David vs. Goliath David vs. Goliath

David vs. Goliath

by Michael Slenske

April 8, 2010

Meet David Danzig-the anti-torture activist who took on Jack Bauer.

Three blocks from St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City sits the Istituto Dante Alighieri, an 87-year-old language school where foreigners go to learn Italian. There, on weekday mornings, you'll find a dark-haired, bespectacled American transplant named David Danzig attempting to beef up his Italglese before he cruises the Piazza San Cosimato market to buy some pasta for lunch. From there, he'll climb Janiculum Hill to a little bar called Il Baretto where he'll plug in his laptop, log on to Skype, and dial up former United States military interrogators to wage yet another battle in his ongoing war on torture."Being here affirms a basic point: The world is watching what we do," says Danzig, who moved to Rome from New York a few weeks ago. "The way the United States responds to terrorism will be copied by other countries and will be used by more totalitarian governments to justify their own oppressive tactics."While the garden café at Il Baretto has broadened his horizons, Danzig's always had a unique vantage on the issue. As a Senior Advisor for Human Rights First, an influential New York- and D.C.-based nonprofit, he's spent half a decade wearing the skin off his fingers cold-calling military brass in Washington and the executive brass in Hollywood with one elusive objective in mind: to rid primetime television shows of scenes that depict so-called "enhanced interrogation methods" as an effective tool in the national security playbook.If Danzig had his way, scenes where 24's Agent Bauer's shoot-you-in-the-kneecap and mock-execute-your-children tactics, which give torture the veneer of an effective and patriotic way of getting things done, would be written out of plot lines altogether. And with last week's announcement that the hit Fox show had been canceled, he's jumped a big hurdle. But defeating torture across the dial-not to mention the big screen-is a lot harder than it sounds, and not just because, much like sex, torture sells. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last April revealed that the American public is evenly split on the issue, with 49 percent saying that using torture "Often/Sometimes" is justified to gain "important information from suspected terrorists."But is it a stretch to say the public's comfort with torture is the result of shows like 24? When Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, former chief of Britain's counter-intelligence agency MI5, revealed that the Bush administration concealed their mistreatment of terror suspects earlier this month, she made it clear that the administration was inspired by Bauer's rogue ways. "Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld certainly watched 24," she said.They're not alone. Over its eight seasons on air, some 15 million Americans tuned in each week and the show's creators have bagged some five dozens Emmys. Everyone from Rush Limbaugh and Michael Chertoff to Bill Clinton and President Obama have admitted to watching. This is where Danzig enters the picture.Danzig, now 39, grew up the son of a military man. His father, Richard Danzig, served under the Secretary of Defense during the Carter Administration and became the Secretary of the Navy under Clinton. As a diabetic he couldn't follow his father into the military, so he chose to become a city reporter in New Jersey, eventually landing a job in 2002 as a writer with Human Rights First, where his responsibilities took him took him to places like Egypt to monitor trials. "When Abu Ghraib hit, that became my area of expertise," he told me when I first met him last spring, the week the torture memos came out. "That's what I spent all of my time on."While his Quaker roots pushed him into activism, his family ties to the military helped him bridge an important gap in the torture game. "My dad ran these weekly basketball games with three- and four-star generals so I was frequently with these guys and could call them and talk to them about what I was doing. What I got from [my father] was a certain comfort level in dealing with people who are from the armed services," he says. "Members of the military and people from the human rights community don't tend to interact that much. I felt like it was just obvious after Abu Ghraib that we should reach out to these guys because we could be much stronger together than we would be alone."Danzig cold-called more than 300 generals and admirals-"anyone who wore a star on their shoulder," he says-to ask them for their professional views on torture. Many were incredibly supportive, he says, and by the end of 2005, he'd recruited 50 of them to his cause. The work paid off. Some of them even spoke out publicly against military-sanctioned torture on behalf of Human Rights First, and shortly after President Obama took office last January, the White House invited Danzig to organize his generals behind the President when he signed the executive orders setting the wheels in motion to close Guantanamo and the CIA's overseas black sites. (Unfortunately, neither of those orders have come to pass of yet.)"I started watching 24 because I heard it was critically acclaimed," says Danzig. "During the day I was leading these admirals and generals and then at night I'd go home and root for Jack Bauer to torture the hell out of the bad guys. I kind of realized this is crazy. This show is having an incredible impact on me and I'm a guy who spends his days trying to stop torture."If it could turn him, he thought, what impact was it having on the troops-specifically those trained as military interrogators and those out in the field in places like Guantanamo Bay? To find out, he called up Colonel Gary D. Solis, who taught the Laws of War (aka "torture class") at West Point. The colonel had a torture case going through the Supreme Court at the time and at first, he wasn't particularly keen on speaking with a human rights activist. "The whole conversation changed when he found out I was calling about 24. He was like, 'I can't believe it; 24 is one of the biggest problems I have in my classrooms,'" says Danzig. Everyone one of Solis's students watched the show, and he had to regularly address questions about the apparent effectiveness of Bauer's harsh methods.After hearing repeated anecdotal accounts about Gitmo interrogators being influenced by the show, the Primetime Torture Project was born. In November of 2006 Danzig gathered a group of interrogators-including retired Colonel Stuart Herrington, one of the Army's most respected intelligence officers who wrote a secret (and now infamous) memo forewarning the Army about the potential fallout from Abu Ghraib-and took them to Hollywood to meet with the producers, directors, and actors of shows like Lost and 24. When a former army interrogator explained to the executives that his troops were using the exact same methods they saw on their TV shows, "they didn't know what to do with him," recalls Danzig of their dumdfoundedness.
