Meet the Real Jack Bauers

Posted on January 18, 2010

This week saw the premiere of a new season of 24, with CTU agent Jack Bauer preparing to leave the world of counterterrorism for a quiet life as a grandfather in Los Angeles. But he is pulled back into the fight to stop the attempted assassination of a Middle Eastern leader in New York. As he questions an informant, he thrusts a gun into the man's neck but then pulls back, telling him, "You're lucky I'm retired." In another time, the man would have suffered far worse.

The public view of interrogations had been shaped by the fictional Bauer, who captures a terrorist and proceeds to torture him - holding down his head in a bathtub full of water, using a Taser to shock him, lopping off his fingers with a cigar cutter - while screaming questions until the terrorist finally breaks and gives up the location of the nuclear bomb that is about to go off.

For some critics of U.S. interrogation policy, this is not fiction, but a depiction of reality. In Newsweek, Dahlia Lithwick has written that "high-ranking lawyers in the Bush administration erected an entire torture policy around the fictional edifice of Jack Bauer." And Philippe Sands, author of the book Torture Team, has written that the show has been the "midwife" for torture's "actual use on real, living human beings." None of this is true.

Unlike these critics, I have had the chance to actually meet the real Jack Bauers - the CIA officials who questioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other senior terrorist leaders and got them to reveal their plans for new terrorist attacks. They explained to my why their approach has nothing in common with the methods used by Bauer on the fictional 24.


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