Michael Ratner: Recent films and Obama’s lack of prosecution of CIA and Bush Cheney for torture is creating conditions for its public acceptance.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: It’s good to be with you, Paul.
JAY: So tell us what you’ve been following this week.
RATNER: Well, other than getting a slight flu and a cold, I made it over to Sundance, which is the big film festival in the United States. And there I saw some films that just are very depressing is the best way to say it about what’s happened in America and what’s happened to the issues of torture and the rehabilitation of the CIA.
The film I saw there was called Manhunt. And it’s supposedly the real story, with the real CIA agents, of how they murdered or killed Osama bin Laden.
GREG BARKER, FILMMAKER: It’s the story of our conflict with al-Qaeda told in a way people really haven’t seen it before. My name is Greg Barker. My film is Manhunt, and it’s premiering in the U.S. documentary competition at Sundance Film Festival. It’s really the inside story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and fight against al-Qaeda as told by the CIA operatives who were part of this.
RATNER: The film has the real agents in it. It has the women who were on the team. It has a man named, a CIA agent named Marty Martin, who supposedly led the team as an analyst, and then overall in charge of the team.
So the first thing you recognize about a film called Manhunt is that to get the authority of the CIA to give up these agents’ names, they had to do a film that the CIA was going to like. And let me tell you, the CIA is going to like this film, or they liked it if they saw the cut before, because, first, it completely justifies torture. It essentially saysânot essentially; it says openly that torture is how we got the clues that allowed us to kill people from al-Qaeda all over the place, including track down Osama bin Laden.
And they have as the talking head in the film and this is where I was almost ready to run out of the movie theatre they have Jose Rodriguez. Jose Rodriguez was in charge of the counterterrorism section of the CIA in the first decade, or part of the first decade, of 2000 to 2010. He is the one who destroyed the tapes of the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, supposedly waterboarded, or according to the government documents, 183 times, those tapes, the videos, were destroyed by Jose Rodriguez, who was in charge of that whole operation.
Now, what was incredible is he stood on that screen, he was on that screen talking to these whole Sundance fancy upper middle class, middle class audience, saying first eight techniques, you know, shaking people, slapping them around, that’s not torture. And then the four last techniques, while he didn’t use the word, he said, that’s how we got what we needed; we have to use techniques like waterboarding, we have to use drones; that’s what we’re about. And they never say in the film and that’s why it’s in one way why it’s such a slanted film they never say, this is the man, Jose Rodriguez, who actually got rid of the very videotapes of the waterboarding. So you have Rodriguez saying that.
Then you have Marty Martin, who’s no longer at the CIA but apparently made a lot of money afterwards, Marty Martin again saying that, yes, these techniques are absolutely necessary.
And one of the great ironies, which if people have seen Zero Dark Thirty, which is the sort of supposedly based on the truth, but the more narrative form of how they got Osama bin Laden.
ACTOR, ZERO DARK THIRTY (FILM): Can I be honest with you? I have bad news. I’m not your friend. I’m not going to help you. I’m going to break you. Any questions?
RATNER: It’s the Kathryn Bigelow film. If you see that, in both of these films, in Manhunt and in Zero Dark Thirty, there’s the incident that happened up in Khost in Afghanistan, which is where a doctor from Jordan came in and he blew up and killed a half a dozen CIA agents, maybe more, including a woman who was involved or in charge of that base, a CIA person named Jennifer, who actually appears in the film Manhunt and, of course, all the CIA agents are crying about how she got killed.
But the incredible irony about how she got killed, about how Jennifer got killed by a person who wore a explosive belt, the Jordanian doctor, into that military base in Afghanistan, the incredible story they follow in Manhunt and what they say is this Jordanian doctor was really angered by the Iraq War, and he started blogging against America, etc., etc., from Jordan. Eventually his house gets raided by some combination of the U.S. and their Jordanian intelligence agencies, and allegedly he turns and becomes an informant for the United States. I say allegedly because the United States made the mistake of trusting him. He comes up to that military base to give them a lead of how they’re going to reach Osama bin Laden, and what does he do? He wears an explosive belt. Because they trust him so much, they don’t inspect him, and he blows up these CIA agents.
