A Look at the ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Torture Controversy

Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty
Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As will always be the case with humanity, the search for black and white answers will come before examining something as a whole and realizing there are several vantage points from which something can be observed. It’s the reason Siskel and Ebert offered thumbs up or thumbs down and the reason RottenTomatoes.com is more popular than MetaCritic.com. Why give me a number that doesn’t say “good” or “bad” when I can look at an arbitrary picture of a ripe tomato or splattered green one? Society wants easy answers to tough questions and when they don’t get them, they look for them and do their very best to fit a square peg into a round hole. Such is the case with Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty… and the film hasn’t even hit theaters yet.

The ridiculousness hit a tipping point on this site when a reader bombard me with everything he “knew” based on what he’d read and/or heard. He links to The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald’s article, which he notes has now been updated after Greenwald finally saw the film. Our commenter then links to The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer’s article, which has been given added weight as Mayer wrote “[amazon asin=”B002RAR10S” text=”The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals”]”.

Both pieces have been widely read and distributed. Greenwald’s argument began before he saw the film. He was upset by what he’d read, later saw the film and after which concluded “the film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned.” Essentially, it fit into the box he created and then some. Considering this confirmation bias, I can’t take him seriously.

Mayer’s piece is interesting in that she is undoubtedly an authority on torture, but she seems more upset the film portrays torture in one way and then doesn’t fit into the box she wants it to fit in:

[W]hat is so unsettling about Zero Dark Thirty is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain, clearly stating that “we first learned about ‘the facilitator / courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.” Panetta wrote that “no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”

The quotes from Panetta’s letter are important to note in the way in which they are worded, and for anyone that has not yet seen the film and doesn’t wish to have the central narrative spoiled may want to avoid the rest of this article as plot details will be revealed.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Keeping the quotes above in mind, I will turn to Emily Bazalon from Slate who describes the torture scene from the beginning of the film and the path it takes to revealing a certain piece of information that proves key to the hunt for Osama bin Laden:

In the long first sequence, we see a man named Amar strung up on ropes; soon, a CIA agent is waterboarding him. Another agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on–it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion…

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain–but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency… Soon we witness a bombing in Saudi Arabia–a bombing Maya and her colleagues were trying to prevent through their interrogation of Amar. They’ve failed. But then Maya has the idea of bluffing. Amar has short-term memory loss due to sleep deprivation (another form of torture) and of course has no access to news. Maya suggests leading him to believe that the Saudi bombing was thwarted because Amar had given up information about the plot. Plying Amar with food and playing on his mental weakness as a result of his torture Maya and her colleague make the subterfuge work. This is the way they get Amar to reveal the name of Bin Laden’s courier. [NOTE: Amar reveals a name, not the actual name of bin Laden’s courier.]

It’s important, I think, that the grim scenes of Amar’s torture do not lead directly to any revelation of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Amar’s torture leads to a name, a possible connection to the al-Qaida leader. And as we learn in a subsequent scene, the existence of that courier was not new to the CIA agents: We see Maya watching tapes of other interrogations, brutal and not, in which this courier is discussed; though he’s called by different names, he’s come up before. The movie thus doesn’t show a vicious act of torture leading straight to a game-changing piece of intelligence, or even a unique piece. After all, the interrogation of Amar takes place in 2004; Bin Laden remained free for seven more years. And yet it’s Amar’s information that feels crucial, because it’s presented as the root of Maya’s obsession with this particular lead. This is the way in which the movie credits torture: It suggests that the tenacious agent who led the hunt wouldn’t have been moved to do so without this piece of information given up by a detainee who’d been tortured.

With that knowledge, let’s go back to Panetta’s letter, which you can read in full right here:

Let me further point out that we first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002. It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier. These attempts to falsify the facilitator/courier’s role were alerting.

In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.

Zero Dark Thirty NEVER diverts from the information above. We never see a CIA detainee reveal “the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts“. We do see them present “false or misleading information” and when he writes “we first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody,” note how it isn’t said that a detainee in CIA never mentions the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre, but simply that they didn’t “first learn” the name from a detainee.

However, I don’t want to discount Mayer’s argument altogether, because there are important factors to take into consideration when dealing with a movie in general and I don’t want to suggest this isn’t an important subject of conversation or that Mayer is completely off base. Following the Panetta quote Mayer writes:

The Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have undermined the film’s version of events further still. “The original lead information had no connection to C.I.A. detainees,” they wrote in their own letter, revealed by the Post last year. Feinstein and Levin noted that a third detainee in C.I.A. custody did provide information on the courier, but, importantly, they stressed that “he did so the day before he was interrogated by the C.I.A. using their coercive interrogation techniques.” In other words, contrary to the plotline of Zero Dark Thirty, and contrary to self-serving accounts of C.I.A. officers implicated in the interrogation program, senators with access to the record say that torture did not produce the leads that led to finding and killing bin Laden.

Again, the “original lead information had no connection to C.I.A. detainees”. Fine, as Bazalon already noted, the reveal from the interrogated detainee was simply what sent Maya on her hunt and was the piece of information she most attached herself to after learning of the name… It doesn’t suggest the “lead” actually came from a CIA detainee. This is a situation in which people are simplifying the plot for their own needs, but at the same time bringing up an important issue.

The larger issue is whether or not a general audience member will watch Zero Dark Thirty and not read between the lines and come out believing torture did in fact lead to vital information that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s one thing to say a film flat out depicts torture as an effective means of searching for information and another to say it can be interpreted that way. Again, it’s the issue of black-and-white versus shades of grey.

What is important to note, however, comes in the second half of what is quoted above where Mayer wrote: “Feinstein and Levin noted that a third detainee in C.I.A. custody did provide information on the courier, but, importantly, they stressed that ‘he did so the day before he was interrogated by the C.I.A. using their coercive interrogation techniques.'”

Zero Dark Thirty begins in 2003 with the torture scene described above and ends with bin Laden’s death in 2011. Nine years are covered in a matter of 157 minutes. To this I want to remind you that everything you see is not exactly as it happened. Yet, people are still grabbing onto quotes, taking them out of context to sell a different story.

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