Was torture – hard, mean, waterboarding torture – key to finding and ultimately killing Osama bin Laden in his final hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan? Depending on how you interpret director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty, the answer is either “yes,” it most assuredly was, or the implication is a lie worthy of Congressional intervention.
Though the film won’t have wide distribution until after the new year, it’s already winning awards, stirring Oscar buzz, and, in a strange twist for a high-profile film, drawing serious heat from government insiders who believe the director has played fast and loose with the facts to propagate a “torture myth” (as some have called it) that impugns the integrity of the intelligence program and sullies the actual work of those involved in the bin Laden capture. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), Carl Levin (D- Mich) and John McCain (R-Ariz) have made it their mission to push back against Hollywood on this subject.
Zero Dark Thirty follows the insular, frustrating and exceedingly dangerous world of CIA operatives working in Pakistan in the years and days leading up to bin Laden’s capture on May 1, 2011. Relentless in both its pacing and plotline, the film opens with actual sounds from 9/11 and a title card that reads, “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” With that set-up, it’s clear this is going to be a true story and though we know the ending, the gripping lead-in is what we’re here to see: actual events. We slam immediately into a series of scenes involving torture of the kind found in the stunning footage and photography from Abu Ghraib: waterboarding, dog collars, sleep deprivation, loud heavy metal music, etcetera. Meted out with seemingly little moral equivocation by “Dan,” the apparent “torture leader” of the group played by Jason Clark, we, the audience, along with lead actress, Jessica Chastain, who plays “Maya,” the CIA operative recruited out of high school who’s spent the last 12 years in pursuit of bin Laden, are forced to view this gut-churning series of scenes to the point of viewer exhaustion. The depiction of torture–and particularly the plot point that suggests it ultimately resulted in actionable intelligence that led to the courier who led to bin Laden–is at the heart of the Congressional ire.
The weighty group of bipartisan Senators believes the torture scenes and the implication they were vital to success are not only inaccurate, but unconscionable. To that end, Senator Feinstein, as Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Levin, as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator McCain, as Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have sent a letter to Michael Lynton, the Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment (which produced Zero Dark Thirty) to make clear their complaint:
“Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden [sic]. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.
“Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden [sic] is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.”
The letter then details the salient facts the film gets wrong (emphasizing the “based on first-hand accounts of actual facts” introduction and what that instruction implies), suggesting that the power of film has the “potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner,” concluding with a request for studio intervention:
“Please consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Usama Bin Laden [sic]. It did not.”
[To read the full letter, click here.]
While other senators have thrown in with their colleagues, and as journalists take up the banner with their own scathing reviews (The New Yorker has a piece titled “Zero Conscience In ‘Zero Dark Thirty’” that guts the film as historically inaccurate on the torture issue and void of the complexity needed to debate America’s detention program), there are others who have a different view.
Former CIA Clandestine Service Chief, Jose Rodriguez, wrote a op-ed in The Washington Post back in May, 2012, stating that while President Obama can be rightfully credited for bin Laden’s capture, he was led there by the work of intelligence operatives who did glean useful information by way of torture:
In 2004, an al-Qaeda terrorist was captured trying to communicate with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the terror organization’s operations in Iraq. That captured terrorist was taken to a secret CIA prison — or “black site” — where, initially, he was uncooperative. After being subjected to some “enhanced interrogation techniques” — techniques authorized by officials at the most senior levels of the U.S. government and that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel confirmed were consistent with U.S. law — the detainee became compliant. He was not one of the three al-Qaeda operatives who underwent waterboarding, the harshest of the hard measures.
Once this terrorist decided that non-cooperation was a non-starter, he told us many things — including that bin Laden had given up communicating via telephone, radio or Internet, and depended solely on a single courier who went by “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.” At the time, I was chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. The fact that bin Laden was relying on a lone courier was a revelation that told me bin Laden had given up day-to-day control of his organization. […]
A couple of years later, after I became head of the National Clandestine Service, the CIA was able to discover the true name of the courier. Armed with that information, the agency worked relentlessly to locate that man. Finding him eventually led to tracking down and killing bin Laden.
After Rodriguez’s op-ed came out (he is also the author of Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives), Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain shot down his depiction of events, as well. From a Mother Jones article on the brouhaha:
In May of last year, just after bin Laden was killed, the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent obtained a letter sent to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) from then-CIA Director Leon Panetta. The letter clearly states that “we first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002,” and that “no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”
Panetta’s version of events is bolstered by a letter released by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) earlier this week, which stated, “The original lead information had no connection to CIA detainees.” Feinstein and Levin noted a third detainee in CIA custody did provide information on the courier, but “he did so the day before he was interrogated by the CIA using their coercive interrogation techniques.”
Apparently it comes down, at least for the moment, to whom you believe.
There are other voices who have jumped into the mix: (journalist Mark Bowden’s book, The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, also reports that torture played a role in eliciting crucial information that led to the courier) and, as some have pointed out, given that Senator Feinstein, as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has been investigating the Bush-era “enhanced” interrogation techniques, it’s likely the truth of the matter will be uncovered at some point. For now we’re left to consider if all of it equates good filmmaking or, as Michael Tomasky mentions in his Daily Beast piece on the topic, if it’s “terror porn.”
I saw the film opening day (December 19th) in Los Angeles and, as the Senators have stated, the set-up with its declaration of “actual facts” leaves little room for an interpretation of creative license – or, at the very least, clarity about which parts may or may not be “actual facts.” The torture scenes jump-start the film and place us as reluctant witnesses to activity that is both repugnant and inhumane.
Interestingly, the plot makes clear that the actionable intelligence that leads to the oft-mentioned courier is only acquired after they stop torturing the victim and move to a more “relaxed” technique of cleaning, clothing and feeding him. Creative license there or “first-hand accounts of actual events”? Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who have said “it’s a movie not a documentary,” were asked for an interview by The Huffington Post but they declined. They did, however, release this statement:
This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a two-and-a-half-hour film. We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes. One thing is clear: the single greatest factor in finding the world’s most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort. We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it.
Whatever is or isn’t true, it is a compelling, well-acted and brutally frank film. Until the “torture debate” is brought to a definitive conclusion, it will be left up to the audience to take from both sides what might resonate, then either be outraged or entertained. It’s a powerful enough film that either option will offer the viewer a profound movie-going experience about a pivotal moment in American history. The rest remains to be seen.