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Is Torture on Hit Fox TV Show “24” Encouraging U.S. Soldiers to Abuse Detainees?

StoryFebruary 22, 2007
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This past fall, the dean of West Point, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, along with experienced military and FBI interrogators and representatives of Human Rights First, met with the creative team behind the hit Fox Television show “24” and told them to stop using torture because American soldiers were copying the show’s tactics. We speak with two of the delegation’s members — former Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis, who served one year in Iraq, and David Danzig, director of the Prime Time Torture Project for Human Rights First. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is torture on television encouraging U.S. soldiers to abuse detainees?

JACK BAUER: Just tell me what I need to know! How do I find McCarthy? Damn you! Damn you! Four CCs!

AGENT: That’s eight CCs total, Jack. His vitals are spiking across the line.


GRAEM BAUER: Jack, don’t!

JACK BAUER: The machine knows you’re lying! I know you’re lying! Tell me the truth! Tell me the truth!

GRAEM BAUER: [screaming in agony]

JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s a scene from 24, the hit television series on the Fox television network, with a weekly audience of 15 million viewers. Each season of 24 depicts an impossibly tense day in which counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer has just 24 hours to stop a terrorism plot that endangers the country. Faced with this “ticking time-bomb” scenario, Bauer invariably chooses torture to force suspects to divulge critical information.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the torture tactics on 24 include drugging, waterboarding, electrocution or power-drilling into a man’s shoulder. In five seasons of the show, there have been no less than 67 torture scenes, according to the Parents Television Council. That’s more than one every show.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This past fall, the dean of West Point, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, along with experienced military and FBI interrogators and representatives of Human Rights First, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind 24 to tell them to stop using torture, because American soldiers were copying the show’s tactics. The meeting was first revealed this month by The New Yorker magazine.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the show has decided to cut back on torture, not because of complaints, but, they say, because it’s become something of a cliché.

Tony Lagouranis is one of the former Army interrogators who met with the show’s writers in November. He served for a year in Iraq, joins us in the studio from Chicago. And in our firehouse studio, we’re joined by David Danzig, director of the Prime Time Torture Project for Human Rights First. He was also in the group that met with the producers of 24. We asked Joel Surnow, the creator of 24, or any representative from the show to be on the program, but they declined our request.

Tony Lagouranis, tell us why you met with the 24 producers to talk about your concerns.

TONY LAGOURANIS: Well, when David Danzig from Human Rights First asked me to go out there and speak to them, I thought it was a good idea, because I did see interrogators copying some of the methods and the posture of — not specifically 24, but certainly television programs, which increasingly have gotten more egregious with regard to torture.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you see? Explain what you saw in Iraq and where you were.

TONY LAGOURANIS: Well, the problem was that when we were interrogating in Iraq in 2004, we were being told that Geneva Conventions didn’t comply. So we didn’t have training that informed us what to do anymore, because we were taught according to Geneva Conventions. So people were getting ideas from television. And among the things that I saw people doing that they got from television was waterboarding, mock execution, using mock torture. They wanted to hook up one of our translators to an electric generator and pretend that they were torturing him and allow prisoners to see that so that they thought that they would experience the same thing. These were techniques — I’m sorry, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you see soldiers watching 24 in Iraq?

TONY LAGOURANIS: You know, I wasn’t aware of the show 24 in Iraq, but I do remember seeing people watching television shows that depicted torture, and 24 might have been one of them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: David Danzig, I’d like to ask you, it’s not just 24, obviously, though it’s the worst example, but you’ve been documenting now an enormous increase in torture on television compared to before 9/11. Could you talk about that and what led you to start this campaign?

DAVID DANZIG: That’s right. It’s really quite shocking when you look at the way that television deals with torture now, as opposed to before 9/11. Before 9/11 there was an average of about four scenes of torture on television in prime time. Post-9/11 —


DAVID DANZIG: Per year. Sorry. Post-9/11, that number has jumped to more than 100. But what’s particularly disturbing for us about this is that when you look at who’s doing the torturing, the people who are involved in it have changed. It used to be the bad guys were the ones who tortured, the Nazis or aliens or something like that, and torture never worked. But now it’s people like Jack Bauer. It’s the heroes of these shows — Sidney on Alias —- and it always works for these people. So the message that 18—, 19-, 20-year-old soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan get is that good guys use this stuff and it works.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And invariably, the issue is that the nation’s security is at stake, and —

DAVID DANZIG: It’s very seductive to see Jack Bauer every Monday night save the world by using these sorts of tactics. The suggestion isn’t that these sorts of tactics are easy or pretty, but the suggestion is that they work and they make you a hero.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the meeting, David. Who did you meet with, with 24 — and we’re sorry we weren’t able to get anyone from 24 to be on the broadcast — and their response?

DAVID DANZIG: Well, we brought Tony and two other very experienced interrogators, as well as Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, who is the dean of West Point, to talk to the executive producer of 24 and several of their lead writers. And really our point in bringing them there was to talk to them about the way in which they showed torture. Our view is that it’s really quite boring, what you see on 24. Torture happens, as you say, almost every episode, and Jack Bauer steps up, and bam, bam, bing, uses torture and gets the effects. It almost always works. What we were saying to them is, in the real world, it’s not like that. And the trouble is that what you’re suggesting with your show is that it could be or should be. And so, our point was to try and provide them some real world basis for showing torture. We were suggesting to them, hey, what if you made it more like real life, if torture took place and bad things happened as result? What if, for example, the person who was tortured gave out false information, or the person who was being tortured was killed? That would lead to a whole area that would be much more interesting, we said, and much more realistic and wouldn’t have this negative consequence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what was the response you got?

