The 24 Mentality: The CIA, Torture and the ‘Ticking Bomb’ Scenario
Just as politicians start to believe their own speeches, intelligence agencies start to believe their own propaganda. Nowhere is this clearer than in the CIA’s black site torture program initiated in the wake of 9/11. Recently declassified documents detailing current CIA director Gina Haspel’s role in the torture program show that the Agency adopted the ‘24 mentality’ whereby they excused their crimes via claiming to stop imminent terrorist plots.
One of a trio of immediate post-9/11 CIA-themed TV series, 24 is widely recognised as having done more than any other TV show in promoting, apologising for and excusing the black site torture program. Supreme court justice Antonin Scalia even cited 24 and the ‘ticking clock’ scenario to argue in favour of rendition and torture, saying:
Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so. So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.
That he was talking about a fictional character using torture to stop fictional terrorist plots that have no relationship to reality appears to have gone over the head of Justice Scalia. But the show’s creators knew what they were doing. In 2007, as media attention focused on the rendition and torture program, one of the showrunners Bob Cochran said:
Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.
This is true – most terrorism experts will say that it’s extremely unlikely for a captured terrorist suspect to have information on a plot that will unfold within 48 hours of their arrest. Indeed, from my lengthy reading on terrorism cases I am struggling to think of a single example of this happening.
However, the post-9/11 CIA weren’t going to let facts get in the way of a good war mentality. In 2002 CIA director Gina Haspel was the supervisor for a CIA black site in Thailand where numerous Al Qaeda members were waterboarded, alongside other torture methods. Documents recently obtained by the National Security Archive show that Al Qaeda member Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was tortured almost from the moment he arrived at the Thailand CIA black site being run by Haspel, on the grounds that he might have information on an imminent terrorist attack.
Among these documents are less-redacted versions of cables Haspel sent back to CIA HQ, including to Alec Station. The National Security Archive note:
The new versions of the Haspel cables now provide a detailed chronology of the CIA torture, which began on “Day One” of the suspect’s confinement at the site, November 15, 2002, and continued even after his removal to a different black site, in Poland, on December 4, 2002. The torture included being slammed against walls, forced nudity, confinement in coffin-sized boxes, shackles and hoods such as seen in the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, and waterboarding – which U.S. prosecutors established as a war crime in proceedings against Japanese soldiers after World War II.
(…) One of the newly released portions documents Haspel’s own intelligence failure in believing the al-Qaeda suspect had imminent attack information (what defenders of torture call the “ticking time bomb” rationalization). Cable 11258 sent on November 16, 2002 admitted that the second torture session “produced little actionable threat information” but “left base officers guardedly optimistic that the aggressive procedures may already be having an impact on subject’s resistance posture.” Haspel wrote, “Although base has little doubt that subject is withholding actionable information, the shock of his first hours at [black site] appears to have focused him on our interests and on the severity of his predicament.” The Senate Intelligence Committee report declassified in 2014 documents that the suspect in fact did not have imminent threat information, and had already confessed any useful intelligence during his prior captivity in Dubai.
Indeed, al-Nashiri had already confessed to his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and was facing a lifetime in prison regardless of what he did or didn’t tell his CIA interrogators. The notion that the ‘shock of his first hours’ at the black site would have ‘focused him on… the severity of his predicament’ is straight out of 24, which had debuted a year earlier, just four weeks after the 9/11 attacks. That the series was supported by the CIA shows that Haspel was not the only one with the 24 mentality, and that she had started to believe her own Agency’s propaganda.
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