013

“Zero Dark Thirty,” the film about the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, got a fresh infusion of buzz over the weekend when outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed again that enhanced interrogation techniques aided the effort to find bin Laden.

“Some of it came from … interrogation tactics that were used,” he said. “But the fact is we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that. I think we could have gotten bin Laden without that.”

In other words, the movie exaggerates the role played by enhanced interrogation techniques – torture to some – but they did have a role in the hunt for bin Laden. But why stop there? Like most films about real events, “Zero Dark Thirty” exaggerates all sorts of things. For starters, the hunt for bin Laden wasn't conducted single-handedly by a very attractive red-haired woman, recruited from high school by the CIA.

The movie also exaggerates how the detainees were treated. To watch the film, torture was used every time a detainee – pretty much any detainee – gave a false or partial answer to a question. The interrogators could beat, humiliate and waterboard prisoners on an impulse. In reality, they didn't beat detainees at all.

As former George W. Bush aide Marc Thiessen notes, of the more than 100,000 prisoners in the war on terror, only about 100 were ever held by the CIA and of those, only about a third were subjected to any enhanced interrogation methods. A total of three detainees were waterboarded – and then only under medical supervision and with written authorization from superiors.

Though the film exaggerates some things, to the dismay of critics on the right (and in the intelligence community), it ignores other issues. For instance, critics on the left fairly complain that the stark cost in Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani innocent lives is never referenced. More relevant, nobody ever raises moral objections to the torture of detainees (in part, because the objectionable treatment doesn't need a monologue for the audience to recognize it).

All these complaints are fair game as far as movie criticism goes. Director Kathryn Bigelow had every right to make whatever movie she wanted. And critics have every right to respond however they want. That said, most of the complaints from the left and the right can be boiled down to the fact that Bigelow didn't make the movie her critics wanted.

In the process, many critics fail to appreciate some of the film's nuance. For instance, many on the left and right tend to see the protagonist as a heroic character. But her single-minded focus on justice – or revenge, depending on your perspective – should more properly be seen as a cautionary tale. After bin Laden's death, Maya, the hero, suddenly has nothing to live for and no place to go.

But I'm not looking to write a movie review. The film is newsworthy because of how lawmakers have responded to it. A bipartisan group of legislators, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is furious that the film “credits these detainees with providing critical lead information.” Put bluntly, they believe that Panetta is lying when he says waterboarding provided anything useful. The senators have been badgering the CIA to explain how Bigelow could be so wrong. After all, as McCain often says, “Torture doesn't work.”

This is something of a mantra from opponents of waterboarding. One activist lawyer, Jesselyn Radack, wrote on Daily Kos that the film is “revolting – for its blatant propaganda, glorification of torture and false narrative that torture led to the demise of bin Laden.” She wanted the following disclaimer: “Torture does not work and was of no value in finding Osama bin Laden.”

Whether waterboarding is torture is probably the most emotionally fraught semantic argument of our lifetimes. Opponents sincerely believe it is torture. Even so, stipulating that it is torture does not suddenly mean that you must also concede it doesn't work. Many in the intelligence community will tell you that the interrogation program yielded crucial information, starting with Panetta, who ran the CIA when we found bin Laden.

Shouting “torture doesn't work” amounts to taking the easy way around the harder argument: that torture might work, but we shouldn't do it anyway, even when American lives are in danger. It's politically unpopular, particularly when waterboarding amounts to the most extreme form of torture.

But that's Panetta's position. He has said that waterboarding is torture and it's wrong. But he has also said that it yielded valuable information we might or might not have gotten some other way. Like it or not, at least Panetta's honest.

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

4 Comments

Brian in Newport News said:

Actually, calling waterboarding torture stretches the definition a bit, doesn't it? After all, the subject is never physically harmed, certainly not like so many other techniques that have been tried in times and cultures passed. Ask John McCain about his handicap as an example. And I understand that after waterboarding, it is often never repeated as the simple THREAT of waterboarding is just as effective as the actual process.

It would be nice, though we will never see it, to find out how many Amercian lives were potentially saved by information obtained from a waterboarded subject.

Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 12:21 PM

Shel in Alaska said:

If torture doesn't work, then why do American servicemen and women have to learn the Code of Conduct? Article V states, "When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause." It's because most POWs who have been tortured will tell you that eventually, EVERYONE breaks. I'm not justifying the use of torture, but quit saying it doesn't work. Or does it only work on Americans? I find that point of view repugnant.

Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 3:16 PM

Capt. Call in New Mexico said:

John McCain is a RINO. He is old and senile, and should be retired from the Senate. With friends like McCain, who needs enemies?

Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 5:12 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Fire all Demokrats and start over!

Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 5:51 PM