DAVID DANZIG: Well, to the credit of the producers and the writers, they were interested in this conversation, and they were really pushing the interrogators. I mean, we were sort of surprised to learn they’re in their sixth season and they didn’t spend a lot of time talking to soldiers and interrogators about the way that they do these things. So, for them, this was a really interesting research opportunity. But it’s also very difficult for them, because they have a hugely popular show, and we were suggesting to them that they do something actually a little bit risky, which is change their format. And there’s obviously a lot of money at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: Just reading from Jane Mayer’s piece in The New Yorker, saying, “The show’s villains usually inflict the more gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. In many episodes, however, heroic American officials act as tormentors, even though torture is illegal under U.S. law. In one episode, a fictional President commands a member of his Secret Service to torture a suspected traitor: his national-security adviser. The victim is jolted with defibrillator paddles while his feet are submerged in a tub filled with water. As the voltage is turned up, the President, who is depicted as a scrupulous leader, watches the suspect suffer on a video feed. The viewer, who knows that the adviser is guilty and harbors secrets, becomes complicit in hoping that the torture works. A few minutes before the suspect gives in, the President utters the show’s credo, 'Everyone breaks eventually.'”

DAVID DANZIG: Yeah, it’s a little disturbing. The show is, in some ways, an advertisement for torture. Torture works on 24, works on a lot of other shows, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Lagouranis, does torture work?

TONY LAGOURANIS: In my experience, no. I saw torture in Iraq. I even employed some torture methods. In my experience, it doesn’t work. I think that you’re going to get false intelligence when you employ torture methods.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Joel Surnow, who is the creator of the show, did not attend your meeting, and he himself has admitted to being a right-wing nut and a friend of Rush Limbaugh. Is it your sense that the show will change at all, or is it your sense that he’s really using to create his show to pursue a political agenda?

DAVID DANZIG: Well, as Amy mentioned at the top of the show — at the top of the segment, they have said that they are going to tone down on torture. And it is our hope that they will do this. It’s not clear to me which direction they will go. But they’ve really been the leaders in showing torture in this graphic way and suggesting that it works, and we’re hopeful that they’ll now be the leaders in stepping back from that and doing what’s really responsible.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to quote Kiefer Sutherland. He’s the star. He’s Jack Bauer. He makes, what, $10 million an episode. And he was asked by Charlie Rose about this, and Kiefer said, “Do I personally believe that the police or any of these other legal agencies that are working for this government should be entitled to interrogate people and do the things that I do on the show? No, I do not,” he said. $10 million a year, sorry, is what Kiefer Sutherland makes. Tony Lagouranis, you said you were personally involved with torturing prisoners. What did you do?

TONY LAGOURANIS: We used things like hypothermia, stress positions, sleep deprivation for long periods of time. I used military working dogs, sensory overload with music and strobe lights. These things were ineffective. And when people did talk, they either told us things that we already knew or they tended to mislead us. A far more effective method of interrogation elicitation, is getting the person to engage you and to speak to you at length. And that way, you know, if you get a large volume of information from the person, if they’re speaking for a long time, you can use what they’re saying to check their own information, to get them to contradict themselves or to get specific details. With torture, you might get a confession or you might get, you know, a single statement, and that’s really very hard to verify in the interrogation booth, what they’re saying.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, David Danzig, when you approached Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan about this, had he been watching the show already? Was he familiar with it, or did you introduce him to it?

DAVID DANZIG: He was familiar with it. And, in fact, one of the reasons that he was particularly interested in participating in this trip was that he and other educators, not just at West Point, but other people who taught interrogators, who we have spoken to, have told us that in their classes, Jack Bauer comes up all the time. When I first talked to a colonel at West Point about this, he said, “Oh, my god! 24 is one of the biggest problems I have in teaching my classes. Everybody wants to be like Jack Bauer. They all think that it may be possible or there are times when you should have to cross the line.”

AMY GOODMAN: According to Jane Mayer’s piece on 24, it’s a favorite of the White House. Surnow, who called himself the right-wing nut, has met with Karl Rove, as well as Tony Snow and Mary Cheney and Lynne Cheney, the wife and daughter of the vice president. Tony Lagouranis, what do you think of _24_’s response from your meeting with them?

TONY LAGOURANIS: Well, as David said, they were receptive. They were more receptive than I thought they would be. They spoke to us for a long time. They didn’t have to meet with us at all. But, you know, it’s not a surprise that they were resistant to change.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, when you bring a general, [inaudible] —

TONY LAGOURANIS: But I’d like to add also that I think that — a larger impact than what — you know, how the interrogators or how the military is affected by 24, it’s really affecting public opinion, too. I’ve been speaking about torture since I returned from Iraq, and people always bring up the ticking time bomb scenario, and they always bring up 24 as a reason why we need to legalize torture. The professionals — professional interrogators don’t want to torture, the military doesn’t want to torture, the FBI doesn’t want to torture. The CIA did studies, and they said that torture doesn’t work and it produces false intelligence. Where is this idea coming from that we need to torture to combat terrorism? It’s coming from the media, in my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Lagouranis, did 24 offer you a job?

TONY LAGOURANIS: No, they didn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I look forward to reading your forthcoming book, Tony Lagouranis, former Army interrogator. His book is called Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq. And also David Danzig of Human Rights First, thanks so much for joining us.

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