A documentary airing on PBS’ Frontline Tuesday night will investigate claims about the CIA’s now infamous detainee interrogation program.
“Secrets, Politics and Torture” does not contain any shocking new revelations about the allegations that CIA investigators took it too far with suspected terrorist detainees during the last decade’s hunt for actionable intelligence concerning al-Qaida. But its description of the quiet clashes between the agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee makes for uncommonly gripping and informative television.
At the center of the documentary are the “enhanced interrogation techniques” themselves, which have attracted countless headlines since coming to light.
Those techniques were apparently inspired by mid-20th-century Chinese and North Korean treatment of American prisoners, which the CIA “had always regarded as emblems of tyranny.” They fall into two categories: first are those explicitly approved by the agency and Department of Justice, such as stress holds, waterboarding and the coffin-sized “confinement box.”
But the film also describes those unauthorized maneuvers exposed by last year’s Senate committee report, including plunging prisoners in ice water, force-feeding them orally and anally, and one case of a prisoner dying of hypothermia chained overnight to a cold concrete floor. (RELATED: Middle Eastern Social Media Erupts Over Senate ‘Torture’ Report)
A decade since Americans first heard about the techniques, the PBS film argues that their directness and harshness still deserve public scrutiny. Setting aside debate over application of the word “torture,” the film’s vivid descriptions of detainee interrogation — after one session, initial al-Qaida informant Abu Zubaydah “coughed, vomited and had involuntary spasms of the torso and the extremities” — spur viewers to carefully consider the program’s consequences.
Those descriptions are mostly taken from the committee report’s 525-page “executive summary,” gleaned by sifting through 6 million pages of classified CIA documents. Among that report’s strongest assertions is the claim that the techniques were “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.”
The film gives the example of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who under duress became “downright loquacious,” in the words of former CIA attorney John Rizzo, telling interrogators of a wild plot to recruit al-Qaida operatives from among Montana’s black American converts to Islam. After a hasty investigation that yielded no evidence, Mohammed admitted he had simply told them “what he thought they wanted to hear.” (RELATED: Did Pakistan Actually Have A Bin Laden Desk?)
The film also links 2014’s Republican takeover of Congress to the sudden recall of all print copies of the full 6,000-page intelligence committee report. The “Panetta review,” an internal investigation into the authorization and deliberate concealment of the program, briefly made its way into the committee’s hands; new committee leadership has reportedly surrendered it to the CIA.
Amid these changes, New York Times journalist Peter Baker tells the filmmakers, “there’s no policy debate” over the program’s legacy. The question then remains, in a world of continuing threats and minimal transparency: how well-equipped are we to confront the uncertainty of war?
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