"I kind of realized this is crazy. This show is having an incredible impact on me and I'm a guy who spends his days trying to stop torture."
To be fair, Agent Bauer and the cast of Lost haven't been the only culprits in primetime. Alias, The Wire, Sleeper Cell, even the cosmetic surgery drama Nip/Tuck have all been guilty over the past few years of glamorizing the use of torture. According to the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group that seeks to enforce decency standards on the tube, prior to 9/11 there was an average of four scenes depicting torture per year during primetime. That number skyrocketed to more than 240 scenes throughout 2004 and 2005. While the incidences have since baselined in the low 100s, thanks in part to Danzig's efforts, the figure is still surprisingly high.The big screen is not much better, which is why Danzig returned to Hollywood last April to give a presentation to 25 agents at CAA with Eric Maddox and Matthew Alexander-two interrogators who led the teams that essentially brought down Iraq's Most Wanted. He'd learned about them after reading their books, Mission: Black List #1 and How To Break a Terrorist respectively, which present some of the strongest arguments against torture to date. In nail-biting fashion, both books detail the intelligence-gathering operations that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein and in Iraq henchman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi-both sans torture."I'm the anti-Jack Bauer," Alexander told me. "In the case of the man I convinced to [help us] get to Zarqawi, it was as simple as telling him that he could play a role in the future of Iraq. This man was a grand egoist; he fell for it completely. The goal of every interrogator when they walk into that room is to work up not down. Guys like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah know they can sell out people and future operations as long as it's downward, because they know the organization will survive. The one person who was best able to give us Osama Bin Laden was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and we blew it because we waterboarded him. If you have to do something 183 times, it's not working."Maddox concurs. "Besides the fact that [waterboarding is] immoral and illegal, you want a prisoner to talk and you're sitting their drowning and gagging him so he can't talk and you bring him to the point of near death," he says. "Now let's say he gives you a little bit of information but you want more: How much closer to death can you get now? You haven't left anything in the reserve. Even if he starts giving you a little bit, what are you-buddies with him now? It's ridiculous."Though Maddox says his stories rated applause at every meeting he attended in Los Angeles, he's skeptical about TV's ability to accurately portray this meticulous process. "How would you do that in a one-hour show in a one-minute scene where an entire season only takes 24 hours? I've done single interrogations that take 24 hours."For his part, Howard Gordon, the executive producer of 24, told me last year that, when it comes to 24 as a cultural touchstone for the issue, "Jack Bauer and 24 has been the most responsible thing" he says. "If that's the reference our young military men have at the outset then that's a terrific thing because we can take it as a teaching tool and actually help them distinguish from this fantasy into the reality which they're going to enter."After their meeting with Danzig, Gordon and Lost's executive producer Jeff Pinkner both participated in an instructional video produced by HRF that dismissed the use and effectiveness of torture. While the video was a step in the right direction, Gordon called the issue of primetime depictions of torture "overblown" after the meeting.The show seemingly did an about-face last season-Bauer was put on trial for his criminal past and started having crises of conscience for his brutal tactics, and the president put an end to the Counter Terrorism Unit. But this season, 24 returned to form with Bauer and his all-but-psychopathic CTU cohort Renee Walker seducing a Russian mafioso at the end of episode 4 only to cut his thumb off with a power saw.As you might expect, Danzig is happy the show's been canceled, but still realistic about the footprint it will continue to leave in syndication. "Obviously, everything that is bad about the show will continue to be bad. The take-home message of the show-that torture works-will get even more airtime and convince even more Americans that abusing detainees is good policy," says Danzig. "On the positive side of the ledger, the program, after eight seasons has jumped the shark a bit. Bauer has, after all, tortured everyone under the sun, including even his brother. Maybe over time it will come to serve as a reminder of the mistakes we have made. And instead of some seeing Bauer as an inspiration, he will come to be seen as so ridiculous that no one would ever want to be associated with the sorts of actions that he engages in. "In Washington, Obama's take on torture has been called both impressive and evasive. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Alexander bashed the President's torture task force when it came back with no changes to the Army Field Manual. "The Army Field Manual also does not explicitly prohibit stress positions," he wrote. "These omissions open a window of opportunity for abuse." There's also the ongoing war over the torture memos between Attorney General Eric Holder and Dick Cheney, who admitted this February that he disagreed with the Bush decision to suspend waterboarding. Still, Danzig is hopeful."Part of my job will be to try to influence the influencers-meaning that I want writers, producers, and stars to think about the way they depict torture," he says. "We arent saying, 'Don't show torture.' Indeed, it would be great if shows took it seriously and portrayed all the negative effects." Which is why he's pushing forward from TV into film projects, as well as focusing on a new idea that's hot in the U.S. intelligence community of sharing "best practices" for interrogations with the Israelis or Indonesians. "We can learn from our allies. And I am going to be working on ways to improve the sharing," he says. "We see this as a common-sense way to improve the quality of information that interrogators receive and thereby significantly decrease the likelihood that U.S. interrogators will engage in torture in the future."And lest he forget his purpose while living la dolce vita, there's a constant reminder he passes on his daily traverse in the Eternal City. "There is a sign in the Campo di Fiori from the 1730s that tells Romans not to litter. Very admirable! But it also warns them if they do, and they are caught, they will suffer torture! Seriously! It's like a little reminder about why the U.S., when it was founded, was such a different place," says Danzig. "And why the founding fathers were sure to include a prohibition in the constitution against cruel and unusual punishment."
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David vs. Goliath