The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Senate CIA report says ‘enhanced interrogation’ doesn’t work. But Hollywood thinks it does.

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) tries to get information from Walt Cummings (John Allen Nelson) in “24.” (Jaimie Trublood/FOX Handout)
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On a January day in 2004, from his perch inside a Little Rock hospital, President George W. Bush introduced the American people to an al Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul, announcing his capture. Bush proclaimed the country now had “one less enemy to worry about.” As the Iraq War raged, the announcement attracted only modest attention. But this operative would prove more important than most. For Hassan Ghul would ultimately divulge vital information that would lead to Osama bin Laden’s death.

It didn’t take much for him to spill it, according to Tuesday’s U.S. Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation methods. He “opened up right away and was cooperative from the onset,” telling interrogators bin Laden was “likely living in Peshawar area” in Pakistan. There was more, he said: Bin Laden was “always” with his courier. The information did not save Ghul from “enhanced” interrogation later, but the Senate report said it “provided no other information of substance.”

According to the Senate report, the successes of harsh interrogation in the hunt for bin Laden were substantially fewer than what both the CIA has claimed — and what the Hollywood blockbuster, “Zero Dark Thirty,” subsequently showed. But in 2011, CIA Director Leon Panetta publicly claimed such interrogations were key to finding bin Laden — which “Zero Dark Thirty” reflected. The movie, which amassed several Oscar nominations, included several interrogation scenes that strongly implied waterboarding and other methods helped suss out bin Laden’s location.

That narrative, however, contrasts with the Senate report’s central conclusion: Harsh interrogation isn’t successful. Though the CIA disputes that, the report found severe interrogation was more likely to induce false information, if anything at all.

But that’s not how it looks on TV. Harsh interrogation, as an effective means of eliciting crucial information, has become firmly entrenched in popular culture.

From “24” to “Homeland,” “Scandal” to “Spooks,” the decision to use harsh interrogation methods is often conveyed on television as a difficult but necessary compromise of ethics to protect national security. The tactics, like those of Jack Bauer in “24,” are often brutal and violent — incorporating electricity, knives, drugs, bare hands. But they’re unnervingly successful. Over eight tense seasons, Bauer, who operated under the edict of “whatever it takes,” consistently beat answers out of obstinate terrorists, who almost always divulged vital secrets that helped foil terror plots.

“You’re talking about torturing this man?” a fake president at one point asked Bauer.

“I’m talking about doing what’s necessary to stop this warhead from being used against us,” replied Bauer, who then extracted the requisite information with a knife.

The fictionalized depiction of harsh interrogaton as a means to save lives is by no means exclusive to modern production studios and Hollywood enclaves. According to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, the device first arrived in the French novel “Les Centurions.” The book told the story of a protagonist who assaulted an Arab dissident to learn of a looming terrorist plot to detonate bombs all over Algeria. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number of scenes depicting harsh interrogation, some gruesome and sadistic, surged.

Between 1996 and 2001, there were 102 “torture scenes,” the Parents Television Council told the Los Angeles Times. But in the three years after 2001, that number skyrocketed to 624 — with “24” accounting for nearly 70 of those scenes. Those years also illustrated a shift in the portrayal of harsh interrogation. It was no longer the bad guys who did it — like in “Rambo” and “Braveheart.” It was now society’s protectors: stoic men like Jack Bauer, who sold his soul to keep his country safe.

“Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow — or any other city in this country — that, even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?” asked “24” producer Joel Surnow, who calls his program a “patriotic show.”

Scholars call such a paradox the “Necessity Doctrine.” It describes a familiar “ticking bomb” scenario, in which action must be taken — and taken now. One Loyola Law School professor quoted Fyodor Dostoyevsky, writing in the”The Brothers Karamozov,” to put the choice of whether to torture in context: “Imagine you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end … but it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature … would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

It’s a choice viewers are more willing to consider following the consumption of shows like “24,” found a recent American University study by scholars Erin Kearns and Joseph Young. The researchers showed 150 students harsh interrogation scenes from the show. Sometimes the method worked, rearing key clues. Other times, the scenes were cut short before the students could determine whether the method had been successful. Then they interviewed the students on their opinion. It turned out the scene’s resolution — whether information was uncovered or not — mattered a great deal.

“These results indicate that dramatic depictions of torture where it is shown to be effective can change both stated attitudes about the practice and willingness to behaviorally support torture via signing a petition in support of it, while merely being shown torture regardless of its efficacy does not change willingness to behaviorally commit to stated beliefs,” the report said. It later added: “This may suggest that being primed on torture leads people to believe that it works.”

In many shows, rough interrogation isn’t just successful — but patriotic. Which is exactly what producer Surnow says anchors “24.” “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer,” he told the New Yorker. “He’s a patriot.”