- Matthieu Aikinsjournalist based in Kabul who has written for Harper’s, GQ and The Atlantic. His most recent article for GQ is called “The Doctor, the CIA, and the Blood of Bin Laden.”
Today we look at the capture of Osama bin Laden — the focus of the controversial new movie, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which was released this week. Billed as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man,” the film has come under harsh criticism from Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin for its depiction of torture. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to face the fallout from the raid that led to the capture and killing of bin Laden in May 2011. Eight health workers have been killed this week during a nationwide anti-polio drive, as opposition to such immunization efforts in parts of country has increased after the fake CIA hepatitis vaccination campaign that helped locate bin Laden last year. Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic. Pakistani clerics said medical workers should not pay the price for those who collaborated with the CIA. For more, we’re joined by Matthieu Aikins, who just returned from two months in Pakistan researching what led to the capture and killing of bin Laden. His most recent article for GQ magazine is called “The Doctor, the CIA, and the Blood of Bin Laden.” [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with a look at the capture of Osama bin Laden, which is the focus of the controversial new movie, Zero Dark Thirty, released this week. Billed as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man,” the film has come under harsh criticism from Republican Senator John McCain for its depiction of torture. McCain, a former POW who was tortured for years at the hands of Vietnamese captors, joined Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin in writing a letter to the chief executive of Sony Pictures, which backed the film, and they said, quote, “We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to Usama bin Laden.” The letter goes on to say the film, quote, “clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that [this] is incorrect.”
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to face the fallout from the raid that led to the capture and killing of bin Laden in May 2011. Eight health workers have been killed this week during a nationwide anti-polio drive, as opposition to such immunization efforts in parts of the country has increased after the fake CIA hepatitis vaccination campaign that helped locate bin Laden last year. Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic. Pakistani clerics said medical workers should not pay the price for those who collaborated with the CIA.
TAHIR ASHRAFI: [translated] Whatever Shakil Afridi did was treason against his country and against his profession, but that certainly does not mean that you can kill innocent people to avenge that or that you can say that we would much rather let our children become cripples.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined now by Matthieu Aikins, who has just returned from two months in Pakistan, where he examined what led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Matthieu Aikins is a journalist based in Kabul, written for Harper’s, GQ and The Atlantic. His most recent piece is for GQ, called “The Doctor, the CIA, and the Blood of Bin Laden.”
Before we talk about your piece, well, let’s talk about something that relates to it: Pakistan continuing to face the fallout of the raid with eight health workers being killed this week during a nationwide anti-polio drive. Explain what’s going on and how that relates to your research, Matt.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. Well, the background for this is that, as part of the campaign to find bin Laden, the CIA employed this doctor, Dr. Shakil Afridi, to conduct a fake vaccination campaign in the Pakistani town where they believed that bin Laden was hidden. And they wanted to do that in order to get some of his DNA, right? So, when that came out, obviously, it cast a great deal of suspicion on anyone who was, you know, conducting medical programs or humanitarian programs in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, particularly anyone who was, you know, associated with a Western NGO or taking money from Western programs. So, that’s essentially the background to this. Now, of course, the first responsibility for killing these aid workers lies with the people who did it, but there’s a lot of criticism in Pakistan that the CIA using humanitarian workers as a front for an assassination mission, you know, obviously does tremendous damage and puts the lives of these workers in jeopardy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, earlier this year, Pakistani authorities ordered Save the Children’s international workers to leave the country over suspicions that a doctor used the aid agency as a cover for a CIA operation. A Pakistani report linked the organization to the Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, who was allegedly recruited by the CIA to help track down Osama bin Laden. Save the Children spokeswoman Ishbel Matheson told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story the organization had no significant ties with Dr. Afridi.
ISHBEL MATHESON: We absolutely deny any of those allegations. Dr. Afridi, the doctor in question, never worked for us. He was never employed by us. We didn’t run a vaccination program in Abbottabad. And any allegations of links between us and Dr. Afridi in this respect are absolutely untrue.