Now, I say irony about the film Manhunt and its basically lauding of interrogation techniques like waterboarding is because if you look at the Iraq War, a key link in selling the Iraq War to the United States was the claim, the claim that Saddam Hussein was supporting al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Where did that, quote, evidence come from, evidence that was used by Colin Powell, our secretary of state, at the UN? It came from the torture of a man named al-Liby by the CIA. It was false evidence, not real evidence. So here you have the irony of a CIA that is supporting torture, supporting waterboarding, being blown up by a man who is angry because of an Iraq War justified in part by a false relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
Let me step back for a second and let’s go to a bigger picture. So you have Manhunt, which justifies the CIA waterboarding, torture, etc. Then you have Zero Dark Thirty, which while it’s beenâenough written about it to, like, fill a phone book, the majority of the opinions that I respect, including my own (and I saw the film), is that that film justifies tortureâopens with torture (the agent eventually gets acclimated to torture), and of course doesn’t show what we did as a result of these wars to Muslims all over Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan. But it justifies torture, in my view, Zero Dark Thirty.
You put that together with Manhunt, Zero Dark Thirty justifying torture, and you add to that two films that I think most of your viewers will be familiar with. One is called Argo, which is the recent film about how the CIA successfully helped get some people who had been or wouldn’t have been held hostage after the Iranian Revolution in ’79, and got them out of Iran, and how the CIA played a heroic role in that. And then a film called Green Zone about the green zone in Iraq, where again there’s an avuncular CIA agent in that film getting the truth that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So now you have four films Zero Dark Thirty, Manhunt, Argo, and Green Zone all incredibly justifying and really rehabilitating a CIA that is known for and should be known for what it really does, which is to assassinate people and infiltrate legitimate institutions all over the world. And that’s all in the last couple of years.
So what we’re seeing now in the media is really the justification of torture in two major films, and in four films really a rehabilitation of a CIA that I spent much of my life fighting against what it did in Central America, in South America, and over the world.
And it leads me to, really, the last point I want to make for this talk today on torture in film, because one of the trials going on right now are the military commissions at Guantanamo. A military commission’s an illegitimate form of trial. They were set up 11 years ago by President Bush. We expected them not to be continued by President Obama. He of course continued them. They’re not like military, they’re not like court marshals, they’re not like regular trials. They’re set up after the crimes have been committed, and the rules are all slanted. Those are going on in Guantanamo as we speak. And one of those people on trial now in the so-called 9/11 conspiracy case is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, if we circle back to the beginning of this talk, in Manhunt is the person who was allegedly waterboarded, not allegedly; he was waterboarded 183 times. I say allegedly because Jose Rodriguez, who is the one who destroyed the tapes of those waterboardings, says in the Manhunt film, it wasn’t really waterboarding 183 times, it was 183 pitchers of water, as if that’s somehow better. Once you get to one waterboarding, it seems you’re at 183.
But in any case, we would actually know what’s going on had Jose Rodriguez, someone who I believe is a war criminal, had Jose Rodriguez not destroyed the tapes. So that trial is going on now in Guantanamo. And it’s a farce. It’s been a farce for 11 years. So it’s going on in Guantanamo. It’s a farce then; it’s a farce today.
So, recently what happened is you go down to that trial, and there’s a glass window in front of you. You can’t hear anything in the courtroom. If you’re a reporter or if you’re a human rights person, you can sit behind that glass window and watch, and they feed the trial into you so you can hear what’s going on. And there’s someone who sits next to the judge with a red button, and when there’s something that’s classified that comes up in the trial, that person hits the red button and cuts off the feed so that I as a reporter or a human rights person cannot hear the classified material. None of that’s good. I object to it. It’s all bad. They classify everything.
But what happened recently was really astonishing, apparently even to the judge. The feed is coming in to the reporters. All of a sudden what’s happening in the courtroom is shut off. And the judge doesn’t even know why it’s shut off. Apparently, unbeknownst to the judge, there’s another CIA person somewhere outside that court (it’s hard to believe the judge didn’t know this) somewhere with another red button. That person cuts off stuff going on at trial so the reporters can’t hear it even if the judge didn’t order it cut off. The judge, to his credit at least, or maybe to at least his credit that he thinks he controls the courtroom when he really doesn’t, got outraged and said, this isn’t going to happen anymore; I control the red button; you don’t.
