This week saw the premiere of a new season of 24, with CTU agent Jack Bauer preparing to leave the world of counterterrorism for a quiet life as a grandfather in Los Angeles. But he is pulled back into the fight to stop the attempted assassination of a Middle Eastern leader in New York. As he questions an informant, he thrusts a gun into the man’s neck but then pulls back, telling him, “You’re lucky I’m retired.” In another time, the man would have suffered far worse.
The public view of interrogations had been shaped by the fictional Bauer, who captures a terrorist and proceeds to torture him — holding down his head in a bathtub full of water, using a Taser to shock him, lopping off his fingers with a cigar cutter — while screaming questions until the terrorist finally breaks and gives up the location of the nuclear bomb that is about to go off.
For some critics of U.S. interrogation policy, this is not fiction, but a depiction of reality. In Newsweek, Dahlia Lithwick has written that “high-ranking lawyers in the Bush administration erected an entire torture policy around the fictional edifice of Jack Bauer.” And Philippe Sands, author of the book Torture Team, has written that the show has been the “midwife” for torture’s “actual use on real, living human beings.” None of this is true.
Unlike these critics, I have had the chance to actually meet the real
Jack Bauers — the CIA officials who questioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other senior terrorist leaders and got them to reveal their plans for new terrorist attacks. They explained to my why their approach has nothing in common with the methods used by Bauer on the fictional 24.
On July 31, 2006, I walked up the winding stairs of the Eisenhower Building to a secure conference room in the offices of the National Security Council’s intelligence directorate. I had been assigned to write a speech for President Bush acknowledging the existence of what was then the most highly classified program in the war on terror: the CIA program to detain and question captured terrorists. To write this speech, I was given access to some of the most sensitive intelligence our country possessed on the interrogation of senior al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as to intelligence officers who could explain to me how the program worked and why it had been successful in stopping new terrorist attacks.
Sitting across the table from me were several CIA officials, including two men I will call Harry and Sam (not their real names), I didn’t know anything about the individuals before me except that they were with the CIA and knowledgeable about the interrogation program.
As we began our discussion, I told them I believed the key to the success of the speech was to demonstrate the effectiveness of CIA interrogations with real, concrete examples of how the program saved lives. If Americans knew that CIA interrogations were effective, most would have no problem with the techniques the agency had employed. Some might even be shocked at how restrained they had been. Many Americans, I said, imagined that what went on at the CIA “black sites” mirrored what they saw on 24.