Just one thing to be clear, though, he did attend a couple of our training programs a few years ago. He was a local health official. We ran regular health training programs across Pakistan. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have attended those. He was one of those who attended those two programs. But that’s absolutely the only connection we can find between Dr. Afridi and Save the Children. We absolutely deny those allegations that are circulating in the media.
And we’re trying very hard to speak to the Pakistani government and to try and get to understand a little bit better how we can overcome this problem, because we’ve been in Pakistan for 30 years. We’ve worked really well and very closely with the Pakistan government, both national level and local authority level. We help many, many people across the country, the poorest children and families in Pakistan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also Doctors Without Borders has sharply condemned the use of health officials by the CIA, by the U.S. government, to try to elicit information. But your article seems to suggest that in Pakistan there’s a great fear that this is widespread throughout the country, the attempt to develop networks of information by the CIA with local officials.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: That’s right. Well, I mean, the story is fundamentally about a Pakistani asset, right? a source paid by the CIA, and what happened to him after the mission was over. He was thrown in jail, sort of made an example out of by Pakistan’s military.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Dr. Afridi.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: This is Dr. Afridi, yeah, the doctor who may have helped get the DNA of bin Laden’s daughter, Maryam bin Laden. It’s not clear whether he actually did. But the—yeah, this is—you know, this—the Raymond Davis case, where a CIA contractor was caught in Lahore after killing two men in an unclear altercation, has led to a very intense suspicion, paranoia even, about foreigners, about anyone connected with them. And you could see the results of that in the fact that these aid workers, who are doing something that’s desperately needed in an incredibly impoverished area of the country, are being murdered.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matthieu, you went to track Dr. Afridi, what he did leading up to Osama bin Laden’s murder. Explain the story, as you understand it now.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, Dr. Afridi was sort of a shady character. He was a bit of a hustler. He was living in this milieu in Khyber Agency near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it was rife with drug smuggling and militancy and spy games and all sorts of, you know, shady dealings, and he was kind of a player in that. And at some point, you know, the Pakistani government alleges that it was via a Save the Children seminar—but of course Save the Children has denied that—he became an asset for the CIA and started visiting a safe house in Islamabad, taking money to conduct this vaccination program in Abbottabad. And, you know, the interesting thing I found in looking into the story and trying to unwrap, you know, the multiple layers of half-truths and propaganda is that despite the fact that, you know, this incident has played out in front of the whole world—I mean, there’s movies about it, there’s books, there’s tons of news reports—there’s still a lot we don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: He went there with two nurses?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: He went there with a team of nurses, but he actually went to the door of bin Laden’s house with two nurses and knocked on the door and tried to get in.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, what happened next isn’t entirely clear. The nurses have claimed subsequently that they actually never got into the house, but I was able to find someone who had spoken to them earlier, before they were arrested, and they said they did. They had been there earlier on a polio vaccination campaign a couple years before and had vaccinated the children, some of whom were bin Laden’s children, some of whom were children of the two al-Qaeda couriers who were sort of taking care of him in this house. And so, the question is—what we don’t know is whether he brought back a blood sample from the daughter of bin Laden, Maryam bin Laden.
But the timing is very tantalizing, because when that sample would have gotten back—what we know from the documents and the reports that have come out and interviews that I conducted, we know that the—by the time results from a DNA sample would have gotten back when he went there, that arrived—I mean, on April 28th, you had a meeting at the White House where, you know, president and Joe Biden—I mean, they reviewed all the evidence. Joe Biden said, you know, “No, there’s not enough evidence that bin Laden is there for such a risky mission.” Obama himself put the chances at 50-50. That’s on the 28th. So the samples would have arrived—the results of the samples would have arrived on the 29th. And that’s the morning when President Obama made the order to go ahead with the mission.