So the trial just goes on like that with farce after farce after farce.
And the next thing that’s happened in that trial, which also is going to throw the whole thing into a tizzy: there’s only been two people convicted by trial at Guantanamo in all these many years. Those two convictions are in great jeopardy. One has already, as I recall, been overturned because he was tried for conspiracy…that’s bin Laden’s alleged driver. And according to the court of appeals now, there’s no such crime of conspiracy that can be tried by a military commission. So that conviction is gone.
But, of course, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 conspirator, is on trial for that very act, conspiracy. So the prosecutor at Guantanamo is saying, I don’t want to try him on this; he’s going to get this conviction may be reversed; let’s not try him on this. The government, the Obama administration, says, no, no, we want to keep going forward on the conspiracy. It may be that they can’t prove anything about a conspiracy. So you have that craziness of the trials.
Now, this would have all been avoided had they brought Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others to New York to try them as they were supposed to do, as Eric Holder supposedly wanted. And then Obama overruled Eric Holder, and then Congress got into the act.
So you have these farces going on at Guantanamo. You still have a Guantanamo that’s open with 187 people there.
And I’ll end on this really not optimistic note. When Obama took office 4.5 years ago, or just over 4 years ago, he promised to close Guantanamo in a year, issued an executive order to that. He appointed a special person to close Guantanamo, Ambassador Fried. Ambassador Fried was in the State Department. His one portfolio: close Guantanamo. And guess what happened a couple of days after Obama took office this time, when he just took the oath again? Mr. Fried no longer has a job to close Guantanamo; that office to close Guantanamo at the State Department has been closed, and now Ambassador Fried is in charge of the sanctions against Iran and Syria.
So we no longer have an office to close Guantanamo. It looks to me, Paul, sadly, that something that was an abomination 11 years ago continues today. Guantanamo, indefinite detentions, and rump kangaroo trials continue. And so you put that all together, we have movies justifying all of this behaviour, torture, etc. This country has gone a long way on the road to perdition.
JAY: Alright. Well, one question. Go back to Sundance. How did the audience react to that film?
RATNER: Oh, I’m really glad you asked that, Paul. Manhunt received standing ovations, particularly when the CIA agents took the stage. They were there. Two of the women were there and Marty Martin were there.
And of course, you know, in some way it’s understandable– is not the right word, but, you know, to the audience, it looked like these CIA people were heroes. They saved us. They were looking for Osama bin Laden for years. They eventually found him. And that’s why we haven’t had a terrorist attack or that’s how they at least, you know, got to kill Osama bin Laden. So they took the stage and everybody cheered for them.
So it was disheartening to see that. And as we left the theater, the people basically said that to us, because there were some people who objected to the film and said, well, you know, what about the destruction of the tapes, what about the waterboarding, isn’t this torture, and they said, we just know that these people are keeping us safe.
And I do want to say that it’s unclear what exactly was going on, because we also saw the best single film at Sundance, which people will see soon in this country because it was bought and it will be distributed in 15 markets, and that was the director and Jeremy Scahill was the person they followed. He had written Blackwater. And that film was called Dirty Wars. And that’s about the drone wars going on in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, throughout the Middle East, and the consequences of those drone wars for the peoples not only in those areas, but mainly in those areas, but the blowback that’s going to have in the United States. That film also got a standing ovation. So it could be different audiences, it could be same audiences, etc.
But I would say that it was impossible, impossible to make headway against what has now become the idea or the principle in this country that torture works. It was used to capture Osama or to kill Osama bin Laden, and we needed it when we needed it, and it’s justified.
I mean, in that sense, you have to say that Obama, despite banning the worst aspects of torture, was a total failure. Had he actually prosecuted someone like Jose Rodriguez or the people who wrote the memos or the people who carried out the waterboarding or Cheney and Bush, who ordered the waterboarding, we wouldn’t be having films like Zero Dark Thirty and Manhunt which justify torture. So I lay this, obviously, at the feet of President Bush. But Obama, for allowing torture to become essentially a political football and I wish it were still that but to essentially be something that people can now justify in this country, I lay that at the feet of Obama.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Michael.
RATNER: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.