Navy SEAL's on the hunt in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Jonathan Olley / Columbia…)
We got Osama bin Laden — and now we'll be getting him again on cinema screens across the nation, as "Zero Dark Thirty" hits neighborhood multiplexes. Lauded and criticized, that film's the talk of the town. Is it also the first of a new genre? If so, here are my five nominations for other CIA films.
Let's start with the CIA's 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, whose democratically elected government had nationalized the country's oil industry. It couldn't be oilier, involving BP in an earlier incarnation, the CIA, British intelligence, bribery, secretly funded street demonstrations and (lest you think there'd be no torture in the film) the installation of an autocratic regime that went on to create a fearsome secret police that tortured opponents for decades after. All of this was done in the name of what used to be called "the Free World." That "successful" coup was the point of origin for just about every disaster and bit of "blowback" — a term first used in the CIA's secret history of the coup — in U.S.-Iranian relations to this day. Many of the documents have been released, and what a story it is!
Or here's another superb candidate: the CIA's Phoenix Program in Vietnam. If you're into torture porn, this is the clandestine operation for you! Meant to wipe out the Viet Cong's political infrastructure, it managed to knock off an estimated 20,000 Vietnamese, remarkably few of whom actually were classified as "senior NLF cadres." (Reportedly, the program was regularly used by locals to settle grudges.) It was knee-deep — maybe waist-deep — in blood, torture, assassination and death, and it was all courtesy of the agency we've come to know and love.
For a change of pace, how about a CIA-inspired torture comedy? We're talking about the rollicking secret kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in early 2003, his transport via U.S. air bases in Italy and Germany to Egypt, and his handoff to Egyptian torturers. What makes this an enticing barrel of laughs was the way the CIA types involved in the covert operation rang up almost $150,000 in five-star hotel bills as they gallivanted around Italy. They ate at five-star restaurants, vacationed in Venice after the kidnapping, ran up impressive tabs on forged credit cards for their fake identities, and were such bunglers that they were identified and charged for the abduction in absentia by the Italian government. Most, including the CIA chief of station in Milan, were convicted and given stiff jail sentences, again in absentia. (No more Venetian holidays for them.) It's a story that screams for the Hollywood treatment.
Or what about a torture tragedy? None can top the story of Khaled El-Masri, an unemployed car salesman from Germany on vacation in Macedonia, who, on New Year's Eve 2003, was pulled off a bus and kidnapped by the CIA because his name was similar to that of an Al Qaeda suspect. After spending five months under brutal conditions, in part in an "Afghan" prison called "the Salt Pit" (run by the CIA), he was left at the side of a road in Albania. In between, his life was a catalog of horrors, torture and abuse.
Finally, who doesn't like the idea of a torture biopic? The perfect subject's out there, and he was just profiled on the front page of the New York Times. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou led the team that captured Al Qaeda's logistics specialist Abu Zubaydah, and he is the only CIA agent in any way associated with the agency's torture activities likely to go to jail. And here's the sort of twist that any moviemaker should love: He never tortured anyone. Not only that, but he spoke out publicly against torture. His crime? He leaked information, including the name of an undercover agent, to journalists. Russell Crowe would be perfect in the role.
Adventure, blood, torture, injustice, irony — what more could you ask for?
Tom Engelhardt, cofounder of the American Empire Project and author of "The End of Victory Culture," runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com.