- By Roger Mitton
Among the better movies now playing is Zero Dark Thirty, about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden and the enhanced interrogation, or torture, of suspects that led to his discovery.
After seeing the film, The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote: “Watching torture – the CIA should abandon its ghastly euphemism – is profoundly unsettling.”
True, and yet the scenes showing America’s Central Intelligence Agency operatives torturing suspects are actually less horrific than reviews led us to believe.
Having spent several days at Guantanamo, Cuba, the base used by the United States to hold alleged terrorists, I found the scenes predictable and simply reflective of reality.
But perhaps that’s due to being infected with the same moral dilution that the CIA contractors suffer from – or impose on themselves – before they set to work.
Either way, it’s easier to compartmentalise, and in some sense divorce, the Guantanamo experience from my reportage on Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, it is now clear they are one and the same, and that’s why Zero Dark Thirty jolts, because it reminds us that before Guantanamo there were black sites – and several were in our house.
When the first alleged 9/11 planners were caught, they were questioned about their co-conspirators and about details of other Jihadist plots they knew about.
Faced with their refusal to answer, the White House approved the use of torture – but stipulated that it must not be done in the US itself, for that would almost certainly be deemed unconstitutional.
So the offshore Guantanamo base was prepared for this purpose, and in the interim, several black sites were set up in countries that did not bother too much about what their American allies did.
Thailand was one such place, and it was there that the Zero Dark Thirty story really began.
Much of it has been told before, and it was the subject last year of an excellent BBC documentary by the fearless Peter Taylor.
When the alleged 9/11 planner Abu Zubaydah and his sidekick Abdul al-Nashiri were captured in 2002, they were flown to black sites in former US bases in northern Thailand, one at Udon Thani, the other at Takhli.
There, after physical beatings failed to make the nude, shackled, sleep-deprived Zubaydah talk, he was squashed into a small box of the type shown in Zero Dark Thirty. The box was left for many hours in a dark, freezing room with clamorous music played at a deafening volume.
Then, upon being extricated, he was strapped to a gurney and water-boarded.
Water-boarding is another CIA euphemism for the torture technique that simulates forcing someone’s head under water to the point of drowning.
Zubaydah was water-boarded 83 times in Thailand during the month of August 2002 alone. Al-Nashiri also suffered the same fate.
Of course, no Thais were told that 9/11 suspects were being tortured on their territory; but Muslims in southern Thailand certainly know about it now, as do their brothers in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
And many fear similar covert activity still continues in this region, which brings us to the subject of unmanned airplanes or drones.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino confirmed recently that US drones are allowed to overfly his country for reconnaissance purposes. Other Southeast Asian leaders have given similar permission.
Last month, a US drone that had been surveying the South China Sea was recovered in the waters off Masbate in the central Philippines.
As President Barack Obama explained in his State of the Union address two weeks ago: “We will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
“Direct action” is another military euphemism that encompasses the use of drones.
So, as with this region’s black sites for torture, do not be shocked when you hear that a US drone has been used to take out suspected terrorists on Basilan or in Pattani or Rakhine State.