‘Criminal Minds’ Wins Human Rights Award for Portrayal of Interrogation

New York – This evening Sam Waterston of Law and Order presented Andrew Wilder, the writer/producer of Criminal Minds, with Human Rights First’s inaugural Award for Excellence in Television, honoring the show’s realistic portrayal of interrogation.

Andrew Wilder is available for interview.

Human Rights First created this award in recognition of the impact pop culture, and TV in particular, has had on the way the general public and our junior soldiers in the field view torture and other human rights issues. At the award presentation during Human Rights First’s annual awards dinner in New York City, Waterston explained the impetus for the award: “Since 2001, there has been a virtual explosion of torture on television. Before 2001, Human Rights First estimates there were fewer than four acts of torture on television every year. Now, there are more than100. And it’s not just villains committing these heinous acts – now, good guys are doing the dirty work.”

“Torture on television has a real impact on public opinion and it has influenced the actions of some junior American soldiers in Iraq who imitate the abusive techniques they see on television and in the movies,” said David Danzig, director of Human Rights First’s Primetime Torture Project. “Military educators have told us that the popular depiction of torture now presents an enormous training challenge.”

Criminal Minds’ winning episode, “Lessons Learned,” which was written by active duty FBI agent Jim Clemente, demonstrates that the sophisticated use of non-violent interrogation techniques are more likely to yield credible information than abusive ones. The episode presents a twist on the “ticking time bomb scenario” seen on so many TV shows. Instead of torturing a detainee who has information that could stop the detonation of a biological bomb, Special Agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patankin) talks to him. In the process, he learns more from the suspect in less than 48 hours than CIA interrogators did over weeks, using rougher tactics.

This year’s nominees—Lost, The Closer, Boston Legal, Criminal Minds and The Shield—were reviewed by a panel of judges with wide ranging expertise in intelligence gathering, interrogation and entertainment. The judges include Sidney Lumet, the film director; Ken Bacon, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense; Joe Navarro, a former FBI interrogator and supervisor; and Tony Lagouranis, a former U.S. Army interrogator.

The nominees offer audiences a different view of what happens in the interrogation room than the typical TV formulation that suggests violence and coercion are effective intelligence gathering methods. Some like The Closer and Criminal Minds present an interrogator who “closes” cases without ever resorting to physical violence. Others like LOST and The Shield explore what can go wrong when interrogators turn to torture to get answers.

Along with an increase in the sheer number of scenes of torture, since 9/11, the way torture is shown on TV has also changed, Human Rights First has found. It used to be almost exclusively the bad guys who tortured people on TV. But today, heroes like Jack Bauer on 24 and Sydney Bristow on Alias use abusive interrogation methods regularly. And when the heroes use torture it almost always works.

On many TV shows today, torture is portrayed the same way every time. The hero stabs, punches, shoots, chokes or otherwise abuses a suspect who had been unwilling to talk. Seconds after the abuse begins the captive invariably reveals critical secrets.

“In the real world, torture does not work like that. Overwhelming evidence shows that the use of violence and coercion in interrogation actually hinders the ability to get good information,” continued Danzig. “Unfortunately, you rarely see what does work. Very few shows take the time to truly explore the issue.”

In determining the winner, judges considered:

· How the program will be viewed by junior members of the armed services who are training for a career in the armed forces. Will this program encourage them to handle detainees humanely and interrogate them creatively within the guidelines set out by the Department of Defense? Will it make them consider the ramifications of treating suspects poorly/well?

· How thought provoking is the program? Does it cause the audience to think more about what could happen when torture is used in interrogations? Or does it suggest that interrogators can crack cases – and suspects who are determined not to talk – without resorting to torture?

· How will the program be viewed by audiences overseas? What does it say about the United States?

· How much is the drama tied to questions of fairness/justice/accountability or other rights issues related to interrogation and/or torture?

Television programs that aired on network and cable during primetime in the Fall 2006 and/or the Spring, 2007 are eligible for the award. Nominations were based on particular episodes, a theme that is explored over a series of episodes or for an entire season.

Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C.


Published on October 15, 2007


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