AMY GOODMAN: And those samples were of who?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: It was—he was doing a vaccination campaign for hepatitis for women between the age of 15 and 49. And before you do that, you do a screen where you scratch and take a drop of blood to do a rapid test to see if they already have hepatitis, in which case you can’t vaccinate them. So that was the trick, was to bring back those blood samples. So, it would have been—they were trying to get one of the children of bin Laden who was in the house, so that they could at least establish whether someone who is genetically related to him was there.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, your article also—because Dr. Afridi, shortly after the killing of bin Laden, is then arrested by Pakistani authorities and essentially disappeared for a while—
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —you went back to track down his family members. And also, you discovered an interesting history of the family, in terms of other Western powers in the region.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah, absolutely. It was a good reminder of how long the history of, you know, Western imperial involvement in the frontier regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan has been. Shakil Afridi’s maternal grandfather won the Victoria Cross fighting for the British in the trenches of Ypres in Belgium during World War I, and so that was the first, you know, world-famous hero in his family. And the brother of Mir Dast, Shakil Afridi’s maternal grand-uncle, led the first recorded defection to British—to German lines during World War I. So he had this world-famous traitor and this world-famous hero in his family in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: Then the question is, what happened to Afridi afterwards? In May, two top lawmakers warned Pakistan over the sentencing of Dr. Shakil Afridi, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for setting up the vaccination effort in an effort to get DNA from the bin Laden family. In a statement, Senators John McCain of Arizona, Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Afridi’s imprisonment could, quote, “diminish Congress’s willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan.” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was questioned on the Obama administration’s handling of Afridi’s case.
REPORTER: If he was helping the U.S. on various matters and the CIA, how come you left him to die or to be imprisoned, to sentenced by the Pakistanis on treason, on other charges? How come you didn’t give him some kind of protection, or just like the Chinese—Chen, Mr. Chen, just like him, to bring him some or give him some safe haven, rather than leaving him behind?
VICTORIA NULAND: I think we’ve said that we don’t see any basis for what’s happened here, and so, you know, we will continue to make those representations to the government of Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: That was State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Matthieu?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, of course, you know, I think, in any country in the world, when a citizen of that country cooperates with a foreign intelligence agency to carry out an assassination on that country’s soil, there is going to be legal consequences. Now, the U.S. would probably like to buy Afridi’s freedom, you know, as a way of showing other potential future sources that they’ll—they’ll back them up. I don’t think they care—are particularly sentimental about Afridi’s fate. So, we’ll see—we’ll see what happens with that, because it’s pretty politically sensitive football on both sides. But I mean, you know, this just—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what was he actually convicted of? It wasn’t of cooperating with the CIA, was it?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: No, I mean, like everything to do with his case, it’s actually a really complicated story. But they basically found a law under the frontier regulations—frontier crimes regulations, which is a British-era colonial law that basically—I mean, the tribal areas of Pakistan are still ruled by British-era colonial laws that provide no right of representation, or, you know, you can’t even be present at your own trial. There’s no real appeal. So, they found a way to try Afridi under these circumstances just because it was a way to quietly deal with the case, because it was obviously—you know, trying him for treason for helping an enemy of the state, the U.S., would bring up all sorts of uncomfortable questions as to what the real relationship between the United States and Pakistan is.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Noam Chomsky for his comments. We spoke to him in May—of course, the professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, where he taught for over half a century. These are his comments on the CIA operation against Osama bin Laden.
