Frontline’s “Secrets, Politics and Torture” – another top-notch documentary from Michael Kirk, who has extensively chronicled the legacy of Iraq and war against terrorism – really omits a vital fourth component from its title: Pop culture. Time and again, this one-hour project returns to the role played by TV and especially movies in shaping public perceptions of torture despite a raft of evidence, much culled from the Senate’s exhaustive report on the topic, that so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” don’t work. Given the politically charged nature of the debate, to avoid wading through even the 500-page summary, it’s an hour well spent.
Kirk begins, appropriately, with the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” one of those Hollywood products (“24” being another) that have made torture look like a reasonable response to the threat faced since the Sept. 11 attacks. But California Sen. Diane Feinstein is then interviewed, saying she felt obligated to walk out of the movie “because it’s so false.”
John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA, provides a counter-argument, citing the imperative to do anything necessary to prevent future attacks. Yet as the documentary notes, the discussion within the Bush administration largely sidestepped questions of morality — skipping the “Should we?” portion of the analysis and jumping to the more legalistic “Can we?”
Sources also point to some of the bad and misleading information that detainees gave under duress, such as a tip that had the FBI looking for African-American terrorists in Montana. Only later did the subject admit that he had lied to them.
Still, the “ticking clock” scenario popularized in fiction remains a powerful image, and as the narration notes, “Its efficacy was firmly fixed in the minds of millions of Americans.” As journalist Michael Isikoff suggests, “Movies like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ have a huge impact.”
Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for tilting left in its politics, but when it comes to national security, its commercial interest in telling riveting stories and ratcheting up the drama has clearly been useful to those who favored employing such techniques. In some respects, that’s more interesting thread than the fairly well-known material also covered here regarding the policy rift within Bush’s White House, with Vice President Dick Cheney on one side and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the other.
Although these issues played out years ago, the debate continues (the so-called “torture report” was released in December 2014), and the details regarding precisely what happened are sobering. Moreover, there is, oddly enough, a branding component in all of this, inasmuch as the term “enhanced interrogation” was chosen because it sounded so “deceptively bland,”as former CIA lawyer John Rizzo wrote about the program.
Kirk has already produced a handful of “Frontline” projects devoted to the war (among them “The Torture Question”), and this neatly adds to that filmography. The Senate’s full report, notably, ran more than 6,000 pages. So if you can’t read the book, at least watch the documentary before seeing another one of the movies.