Hollywood and the Mukhabarat

On Sunday David Ignatius wrote an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the genius of Gen. Saad Kheir, the man who led the Jordanian General Intelligence Department from 2000 to 2005.  The compelling piece was a sort of epitaph for the man who, according to Ignatuis, saved numerous American lives.  Gen. Kheir’s MO was the infiltration of extremist factions and the use of mental torture to gather information.  As Ignatius mentions in the article, Gen. Kheir served as the model for Hani Pasha in Ignatius’ book (and later hit movie with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio) “Body of Lies.”  In fact, Ignatius takes scenes directly from his experience with Gen. Kheir (see the second scene from the clip below).

Also on Sunday, Joshua Landis wrote a piece discussing the role of the Arab Mukhabarat and Washington’s need for them.  In additon to pointing out that the US need of the Mukhabarat is incongruous with the moral high-ground that Washington loves but more than occasionally avoids, Landis gives an example of the moral problems and pain of mental torture:

In the audience at OU was a Syrian refugee, Mohammad Al Abdallah, whose father still languishes in a Syrian prison. Mohammad had also been imprisoned but was eventually released after a long and grueling period of interrogation. On his release he had traveled to Lebanon, from where he was eventually granted refugee status in the US. Mohammad arrived in the US only the month before Maddox came to talk at OU. By coincidence, Mohammad was settled by US authorities in Oklahoma City, where he looked me up. I invited him to dinner and to hear the Maddox talk.

Ironically, Mohammad’s father worked for the PLO, which for most of its existence was considered a Palestinian extremist group by the US. His father could easily have been one of the prisoners that Ignatius wrote about. At the end of Maddox’s talk, Mohammad raised his hand and explained that he was a recent refugee who had been tortured, not so much physically as mentally. He explained that he appreciated Maddox’s distinction between physical and mental torture and that he understood the importance for the Americans and Iraqis of capturing Saddam Hussein. All the same, he described how he had been subjected to mental torture by intelligence officers who were probably no less convinced of their righteousness. The Syrian secret police were holding Mohammad’s father when they interrogated Mohammad. He explained that he would have preferred to be physically tortured.

The audience hushed. One could hear only awkward shuffling. Staff Sgt. Eric Maddox also fell silent. What could one say? It was a very important moment for everyone at the talk.

After reading these two pieces, I find it bewildering that the folks in charge can bring themselves to note a moral difference between physical and mental torture.  Even in (the movie) “Body of Lies,” Hani Pasha, the character based on Gen. Kheir, notes that “torture does not work.  Under torture, a man will say almost anything to make the pain stop.”  To think that mental torture does not bring pain is an illusion.

If you have not read or seen “Body of Lies,” I would highly suggest it (the book is now on my to read list).  Not only is it entertaining (and depressing…), but you also get to see scenes that were taken by Ignatius almost verbatim from his time with Gen. Kheir.


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