THE BLOG
02/17/2009 03:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jack Bauer Shows Up in Senate

Too bad Senator Jay Rockefeller did not get a casting call for the 7th season of "24" (which is going on right now).

In this season, Jack Bauer - the hero of the program - is brought before a senate investigative committee for his use of torture. In one of the first episodes, a feckless Senator whines about Geneva Conventions violations for a few seconds before Bauer wrests control of the hearing away from him and provides a stirring defense of torture (while hero music gently purrs in the background).

The entire scene conveys the sense that our political leaders do not understand what has to be done to keep America safe.

"24" has repeatedly hammered this notion into the heads of its viewers. Those who stand in the way of torture are portrayed as out-of-touch and only interested in blindly following the law no matter what the real-world consequences. In the context of the program, torture is repeatedly shown and it nearly always works.

But back in real life - at a Senate hearing with the nation's top intelligence chief, Admiral Denny Blair - Senator Rockefeller was asking tough questions last week about our nation's commitment not to torture. As his questions show, he is not concerned in law for law's sake, but rather he understands that tough-guy tactics have not made us safer.

Rockefeller: For too many people in our government, in my judgment, and in our country, there is a mistaken impression that waterboarding is what has to be done to get actionable intelligence to keep America safe.

The U.S. is split when it comes to torture with 48% opposed and 43% in favor according to the most recent polling. Rockefeller points to "24" as a central force buttressing support for torture in this country.

Soldiers have copied abusive interrogation techniques they have seen portrayed on the show, according to information gathered by my organization (Human Rights First) and journalists.

Rockefeller: How does this misunderstanding about torture affect our most valuable national security resources, the young men and women who volunteer to service in the military or the intelligence agencies? Do they believe that Jack Bauer is what a good intelligence agent is supposed to act like?

I'll ask a few more. The Hollywood producer of 24, one Joel Surnow, is celebrated in some circles, most circles, for the show's depiction of the tough choices that have to be made in the war on terrorism.

Justice Scalia has cited Jack Bauer's torture of terrorist suspects, and our former secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, said of the show, "Frankly, it reflects real life."

In your decades of service to our nation's security, would you say that this TV show reflects real life?

BLAIR:
I've never seen an episode of that show, Senator, so I can't help you.

ROCKEFELLER:
That's a cop-out.

BLAIR:
Sir?

ROCKEFELLER:
That's a cop-out.

BLAIR:
(Inaudible) to be true.

ROCKEFELLER:
Yes I -- I understand that.

BLAIR: But on the -- on the general point, no. We -- we don't want to. I mean I can tell you my -- my leadership and the leadership that I admire in the Armed Forces and the intelligence services does not believe that you have to be tough and mean to do a good job for your country.

You have to -- you have to be following the traditions of your -- of your service. You have to -- you have to follow America's ideals while you're getting the job -- while you're getting the job done. You have to act lawfully.

Those are the -- those are the leaders that most of us admire, and that's my experience of what the most -- most of the leaders are. We don't glorify -- we don't glorify torture and killing, and there won't be torture on my watch.

ROCKEFELLER:
Well, and I understand that. But on their watch they had it regularly, and it's the most popular TV show in America. I simply raise that as a question of how what's going on can be used for moneymaking purposes and in the process not only affect young people in our country in how they approach potentially public service in the intelligence community or elsewhere, as well as the Muslim world.

It worries me greatly. It's one television show, and it worries me greatly.

BLAIR:
American popular culture is sometimes our worst enemy overseas, isn't it, Senator Rockefeller? You and I have traveled, and -- and everybody thinks that America is about some of these -- some of the shows that are made as violent and as lurid as they -- as they can be so that they will up their -- up their ratings.

I don't think that it reflects the real America. I don't think that's who we are. I don't think that's who we -- do we want to be. And I think it's a bad reflection of -- of what this country is really about.

ROCKEFELLER:
I'll send you a copy.

If they played hero music in the Senate - as they do on 24 - they would have played it for Senator Rockefeller after this exchange. To end the debate about torture in this country, it will be necessary for our leadership to take more action than we have to date.

We must have an open conversation about the impact the use of these techniques has had on our national security. Too many people believe that the Jack Bauer tactics have "saved American lives."

My organization supports a Truth Commission to get to the bottom of this debate. A Truth Commission would evaluate the intelligence that has been gathered through the use of waterboarding and weigh whatever pros it may have provided against the costs of using these techniques.

Many senior interrogators and intelligence officials are highly skeptical of any information that was gleaned through torture. There is too much historical evidence that these sorts of techniques rarely work. It is in the United States' interest to confront these issues and address the lingering questions in the public debate.

David Danzig is the Director of the Primetime Torture Project at Human Rights First.