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Terror Tuesday’s torture tempest: which way will the winds blow now?

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Thanks to “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film Glenn Greenwald regards as “pernicious propaganda” and Peter Maass has termed “a troubling new frontier of government embedded filmmaking,” a rhetorical storm is once again brewing over the practice of torture.

The controversy generated by a film that graphically depicts torture and links it to success in the hunt for bin Laden has overshadowed other developments this past week in the torture stakes.

These include the long-awaited release (but not to us) of a Congressional report on torture and the significant step taken by an international court which has done what US courts have refused to do, and condemned extraordinary rendition and torture.

But is there likely to be any momentum toward accountability for torture within the US? Probably not.

There will be no transformative “shocks to the conscience” as long as the voluminous details of what has been done to keep Americans ‘safe’ remain classified and hidden from the public. And the NDAA of 2013 may soon make ‘government-embedded filmmaking’ and other insidious forms of propaganda standard fare.

When we discuss torture, we must not forget the deep roots it has in this country. From the days of the slave codes and gruesome public lynchings to the coerced confessions extracted by big city police forces and small town sheriffs, torture has been a prominent feature on the American landscape. And, as Iranian-born Derius Rejali, the author of Torture and Democracy, points out, democracies like the US, UK and France pioneered torture methods that leave no marks throughout the 20th century.

But by the beginning of the 21st century, a majority of Americans opposed the use of torture, a statistic that appears to have varied little throughout Bush’s presidency.

These numbers held even as Harper’s Magazine revealed that there was a “tremendous dramatic increase in the number of torture scenarios in mainstream entertainment” during the 21st century’s first decade, with 897 incidents of torture on prime time TV shows from 2004-2007, while there were only 110 such incidents in the previous seven years.

Soon after President Obama took office in 2009, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that 58 percent of Americans thought torture should be banned, and a survey by USA Today/Gallup showed that nearly two-thirds wanted its use to be investigated.

Its use has been investigated – but we may never know what exactly the investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee has found.

Back in April 2009, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein had urged President Obama not to bring any prosecutions until the Committee had time to “do its job” of investigating, which she estimated would take from six to eight months.

The six to eight months stretched into three years, and potential prosecutions were permanently put on ice. At last, on December 13, with outgoing Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine joining the Committee’s eight Democrats, the Committee’s 6,000 page report, based on more than six million records, was approved by a vote of 9-6.

We may not learn much about its contents, but we do know this: the film “Zero

Dark Thirty” – crafted with the input of senior CIA officials – is perpetuating a lie by implying that information extracted under torture led to the location of Osama bin Laden.

In April 2012, in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein and Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin had vigorously refuted claims by Jose Rodrigues, the former CIA deputy Director of Operations, that “information provided by KSM [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Faraj al-Libbi about bin Laden’s courier was the lead information that eventually led to the location of [bin Laden’s] compound and the operation that led to his death.”

In the words of Feinstein and Levin, “We are disappointed that Mr. Rodriguez and others, who left government positions prior to the UBL [Usama bin Laden] operations and are not privy to all of the intelligence that led to the raid, continue to insist that the CIA’s so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used many years ago were a central component of our success. This view is misguided and misinformed.”

When the same misinformation made its way into “Zero Dark Thirty,” some media outlets quoted from the Feinstein-Levin statement. But as long as the findings of the Intelligence Committee report are held close to the chest, words like these are unlikely to shape audience perceptions of a film acclaimed as ‘best of the year” when it finally has its general release.

And now the public is unlikely to learn more about CIA torture practices from those at their receiving end. Army Col. James Pohl, the chief judge in the death penalty trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four associates before a Guantanamo Bay military commission, has recently barred any disclosure of classified information relating to CIA interrogations.

He has also banned any reference to the defendants’ own “observations and experiences” when they were held in CIA ‘black sites’ and ordered that the 40-second delay be maintained on the audio feed to spectators who sit in what the ACLU has termed the “censorship chamber.”

In the words of the ACLU’s Hina Shamsi, “We’re profoundly disappointed by the military judge’s decision, which didn’t even address the serious First Amendment issues at stake here. For now, the most important terrorism trial of our time will be organized around judicially approved censorship of the defendants’ own thoughts, experiences and memories of CIA torture. The decision undermines the government’s claim that the military commission system is transparent and deals a grave blow to its legitimacy.”

Most viewers of “Zero Dark Thirty” will probably also remain in the dark about the alleged link between the CIA operative who is the focus of the film and a trial that has just given a measure of vindication to one torture victim. According to Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy, the model for the film’s ‘heroine’ is the CIA’s Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, who reportedly played a prominent role in the abduction and torture of Khaled El-Masri.

A German citizen, El-Masri had been kidnapped during a vacation in Macedonia in December 2003 and tortured for four months in an Afghan prison run by the CIA. He was dumped on a hillside in Albania after it was discovered that he was the wrong ‘Khaled El-Masri.’

El-Masri with the help of the ACLU brought a suit in US federal court which was thrown out in 2006 on ‘state secrets’ grounds. The US Supreme Court refused to review the lower court finding.

After a Spanish reporter found the names of the CIA abduction team involved in his kidnapping in the logs of a Majorca hotel and turned them over to German prosecutors, a German court issued arrest warrants for the 13 agents. The US pressured Germany to drop the case.

While some of those responsible for El-Masri’s rendition subsequently received promotions, the victim of mistaken identity had never received an apology for being sodomized, severely beaten, shackled in a tiny filthy cell and threatened with death in the CIA’s notorious Afghan prison known as the ‘Salt Pit.’

But on December 13, as the Senate Intelligence Committee was giving the stamp of (mostly) partisan approval to its investigation of CIA practices, the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously that El-Masri had indeed been a victim of extraordinary rendition and torture, and ordered him to be paid $78,500 in damages by – no, not the CIA and the USA – but by Macedonia, which had held him incommunicado for 23 days before handing him over to the CIA for four months of torture and abuse. Macedonia is one of the many countries induced by the US to participate in its extra-judicial rendition program.

It seems unlikely that many Americans will pay much attention to the black eye indirectly given to our country through a case called El-Masri v.’ the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’. But whether or not the American public recognizes it as such, it is a clear slap in the face of the US government and the CIA.

 "Today’s landmark decision is a stark reminder of America's utter failure to hold its own officials accountable for serious violations of both U.S. and international law. Continued lack of accountability is turning the United States into an outlier among its European allies, which is an appalling outcome for a nation that prides itself as a global leader on the rule of law and human rights," said Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program.

"Today’s ruling makes it harder for the United States to continue burying its head in the sand and ignoring domestic and global calls for full accountability for torture. This remarkable decision will no doubt put greater pressure on European nations to fully account for their complicity in cooperating with the illegal CIA 'extraordinary rendition' program, and to hold responsible those who violated the human rights of El-Masri and those like him."

So what does the NDAA of 2013 have to do with a new movie and our government’s refusal to accept accountability for torture? It may help condition the American public to accept anything and everything the government does as necessary on national security grounds.

Amendment 114 of the NDAA which the House has approved is termed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012. The original Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 had barred the kind of government propaganda and psychological ops used overseas from being directed against the American people at home.

In its modernized version, such propaganda is permitted.

In the words of Michael Hastings, “The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public.”

Hastings quotes a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law:

“It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

If the Amendment makes it into the final version of the NDAA and if President Obama drops his threat to veto the Act, our entire media could become ‘government-embedded’ to a greater or lesser degree.

Such a media would partner well what NSA whistleblower William Binney has termed the impending “turnkey totalitarian state.”

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.