Bin Laden at the Movies

For more than two decades, he was the target of intense scrutiny, with an entire unit at the CIA dedicated to tracking his every move and trying to determine what violence he might perpetrate. When 9/11 confirmed Osama bin Laden’s intentions, these same analysts and operatives were now blamed for failing to prevent it... | Photo: HBO | Manhunt, Osama Bin Laden, Hbo, Terrorist, War,

In HBO's "Manhunt" the CIA's Women are the Stars

I don't know about you, but I'm not much closer to the ground truth about how we got Bin Laden than I was two years ago this week, when he was killed.

Which comes as no surprise, given the material.

We're at the mercy of people who will talk to us. Even the most unbiased and seasoned intelligence reporters can hardly report much more than what their sources tell them, on condition of anonymity. And thus their stories inevitably reflect the biases of such people, who may well know only part of the story.

Manhunt which debuted on HBO Tuesday night, tries to clear the air. It's a riveting, honest piece of work, the most nuanced and balanced film yet on the long ordeal to get Osama Bin Laden (at a moral cost yet to be tallied, it suggests).

But in the end, it fails to advance the story. At the center of the film, as in any faithful documentary on the hunt for Bin Laden, is the question of torture. And like so much of the torture "debate" -- more often a screaming match -- "Manhunt" inevitably, unavoidably -- but not fatally -- succumbs to the Roshomon effect, where everyone sees the same event through their own prism.

Written and directed by veteran documentary film maker Greg Barker, based on a book by the same name by al-Qaeda expert Peter Bergen, who also executive produced, Manhunt isn't out to make a morality play, of course.

At the heart of the film is "the sisterhood," the female CIA analysts who became obsessed with stopping Bin Laden before he struck in the U.S. and pursued him relentlessly after. It's a refreshing -- and much deserved -- addition to the oft-told story.

But to me, the most fascinating characters remain Jos? Rodriguez, who ran the CIA's counterterrorism center (and later all of clandestine operations), and Ali Soufan, the former FBI counterterrorism expert and interrogator.

As I wrote last year, Rodriguez's defense of torture "sounds better in the original German."

For years he and Soufan have offered competing narratives on interrogations, and in Manhunt they go at it again. They're the Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali of the Bin Laden story.

Rodriguez has stuck to his line that "enhanced interrogations" were the key to obtaining the name of the Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, nom de guerre for Bin Laden's courier, which ultimately led the CIA and Navy SEALs to Abbottabad. If it sounds familiar, it's the same line--the main line--taken by Zero Dark 30.

But Ali Soufan maintains that interrogators got more information from detainees with cookies than beatings.

They went at it again last night.

"He gave us a couple pieces of information during that early phase," Rodriquez said of Abu Zubaydah, a high level al-Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan in 2002. "...but then he stopped talking. When he regained his strength he stopped talking. And we became convinced that we had to come up with a new
alternative to doing this 'cause it was not working."

Zubaydah was water boarded 83 times, in between being smacked around, locked in a wooden box, deprived of food and sleep, and so on -- pretty much like the opening scenes of Zero Dark 30, actually, which echoed Rodriguez' line that torture -- although he scoffs at the term -- worked.

"Eight of the ten [techniques] were pretty wimpy stuff," he says in Manhunt. "You know, like slapping. Give me a break. Okay, it might be unpleasant to slap somebody, but it's not torture. Grabbing someone from the lapel, bringing him to you, may be unpleasant and it's an attention grabber, but it's not torture."

But what about the other two techniques, Jos?? He's not asked.

Then comes Ali Soufan. Torture was not only not necessary, and counterproductive, the FBI veteran maintains, the CIA had already gotten what they wanted from Zubaydah before he was terrorized.

All the information that came from Abu Zubaydah we got... before waterboarding," he says in the film "Most of these things came from traditional interrogation techniques. By showing people evidence. By putting detainees against each other. By pocket litter [and] you know, information that was downloaded from computers and so forth.

"So the traditional interrogation techniques," he said, "worked tremendously."

You could almost hear Rodriquez snorting off-camera.

Meanwhile, one of the women from CIA's "sisterhood" analysts says in the film that the agency got the courier's nom de guerre from the capture of Bin Laden emissary Hassan Ghul in the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2004.

"[We definitely gained a lot of information out of him including Al-Kuwaiti's name and the significance ... and the role that he played in the Al-Qaeda central and- with Bin Laden," Nada Bakos says. "Within the course of a debriefing ...with the Kurdish government, Hassan Ghul gave up the name of Al-Kuwaiti, the courier."

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, born March 1, 1964, is currently in U.S. military custody in Guantánamo Bay for acts of terrorism, including mass murder of civilians, as he has been identified as "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks" by the 9/11 Commission Report. | Photo: |
Then there's the interrogation of AQ operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, starting in 2003.

"He was water boarded 180 times," Ali Soufan said.

Rodriguez scoffs at the numbers.

"They tried to quantify the numbers of pourings of water ... and eventually the pourings of water used in water boarding became 'times.' So 183 total pourings of water on Khalid Sheikh Mohammad became 183 times, which is crazy."


"Only three terrorists with American blood on their hands were ever water boarded," Rodriguez contends later in the film. "In many cases it was just a few days. In the case of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad it was just a few weeks."

Look," Ali Soufan says, "it's not FBI versus CIA." A number of CIA people were against torture, too. "I know for a fact that everything that we've been told... that resulted because of water boarding'that's not true.

Is that clear now?

No, it it will never be. And try as it might, Manhunt can't wash away the mud tracked in by Zero Dark 30, the big-time action movie that will draw a million times more eyeballs than this very fine--and dramatic-- documentary.

Rodriguez may sleep well, but not every CIA operative involved in hunting down Bin Laden.

"You definitely need to know what your moral center is in order to be able to do that job," says Nada Bakos, in perhaps the film's most arresting moment.

"You can flirt with the idea that [you] can cross the line and go into the dark side, and then ... walk back because I'm going in the dark side for a good purpose," says retired Gen. Stanley McCrystal. "And there are times when that may be appropriate, but it is dangerous."

Why? "It's easier next time to cross."

The war goes on:

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:28 PM EST | More details


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