The movie Zero Dark Thirty, which depicts the hunt for Osama bin Laden, wrongly suggests that torture was an ugly but useful tactic in the fight against terrorism. It also falsely implies that information obtained through torture was critical to finding bin Laden. As the film-makers note, it is a fictionalized account, not a documentary. The use of torture violates US law and the country’s international legal obligations – even when “authorized” by the US government. Its use damaged the reputation of the United States and its ability to promote human rights while giving cover to abusers worldwide who use such techniques against political opponents and activists. Torture was counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, producing false and misleading information that may in fact have slowed the search for bin Laden and diverted attention from genuine security threats.
The full scope and nature of US government torture remains hidden, in part because the US has kept many details of the program secret. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in December adopted a 6,000-page classified report detailing the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, a program under which much of the torture and other ill-treatment occurred. The committee should seek – and the Obama administration should support – declassification and release of the report, both to counter misinformation about the supposed value of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to provide the public with a full accounting of past US government policy and practice.
The following link directs you to portions of the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) 2011 Media Monitoring Desktop Reference. It was made available through the efforts of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and subsequent law suit to obtain the documents. The manual identifies many of the problematic monitoring practices of DHS and contains a (broad) list of (extremely vague) key words DHS uses to monitor the internet (including search engines and social media communications). Unclear from the released documents is how exactly DHS is able to access the data from search engines and social media communications in its efforts to “track” the use of these keywords. However, as several reports have indicated, this is most probably achieved through the agreements with host sites such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and others.