Dark Sites: Distorted Reality, Willful Ignorance, and the War on Terror

Zero Dark Thirty may be a flawed film -- but no more or less so than our perceptions of how the war on terror was prosecuted in our name.


Over the weekend, in thousands of movie theaters all over the country, paying millions of dollars for their tickets and their popcorn, Americans went to see Zero Dark Thirty, the grim dramatization of the hunt for and the death of Osama bin Laden. Then, the vast majority of those earnest, curious souls, satisfied that the film eventually got around to giving them the requisite kill shot from the compound in Abbottabad, went back to their lives, which is to say go back to ignoring the uglier legacy of the worst of the nation's terror-law policies.

On Monday, around the time the weekend box-office figures roll in, that legacy will again return to a military courtroom at "Camp Justice" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, hearings continue in the case of United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al., the most important American tribunal case since Nuremberg. One of the topics: whether America should now preserve and protect evidence of and from the very same "dark sites" which were such a big part of the first half of Zero Dark Thirty and such a controversial part of the film as a whole.

Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is one of the many unseen stars of the plot. It is supposed to be his nephew -- "Ammar" in the film, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali in real life-- who is tortured in the film's opening scenes. Both the nephew and the uncle were caught ten  years ago, in case you forgot, in the spring of 2003, before the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was exposed to the world. Today, as Steve Coll points out in The New York Review of Books, both men now are prisoners of Gitmo fighting the charges against them.

And, fighting, also, to introduce at trial proof of the torture chronicled in the film. One of the defense motions before the military judge this week consists of a request by lawyers and investigators to spend a few days at one of the CIA's off-the-books sites to evaluate the conditions in which their clients say they were confined. The Obama Administration, which Coll writes "reportedly authorized" some of its officials to talk to the film's scriptwriter, has shown no such penchant for transparency when it comes to these human rights lawyers.

It's unlikely that the presiding judge would grant defense access to places that the feds want to continue to pretend don't exist. It is even less likely that the feds would obey such an order if it were to be issued. It's not like the Justice Department and the Defense Department are in lockstep these days. This month, we learned that the Pentagon wants to withdraw a dubious conspiracy charge against Mohammed while the Justice Department wants to proceed with a similar charge in another case. The boys over at Lawfare declared themselves "stunned." 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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