NOAM CHOMSKY: [So, take, say,] the assassination of Osama bin Laden. I mean, I’m a small minority of people who think that was a crime. I don’t think you should have a right to invade another country, apprehend a suspect—remember, he’s a suspect, even if you think he’s guilty—apprehend him, after he’s apprehended and defenseless, assassinate him and throw his body into the ocean. Yeah, civilized countries don’t do that sort of thing. But—and notice that it was undertaken at great risk. The Navy SEALs were under orders to fight their way out, if there was a problem. If they had had to fight their way out, they would have gotten air cover and probably intervention. We could have been at war with Pakistan. Pakistan has a professional army. They’re dedicated to protecting the sovereignty of the state, very dedicated to it, and they wouldn’t take this lightly. A war with Pakistan would be an utter disaster. It’s one of the huge nuclear facilities, laced with radical Islamic elements. They’re not a big part of the population, but they’re all over. But they did it anyway. Then, right after it, when Pakistan was, you know, totally outraged, we carried out more drone attacks in Pakistan, almost—you know, it’s kind of astonishing when you look at the planning, quite apart from the criminality.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky commenting on the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Matthieu Aikins?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, what’s interesting about the whole mission—you know, that it was a unilateral mission, so it was done without Pakistan’s knowledge or consent—is that the Obama administration felt that it was so necessary to keep the Pakistanis from it, when in fact—I mean, there are very legitimate concerns about Pakistan’s relationship with militant groups, and there have been operations in the past, and they’ve gone after the Taliban, where it seems like they’ve been tipped off, you know, because of joint—they were sharing intelligence with the Pakistanis. But almost all of the high-profile al-Qaeda suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were apprehended in joint operations. And that’s one thing the Pakistanis were quite effective at and incentivized to be effective, through cash payments, was hunting down these al-Qaeda guys, who they were interested, for the most part, in getting, too. So, in Pakistan, when I went there and spoke with—whether they were politicians, in the military or civil society, there was a lot of bafflement as to why the U.S. needed to go alone. And I think it’s just part of the sort of arrogant and bullying approach that the Obama administration has taken to Pakistan, sort of getting tough.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the film that we referred to earlier, the new Hollywood movie about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. In an unusual congressional critique of Hollywood movie making, three United States senators on Wednesday criticized the film. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said the film is, quote, “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location” of the terrorist leader. This is a clip from the film’s trailer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are still no closer to defeating our enemy.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Twenty detainees recognize that photo.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No birth certificate, no cellphone—the guy is a ghost.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He’s right in the inner circle.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The whole world is going to want to know this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I want targets.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where was the last time you saw bin Laden?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s a clip from Zero Dark Thirty. Your sense of the impact of the film on the national debate over the use of torture in these cases?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Right, well, I mean, it’s like how the film series 24 probably did more to justify torture to the ordinary Americans than any sort of, you know, evidence that was presented in books like Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side. So, I’m kind of taking my cues off actually, you know, experts like her and the senators who’ve had access to classified information.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, just gave—wrote to Senator McCain—
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —to say that, unequivocally, Osama bin Laden’s—the locating of Osama bin Laden was not based on confessions gotten through torture. And yet that’s how the film opens, with a nonstop interrogation, torture, that clearly the film doesn’t even question that actually that’s how information was gotten.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Right, they get that—they get that wrong. They also portray torture as this sort of straightforward mechanism to extract information, when most of the evidence, psychological evidence, the studies that we’ve had, show that people break in unreliable ways, and the information that you extract is often useless, and it’s very difficult to tell whether it’s genuine information or not.
But there’s also like, I think, a deeper and more interesting thing at work here, because the filmmakers, you know, they’re very close to the Obama administration. They’re not—actually not trying to push a particular agenda, you know, from the Bush era or anything like that. But it’s just this fascination on the part of, you know, American media, and probably, you know, unfortunately, a large part of the American public, with this sort of unlimited use of power, you know, even the most despicable kinds of power, that if done skillfully and precisely can lead to, you know, something for the greater good. And, of course, this is the argument used by despots and terrorists for a very long time. And it’s what’s being used—I mean, the last time I was on the show, we were talking about an ally in Afghanistan who was torturing—I had documented a campaign of torture and extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses.
AMY GOODMAN: An Afghan warlord.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: An Afghan warlord in southern Kandahar, General Abdul Raziq, who’s still there, who’s still receiving U.S. funding, and who’s still leading, you know, a police force that we equipped. So, that sort of language of, you know, moral justification of this kind of behavior, I think, is linked to like some of the just like shady moralities that we’ve had to engage in for this war on terror.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Matthieu Aikins, for being with us. We’ll link to all of your pieces at democracynow.org. Matthieu Aikins, journalist based in Kabul, who has written for Harper’s, GQ, The Atlantic. His most recent piece for GQ just came out, “The Doctor, the CIA, and the Blood of Bin Laden.” Back in a minute.