Before You Watch the Oscars This Weekend
Read Ali Soufan’s op-ed about Zero Dark Thirty today in the New York Times. If you’ve read Ali’s gripping book, his take won’t surprise you. As he puts it: “I watched ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ not as a former F.B.I. special agent who spent a decade chasing, interrogating and prosecuting top members of Al Qaeda but as someone who enjoys Hollywood movies. As a movie, I enjoyed it. As history, it’s bunk.”
Ali goes on to talk about how what the film says is not an accurate account of what actually was. And I’ve written before about what I regret the film leaves out of the torture story it tells. But I was especially struck at Cardozo’s panel discussion of the film last week by what else has been missing from the public torture debate. Namely, the possibility that anyone involved in authorizing any aspect of the program might publicly express any kind of regret about the decision to pursue it. In that regard, I found the concluding remarks of former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo – CIA’s top lawyer from 2001-2009 – striking. I played the internal video from the event back and copied them down verbatim.
“You know, in many ways, I wish we’d never started down this road – the interrogation program. It is certainly of all the controversies I was involved in during the course of my CIA career this was by far the most portentous. And as time went on and the controversy grew, there were criminal investigations, careers were affected. It honestly didn’t do a lot for my career ultimately, and I became defined not for what I’d done for my previous 25 years but my actions in the post 9/11 era. So all of that. In many ways, I mean – the Agency would have been better off if we’d never gone down that road. But I would just repeat, in February, March 2002, the fear, the dread, especially in the city, about another attack, was all pervasive. There was a guy we had in custody. The experts, our experts, concluded he was holding back information about another attack. We could’ve, I could’ve, when those techniques were first proposed, basically say, ‘You guys are crazy, these are immoral, they’re going to get us into huge trouble, let’s just not do them.’ Now, had there been a second attack, and in that post mortem — I frankly — it would have been hard for me to countenance the possibility that Zubaydah knew about that second attack, we didn’t get the information out of him, and the reason we didn’t was because we decided we could not go forward with admittedly very aggressive, unprecedented procedures. And that’s what we did. That’s what I did.”
The event ended up drawing press coverage mostly for Rizzo’s separate remarks that he couldn’t recall CIA Director nominee John Brennan ever having expressed concerns to Rizzo about the morality of the Agency’s “enhanced interrogation” program, so that’s the only video clip posted so far. I’m told the rest of the video will be posted soon, and you can judge for yourself how you take these closing remarks in the context of the entire event. After the event, I heard varying reactions from the audience – a highly unscientific sampling of students, law professors, press, members of the general public described the totality of Rizzo’s remarks as everything from admirably candid and sympathetic to stunningly hypocritical.
There was, however, uniform agreement in one respect: he was riveting to hear speak. Perhaps it was the novelty of hearing anyone involved with the program at the time expressing, for whatever reason, some regret. Perhaps it was the novelty of hearing an official in or around the CIA speak with such seeming candor. Perhaps it was, still after all this time, the need to figure out what really happened – and why. The possibility seems well past that there will be criminal accountability in the United States for any of the actors involved in the program, not even for those who exceeded the scope of the staggeringly broad authority they had been given by the lawyers then in the Department of Justice (the agent Rizzo mentioned, for example, who exceeded the authority by threatening a detainee with a power drill to the head). But it is not too late to learn about, and learn from, the real story. That 6,000-page classified report the Senators who criticized the movie keep noting – it would be good for all of us to see. Not just to correct the record on what the film says. But to say all those things the film passes over in silence.