BOB GARFIELD: The debate over whether America should resort to torture in order to extract information from suspected terrorists has aired on the editorial pages of America's papers and on cable and radio talk shows, but you won't find the issue dealt with in the local cineplex unless you live next to an art house showing the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. That movie depicts the steps French paratroopers took in the late '50s to dismantle the National Liberation Front, or FLN. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst for the Rand Corporation, has used the Battle of Algiers in courses he's taught to graduate students. Bruce, welcome to OTM.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Pleasure to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: In the January issue of Atlantic Monthly you recommend this movie to soldiers, spies and students. Why?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well I think the key to understanding the film is that like all good films it's about a search, and in this case it's the search for intelligence, for information that he authorities need to uproot the terrorist infrastructure in Algiers during the 1950s. The Italian director, Gillo Pontecorvo, displayed a cast of characters which both did egregious things. You have on the one hand scenes of the terrorists planting bombs in cafeterias frequented by high school and university students. On the other hand you have the French paratroops using perhaps the most heinous methods of torture to extract information. And what it underscores is that countering terrorism is first and foremost an intelligence game, and that the primacy of intelligence is paramount.
BOB GARFIELD:Pontecorvo was sympathetic with the FLN, and it would be easy to see the movie as a kind of agitprop, but it's also, from the opposite side of the question, a pretty good study of the ends justifying the means, isn't it?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well it's more morally ambiguous than that, because of course it does depict how the French paras used torture, got information and destroyed the terrorist infrastructure in the City of Algiers. But also the point of the film is that the French may have won the battle but in the end they lost the war, and in fact it was their resort to torture and resort to these heinous methods that in fact drove most of the population into the terrorists' arms and almost polarized the entire conflict in a way that ensure--ensured that the French could not succeed. Not only did the local population turn against their colonial masters, but I think equally as importantly, the population in metropolitan France, not just the intellectuals in Paris but certainly much of the population was repelled and recoiled at the, at the - really the harsh methods that had to be employed to win the struggle.
BOB GARFIELD:I think you mention in your piece that the Battle of Algiers has actually been used as a kind of instructional video, both by terrorist groups and counter-terrorist organizations. How has it worked that way?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: For terrorist organizations, I think it's been an enormously useful means to develop their trade craft -- in other words their counterintelligence capabilities, to avoid being caught, to give them insight into how the government security forces operate. And we know, for example, that the IRA has viewed it, that the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have studied it. Supposedly the Black Panthers in the United States in the 1960s also studied it. At the same time many military and security services have also watched it. I think what -one of the most, to me, interesting scenes in the film is when Colonel Mathieu depicts this -- what has been described as an organogram -- that is, this -- on the blackboard a sort of pyramid structure with little pyramids within it that indicate the terrorist cells that lead up and narrow down to the master mind orchestrating the terrorist operation. And I think for security forces it's enormously useful to see that's a very timeless message that almost all successful terrorist groups operat--operate on a cellular basis, and that the key is finding the nodes and the connections between the cells and then gradually, systematically, relentlessly bearing down on the head of the organization, and that's what the film is about.
BOB GARFIELD:Pontecorvo's film was so detailed and of such verisimilitude that he actually had to have a, a disclaimer in the beginning saying that there's no documentary footage. How did he get such-- accuracy?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: It was firstly a joint Algerian and Italian production. So in that sense he had access and did the shooting in Algiers in the Casbah in exactly the same locations where this battle was fought. Also, and I think fascinatingly, many of the real life protagonists, many of the terrorists from the 1950s reprise their roles on screen! Pontecorvo himself led a, a partisan brigade in Italy, in Milan in fact, during World War II. So was a guerrilla fighter himself. He knew exactly what he was talking about, and that I think is a key element. You're talking about someone who actually had experience in urban warfare and in street fighting.
BOB GARFIELD: Pauline Kael regarded Battle of Algiers as one of the great anti-war films. Is it an anti-war movie?
BRUCE HOFFMAN:I think what it shows really is just how brutal and how dirty fighting terrorism can become and indeed how dirty and how brutal undeniably terrorism in its-- is in itself. Here you have a democracy - the French Republic - who, willy-nilly almost, slides into the use of these very base and repugnant means. So I think the point of studying this is that eventually any society is confronted with these types of dilemmas, and I think my argument is that it's, it's better to at least take a forward-looking view and begin to consider them and debate them rather than find yourselves boxed into a corner and then adopting things that may prove counterproductive in the long run.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Thank you very much.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Bruce Hoffman is a policy analyst for the Rand Corporation and author of the piece "A Nasty Business" in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly.