FRONTLINE | Secrets, Politics and Torture
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Watch Tuesday, May 19, 2015 at 10pm on WMHT TV.

When Zero Dark Thirty premiered in 2012, the Hollywood film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden became a blockbuster hit.

The CIA worked with the filmmakers, and the movie portrayed the agency’s controversial “enhanced interrogations” — widely described as torture — as a key to uncovering information that led to the finding and killing of bin Laden.

But in Secrets, Politics and Torture, FRONTLINE reveals the many challenges to this version of history, and the inside story of how it came to be.

Drawing on recently declassified documents and interviews with prominent political leaders and CIA insiders, Secrets, Politics and Torture is a deep investigation of the agency’s top-secret interrogation program: how it began, what it accomplished, and the bitter fight in Washington over the public outing of its existence. 

“We’ve found that, faced with 9/11 and the fear of a second attack, everybody from the head of the CIA, to the Justice Department, to the president asked ‘Can we do it?’ — meaning, can we do it legally — not, ‘Should we do it?’,” says veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk (The Torture Question, Bush’s War, Losing Iraq, United States of Secrets).

The film unspools the dueling versions of history laid out by the CIA, which maintains that its now officially shuttered program was effective in combating terrorism, and the massive Senate torture report released in December of 2014, which found that the program was brutal, mismanaged and — most importantly — didn’t work.

For example: The Senate concluded that the CIA’s first detainee, Abu Zubaydah, was not actually a senior member of Al Qaeda. And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was a high-level Al Qaeda operative, admitted that he lied to interrogators who were waterboarding him.

“Waterboarding [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] 183 times did not work,” Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, who spearheaded the report, tells FRONTLINE. “And essentially, by the CIA’s own standard of why they did this, they did not receive otherwise unavailable actionable intelligence.”

But John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, defends the agency’s decision to employ techniques like waterboarding, forced nudity, days of sleep deprivation, and confinement in coffin-size boxes on terror suspects deemed high-level.

“We were at war. Bad things happen in wars,” McLaughlin tells FRONTLINE. “We felt a moral commitment to protect the United States.”

From the CIA’s use of black site prisons in Thailand, Lithuania, Afghanistan and Poland, to its destruction of nearly 100 hours of videotaped interrogations (and Congress’s fury upon finding out), to the Senate’s standoff with the CIA over the report, Secrets, Politics and Torture tells the dramatic inside story of one of the CIA’s most controversial programs.

It’s the latest in Michael Kirk’s acclaimed line of documentaries examining controversial counterterrorism programs and government secrecy: He traveled to Abu Ghraib to make The Torture Question in 2005, and he just won a Peabody Award for United States of Secrets, FRONTLINE’s 2014 examination of how the National Security Agency responded to 9/11.

“As the debate over how far the U.S. should be willing to go in the fight against terrorism continues, we felt it was important to tell the story of this CIA program, comprehensively, in documentary form,” Kirk says. “What we’ve found raises some very tough questions.”