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Hollywood Pressured Over Torture Portrayals

July 12, 2008

By Aamer Madhani, Chicago Tribune

Jul. 12–WASHINGTON — Ken Robinson, an Army Special Forces intelligence officer turned Hollywood producer, was working on a short-lived Pentagon drama aptly titled “E-Ring” for a network when two of the show’s writers stopped by his office to discuss the details of torture and other harsh interrogation methods.

The writers, Matthew Federman and Steve Scaia, seemed intent on accurately portraying torture on an episode of the television show in which a Special Forces operator was captured by Lebanese militants.

While Robinson was pleased by the writers’ desire to thoroughly research the topic, he was concerned that Federman and Scaia had a sanitized concept of some of the methods, including waterboarding, an interrogation technique that makes a prisoner believe he is in imminent danger of drowning.

“I asked them both: ‘Do you really want to understand waterboarding?’ ” said Robinson, referring to the technique prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual. “And they go, ‘Absolutely, we’d love to see it.’ I go, ‘Well, you know, seeing it is not going to really help you. But … if you were waterboarded, I think you could write an excellent episode.’ “

The two writers were game. Federman would be waterboarded while Scaia would take notes.

Robinson, who had been waterboarded five times as part of his military training, tied Federman to a board, forced water down his throat, and the writer said he felt the unmistakable sensation of drowning.

Torture on TV Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the portrayal of torture on network television was a rarity. But the moment piqued interest in Hollywood and led to dozens of television and movie story lines in which American heroes deal with uncooperative antagonists who hold critical information about an imminent attack.

By 2003, the first year of the war in Iraq, there were 228 instances in which torture was portrayed on network TV, according to Human Rights First, a civil liberties group that advocates governments banning torture.

Human Rights First last year launched a campaign to push Hollywood writers and producers away from portrayals of torture as a useful interrogation technique.

The group has distributed about 1,200 DVDs called “Primetime Torture” to educators and military trainers in which Robinson and other former military and intelligence officers say that torture is ineffective and immoral and can lead to receiving bad intelligence.

What would Bauer do? The group’s highest-profile target has been the Fox hit “24,” a thriller in which protagonist Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, used torture–from staging a mock execution of a detainee’s child to shocking a captive–at least 89 times in the show’s first six seasons.

Army officials have met with the show’s writers and producers to express concern that Bauer’s methods are sending the wrong messages to service members.

The show is wildly popular among troops in Iraq. Other shows, such as “Alias,” which have portrayed torture scenes that critics say are unrealistic, have also come under fire.

“The problem with the ticking time-bomb situation is that it’s not real,” said David Danzig, the director of Human Rights First’s Primetime Torture project. “The problem with ’24,’ when we’re rooting for Jack Bauer torturing the bad guy or when Hollywood shows waterboarding producing the result of the bad guy giving up good information that saves the day, is that gathering good intelligence doesn’t work that way.”

Democrats and the Bush administration have clashed over use of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Earlier this year, CIA chief Michael Hayden acknowledged that the agency had waterboarded three high-level detainees–including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. After being waterboarded, Mohammed reportedly confessed to several ongoing plots.

The Bush administration has said waterboarding is a legal technique that could be used again under certain circumstances, such as the threat of imminent attack.

The tactic, however, has not been used in nearly five years, and it is not among the techniques approved for CIA interrogators, Hayden said in congressional testimony.

The waterboarding experience In preparing the writers of “E-Ring” for waterboarding, Robinson first talked the two through a scenario of what it might be like to be captured and put through a rough interrogation.

Federman said as a result of subjecting himself to waterboarding, he and Scaia were able to write what they believed was a credible episode that didn’t follow the usual narrative. The writers pointedly turned the paradigm on its head by having the U.S. soldier tortured by his captors. Federman’s and Scaia’s ultimate message: Harsh interrogation may get a detainee to talk, but the subject is just as likely to offer bad information to stop the torture as useful intelligence.

“It was frightening, but I didn’t experience the full spectrum of the sheer terror because Ken was there and I knew he wasn’t going to kill me or let something happen to me,” Federman recalled in a telephone interview. “Still, it was a revealing experience. … There is this torture chic in Hollywood — the bad guy won’t talk, the good guy tortures him and the bad guy gives up all the information. In real life, it doesn’t work that way.”

The episode was a proud moment for Robinson, who has been a vociferous critic of the administration’s defense of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Unfortunately, Robinson said, the episode never aired in the U.S.

“E-Ring,” starring Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper, was canceled in its first season.

amadhani@tribune.com

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