DiCaprio film glamorizes Jordan's feared spy agency

Human rights groups charge the mukhabarat, portrayed in the new Ridley Scott movie 'Body of Lies,' with systematic torture.

By , Contributors to The Christian Science Monitor , Contributors to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Body of Lies,' which opens this weekend.
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The new Ridley Scott thriller "Body of Lies," which opens Friday, tells the story of a fictional collaboration between the CIA and Jordan's secret police. While Hollywood may romanticize Jordan's intelligence service, the facts, according to numerous reports, are more brutal than shown on the big screen.

Based on the novel "Penetration" by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "Body of Lies" tells the story of a CIA operative played by Leonardo DiCaprio who attempts to infiltrate and destroy an Al Qaeda cell with the assistance of Hani Salaam, the fictional head of the General Intelligence Department (GID), or mukhabarat in Arabic.

Mr. Ignatius describes Mr. Salaam as an Arab-world James Bond: good looking, cool, and too savvy to use "inefficient" methods like torture. But international observers say the real GID is a far cry from its depiction in art.

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Early in 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published the results of interviews with more than a dozen former detainees who said they were tortured in GID custody. On Wednesday, the group issued a new report, alleging widespread torture in Jordan's regular prisons – particularly among Islamists convicted of national security crimes.

The allegations are based on unsupervised interviews with 110 prisoners in seven prisons around the country in 2007 and 2008. More than half of those interviewed said they had experienced some form of torture or ill-treatment, and 30 showed physical evidence of abuse. There were accounts that 5 out of 7 prison directors were involved.

"To root out torture you need to be able to name and shame, and prosecute where appropriate, those people who perpetrate that crime," says Christoph Wilcke, HRW's researcher for Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Former prime minister and head of Jordan's national human rights center, Adnan Badran, wrote Thursday in the Al Ghad newspaper that the new HRW report was accurate, but that the cases of torture they found were the actions of individuals, and not systematic.

Jordan has been a key American ally in the Middle East and in its war on terrorism and has even been charged by HRW with being involved in "extraordinary rendition," holding and interrogating prisoners, often using brutal methods, as a proxy for the US.

While human rights groups allege widespread abuse in Jordan's prisons, few other governments in the region allow outside observers to visit their prisons or detention centers. Syrian and Egyptian security forces have also been reported to detain large numbers of people, and to use similar, and more aggressive, torture techniques."

Jordan has consistently denied all reports of torture, but researchers say evidence is overwhelming.

"The GID is the primary instrument of abuse of political detainees in Jordan," says Neil Sammonds, a researcher for Amnesty International. "If none of this is in the film, it surely would be a 'body of lies' itself."

But Ignatius's novel paints a much more flattering picture. Salaam, the agency's fictional head, often scoffs at rumors that his agency uses torture to extract information. Instead, he relies on deceits and clever psychological operations. In the book, Salaam successfully penetrates a terrorist cell after the CIA fails to do so.

In the film, Salaam's character has a smaller role, but early reviews of the movie say the image of the sophisticated Arab spy who runs rings around the CIA remains.

"My novel says something that I think is true, which is that the GID understands its terrain – understands the people and the culture – better than does the CIA," says Ignatius, the book's author, in an e-mail interview. "I think the little Jordanian service may have had more leverage over the years on its big brother in Langley than people sometimes think. My sense is that the GID has done a better job over time in developing long-term penetrations of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations than has the CIA."

"I hope people will think of Jordan as a modern, generally well-run country with a tough intelligence service that has been a key ally of the United States in fighting Al Qaeda," he adds.

Ignatius never saw GID's detention center, which he describes in the book as dark, cold, unsanitary, and foul-smelling. HRW's Mr. Wilcke was given access to some of its detention areas in 2007 and says the physical conditions there weren't that bad.

The main problem, he says, is that all detainees are kept in solitary confinement and almost never get to consult their lawyers. And, of course, there's the violence.

"The GID has certainly systematically used torture in its investigations," he says. When the GID think a person is a serious threat, "there's no doubt the gloves come off."

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