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Karen Greenberg: How Zero Dark Thirty Brought Back the Bush Administration

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.


We got Osama bin Laden -- and now, for millions of Americans, we'll get him again onscreen as Zero Dark Thirty hits your neighborhood multiplex.  Lauded and criticized, the film's the talk of the town.  But it's hardly the only real-life CIA film that needed to be made.  Here, for the record, are five prospective films, all potentially suspenseful, all involving CIA daring-do, and all with plenty of opportunities for blood and torture, that are unlikely to make it into those same multiplexes in your lifetime.  Let's start with the CIA's 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, whose democratically elected government had nationalized the country's oil industry.  What a story!  It couldn't be oilier, involving BP in an earlier incarnation, the CIA, British intelligence, bribery, secretly funded street demonstrations, and (lest you think there'd be no torture in the film) the installation of an autocratic regime that would create a fearsome secret police and torture opponents for decades to come.  All of this was done in the name of what used to be called "the Free World."  That "successful" coup was the point of origin for just about every disaster and bit of "blowback" -- a term first used in the CIA's secret history of the coup -- in U.S.-Iranian relations to this day.  Many of the documents have been released and whatta story it turned out to be!  Hollywood, where are you?

Or here's another superb candidate: the CIA's Phoenix Program in Vietnam.  Boy, if you want a little torture porn, try that baby.  Meant to wipe out the Vietcong's political infrastructure, it managed to knock off an estimated 20,000 Vietnamese, remarkably few of whom were classified as "senior NLF cadres." (Reportedly, the program was regularly used by locals to settle grudges.)  It was knee -- maybe waist -- deep in blood, torture, assassination, and death.  It's the Agency we've come to know and love.  But hold your breath waiting for Good Evening, Vietnam.

For a change of pace, how about a CIA-inspired torture comedy?  We're talking about the rollicking secret kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in early 2003, his transport via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to Egypt, and there, evidently with the CIA station chief for Italy riding shotgun, directly into the hands of Egyptian torturers.  What makes this an enticing barrel of laughs was the way the CIA types involved in the covert operation rang up almost $150,000 in five-star hotel bills as they gallivanted around Italy, ate at five-star restaurants, vacationed in Venice after the kidnapping, ran up impressive tabs on forged credit cards for their fake identities, and were such bunglers that they were identified and charged for the abduction in absentia by the Italian government.  Most were convicted and given stiff jail sentences, again in absentia.  (No more Venetian holidays for them!)  It's the CIA's version of a La Dolce Vita torture caper and obviously screams for the Hollywood treatment.

Or how about a torture tragedy?  None can top the story of Khaled el-Masri, an unemployed car salesman from Germany on vacation in Macedonia, who, on New Year's Eve 2003, was pulled off a bus and kidnapped by the CIA because his name was similar to that of an al-Qaeda suspect.  After spending five months under brutal conditions, in part in an "Afghan" prison called "the Salt Pit" (run by the CIA), he was left at the side of a road in Albania.  In between, his life was a catalogue of horrors, torture, and abuse.

Finally, who doesn't like the idea of a torture biopic?  And the perfect subject's out there.  He was just front-paged in a major profile in the New York Times.  Former CIA agent John Kiriakou was an al-Qaeda hunter, led the team that captured that outfit's logistics specialist Abu Zubaydah, and is the only CIA agent in any way associated with the Agency's torture activities who will go to jail.  And here's the sort of twist that any moviemaker should love: he never tortured anyone.  He spoke out against it.  He just leaked information, including the name of an undercover agent, to journalists.  Russell Crowe would be perfect in the role.  Adventure, blood, torture, injustice, irony -- what more could you ask for?

Instead, of course, what we've got this week is a bloody-minded nostalgia film, writes TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg.  Zero Dark Thirty, she says, is The Way We Were for those still in mourning over the departure of George W., Dick, Rummy, and the only national security advisor we've ever had who came into office with a double-hulled oil tanker named after her. And who should know more about what they did?  Greenberg, the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, has written, among other works, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days and The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib. Tom

Learning to Love Torture, Zero Dark Thirty-Style Seven Easy, Onscreen Steps to Making U.S. Torture and Detention Policies Once Again PalatableBy Karen J. Greenberg

On January 11th, 11 years to the day after the Bush administration opened its notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's deeply flawed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, opens nationwide. The filmmakers and distributors are evidently ignorant of the significance of the date -- a perfect indication of the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the film, which will unfortunately substitute for actual history in the minds of many Americans.

The sad fact is that Zero Dark Thirty could have been written by the tight circle of national security advisors who counseled President George W. Bush to create the post-9/11 policies that led to Guantanamo, the global network of borrowed "black sites" that added up to an offshore universe of injustice, and the grim torture practices -- euphemistically known as "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- that went with them.  It's also a film that those in the Obama administration who have championed non-accountability for such shameful policies could and (evidently did) get behind. It might as well be called Back to the Future, Part IV, for the film, like the country it speaks to, seems stuck forever in that time warp moment of revenge and hubris that swept the country just after 9/11.

As its core, Bigelow's film makes the bald-faced assertion that torture did help the United States track down the perpetrator of 9/11. Zero Dark Thirty -- for anyone who doesn't know by now -- is the story of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who believes that information from a detainee named Ammar will lead to bin Laden. After weeks, maybe months of torture, he does indeed provide a key bit of information that leads to another piece of information that leads" well, you get the idea. Eventually, the name of bin Laden's courier is revealed. From the first mention of his name, Maya dedicates herself to finding him, and he finally leads the CIA to the compound where bin Laden is hiding.  Of course, you know how it all ends.

However compelling the heroine's determination to find bin Laden may be, the fact is that Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists. It's as if she had followed an old government memo and decided to offer in fictional form step-by-step instructions for the creation, implementation, and selling of Bush-era torture and detention policies.

Here, then, are the seven steps that bring back the Bush administration and should help Americans learn how to love torture, Bigelow-style.

First, Rouse Fear. From its opening scene, Zero Dark Thirty equates our post-9/11 fears with the need for torture. The movie begins in darkness with the actual heartbreaking cries and screams for help of people trapped inside the towers of the World Trade Center: "I'm going to die, aren't I?... It's so hot. I'm burning up..." a female voice cries out. As those voices fade, the black screen yields to a full view of Ammar being roughed up by men in black ski masks and then strung up, arms wide apart.

The sounds of torture replace the desperate pleas of the victims. "Is he ever getting out?" Maya asks. "Never," her close CIA associate Dan (Jason Clarke) answers.  These are meant to be words of reassurance in response to the horrors of 9/11. Bigelow's first step, then, is to echo former Vice-President Dick Cheney's mantra from that now-distant moment in which he claimed the nation needed to go to "the dark side."  That was part of his impassioned demand that, given the immense threat posed by al-Qaeda, going beyond the law was the only way to seek retribution and security.

Bigelow also follows Cheney's lead into a world of fear.  The Bush administration understood that, for their global dreams, including a future invasion of Iraq, to become reality, fear was their best ally. From Terre Haute to El Paso, Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, Americans were to be regularly reminded that they were deeply and eternally endangered by terrorists.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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