On January 11, eleven years to the day after George W. Bush
sent the first detainees to Guantanamo, the Oscar-nominated film
is making its national
is disturbing for two reasons. First and foremost, it leaves the viewer with the erroneous impression that torture helped the CIA find bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan. Secondarily, it ignores both the
illegality and immorality of using torture as an interrogation tool.
The thriller opens with the words “based on first-hand
accounts of actual events.” After showing footage of the horrific 9/11 attacks,
it moves into a graphic and lengthy depiction of torture. The detainee “Ammar”
is subjected to waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and
confined in a small box. Responding to the torture, he divulges the name of the
courier who ultimately leads the CIA to bin Laden’s location and assassination.
It may be good theater, but it is inaccurate and misleading.
The statement “based on first-hand accounts of actual
events” is deceptive because it causes the viewer think the story is accurate. All
it really means, however, is that the CIA provided Hollywood with information
about events depicted in the movie. Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell wrote a
letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in which he admitted the
CIA engaged extensively with the filmmakers.
After receiving his letter, Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and
Carl Levin requested information and documents related to the CIA’s cooperation.
The senators sent a letter to Morrell saying they were
“concerned by the film’s clear implication that information obtained during or
after the use of the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques played a critical
role in locating Usama Bin Laden (UBL).” They noted, “the film depicts CIA
officers repeatedly torturing detainees. The film then credits CIA detainees
subjected to coercive interrogation techniques as providing critical lead
information on the courier that led to the UBL compound.” They state
categorically: “this information is incorrect.”
The letter explains that after a review of more than six
million pages of CIA records, Feinstein and Levin made the following
determination: "The CIA did
not first learn about the existence of the UBL courier from CIA detainees
subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover
the courier’s identity from CIA detainees subjected to coercive techniques.
No CIA detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts,
and no detainee identified the compound in which UBL was hidden.
Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name, and
location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program."
In a speech on the Senate floor, McCain declared, “It was
not torture, or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got
us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find
Osama bin Laden.” McCain added: “In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced
interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheik Mohammed not provide us with the key
leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and
Many high-level interrogators, including Glenn L. Carle, Ali
Soufan and Matthew Alexander, report that torture is actually ineffective and
often interferes with the securing of actual intelligence. A 2006 study by the
National Defense Intelligence College concluded that traditional,
rapport-building interrogation techniques are very effective even with the most
recalcitrant detainees, but coercive tactics create resistance.
Moreover, torture is counter-productive. An interrogator serving in Afghanistan told
Forbes, “I cannot even count the amount of times that I personally have come
face to face with detainees, who told me they were primarily motivated to do
what they did, because of hearing that we committed torture . . . Torture
committed by Americans in the past continues to kill Americans today.”
Torture is also illegal and immoral – important points that
are ignored in Zero Dark Thirty. After witnessing the savage beating of a
detainee at the beginning of the film, the beautiful heroine “Maya” says “I’m
fine.” As he’s leaving Pakistan, Maya’s colleague Dan tells her, “You gotta be
real careful with the detainees now. Politics are changing and you don’t want
to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”
Torture is illegal in all circumstances. The Convention
Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,
a treaty the United States ratified which makes it part of U.S. law, states
unequivocally: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war
or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public
emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” The prohibition of torture
is absolute and unequivocal. Torture is never lawful.
Yet despite copious evidence of widespread torture and abuse
during the Bush administration, and the Constitution’s mandate that the
President enforce the laws, Obama refuses to hold the Bush officials and
lawyers accountable for their law breaking.
Granting impunity to the torturers combined with propaganda
films like Zero Dark Thirty, which
may well win multiple Oscars, dilutes any meaningful public opposition to our
government’s cruel interrogation techniques. Armed with full and accurate
information, we must engage in an honest discourse about torture and abuse, and
hold those who commit those illegal acts fully accountable.