We got Osama bin Laden — and now, for millions of Americans, we’ll get him again onscreen as Zero Dark Thirty hits your neighborhood multiplex. Lauded and criticized, the film’s the talk of the town. But it’s hardly the only real-life CIA film that needed to be made. Here, for the record, are five prospective films, all potentially suspenseful, all involving CIA daring-do, and all with plenty of opportunities for blood and torture, that are unlikely to make it into those same multiplexes in your lifetime. Let’s start with the CIA’s 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, whose democratically elected government had nationalized the country’s oil industry. What a story! It couldn’t be oilier, involving BP in an earlier incarnation, the CIA, British intelligence, bribery, secretly funded street demonstrations, and (lest you think there’d be no torture in the film) the installation of an autocratic regime that would create a fearsome secret police and torture opponents for decades to come. All of this was done in the name of what used to be called “the Free World.” That “successful” coup was the point of origin for just about every disaster and bit of “blowback” — a term first used in the CIA’s secret history of the coup — in U.S.-Iranian relations to this day. Many of the documents have been released and whatta story it turned out to be! Hollywood, where are you?
Or here’s another superb candidate: the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam. Boy, if you want a little torture porn, try that baby. Meant to wipe out the Vietcong’s political infrastructure, it managed to knock off an estimated 20,000 Vietnamese, remarkably few of whom were classified as “senior NLF cadres.” (Reportedly, the program was regularly used by locals to settle grudges.) It was knee — maybe waist — deep in blood, torture, assassination, and death. It’s the Agency we’ve come to know and love. But hold your breath waiting for Good Evening, Vietnam.
For a change of pace, how about a CIA-inspired torture comedy? We’re talking about the rollicking secret kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in early 2003, his transport via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to Egypt, and there, evidently with the CIA station chief for Italy riding shotgun, directly into the hands of Egyptian torturers. What makes this an enticing barrel of laughs was the way the CIA types involved in the covert operation rang up almost $150,000 in five-star hotel bills as they gallivanted around Italy, ate at five-star restaurants, vacationed in Venice after the kidnapping, ran up impressive tabs on forged credit cards for their fake identities, and were such bunglers that they were identified and charged for the abduction in absentia by the Italian government. Most were convicted and given stiff jail sentences, again in absentia. (No more Venetian holidays for them!) It’s the CIA’s version of a La Dolce Vita torture caper and obviously screams for the Hollywood treatment.
Or how about a torture tragedy? None can top the story of Khaled el-Masri, an unemployed car salesman from Germany on vacation in Macedonia, who, on New Year’s Eve 2003, was pulled off a bus and kidnapped by the CIA because his name was similar to that of an al-Qaeda suspect. After spending five months under brutal conditions, in part in an “Afghan” prison called “the Salt Pit” (run by the CIA), he was left at the side of a road in Albania. In between, his life was a catalogue of horrors, torture, and abuse.
Finally, who doesn’t like the idea of a torture biopic? And the perfect subject’s out there. He was just front-paged in a major profile in the New York Times. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou was an al-Qaeda hunter, led the team that captured that outfit’s logistics specialist Abu Zubaydah, and is the only CIA agent in any way associated with the Agency’s torture activities who will go to jail. And here’s the sort of twist that any moviemaker should love: he never tortured anyone. He spoke out against it. He just leaked information, including the name of an undercover agent, to journalists. Russell Crowe would be perfect in the role. Adventure, blood, torture, injustice, irony — what more could you ask for?
Instead, of course, what we’ve got this week is a bloody-minded nostalgia film, writes TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg. Zero Dark Thirty, she says, is The Way We Were for those still in mourning over the departure of George W., Dick, Rummy, and the only national security advisor we’ve ever had who came into office with a double-hulled oil tanker named after her. And who should know more about what they did? Greenberg, the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, has written, among other works, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days and The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib. Tom
Learning to Love Torture, Zero Dark Thirty-Style: Seven Easy, Onscreen Steps to Making U.S. Torture and Detention Policies Once Again Palatable