Does Zero Dark Thirty Advocate Torture?
How to understand the film’s controversial stand on waterboarding and the hunt for Bin Laden.
I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden—as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured.
As Mukasey and McCain faced off over KSM’s role in finding Bin Laden, New York Times reporters Charlie Savage and Scott Shane were piecing together the most authoritative reporting on the trail that led to Bin Laden. They asked “Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?” Their answer: “a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out. One detainee who apparently was subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations.”
In the Savage-Shane account, that detainee was not KSM, but an al-Qaida operative named Hassan Ghul. They write, “Mr. Ghul told interrogators that Mr. Kuwaiti was a trusted courier who was close to Bin Laden, as well as to Mr. Mohammed and to Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who had become the operational chief of Al Qaeda after Mr. Mohammed’s capture.” And they tell us:
The details of Mr. Ghul’s treatment are unclear, though the C.I.A. says he was not waterboarded. The C.I.A. asked the Justice Department to authorize other harsh methods for use on him, but it is unclear which were used. One official recalled that Mr. Ghul was “quite cooperative,” saying that rough treatment, if any, would have been brief.
Ghul must be the man Zero Dark Thirty calls Amar. And in that case, Bigelow and Boal “strayed from real life,” as Dexter Filkins put it in his New Yorker piece about the filmmakers, by including waterboarding among the techniques used on Amar. But unless I’m missing something, that’s all I can fault Bigelow and Boal for with real certainty. The rest of the “rough treatment” they showed could well have happened based on what’s publically known. (It does not seem that the Amar/Ghul figure is the person McCain refers to as the not-tortured original source of Kuwaiti’s role: In other news stories, that initial tip comes from another source entirely and is buried for years in the CIA’s files. This is the movie’s version, too: A young agent who idolizes Maya turns up this lost fact and brings it to her attention later in the movie.)
Why did Bigelow and Boal make the fraught decision to suggest that waterboarding was crucial to the capture of Bin Laden? Asked about the role torture plays in the movie, they have been somewhat disingenuous. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program,” Boal told Filkins. Bigelow said “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” I think she’s fooling herself. Dick Cheney probably will like this movie, not because it completely vindicates his version of events—that torture was essential to the war on terror and President Obama was a naive fool to shut it down—but because you emerge from the movie feeling that torture did factor into Maya’s hunch that the courier would lead to Bin Laden.
My own theory is that with perhaps more access to the real-life CIA agents who hunted Bin Laden than any journalist has had, Boal and Bigelow adopted their sources’ interpretation, in which the “small role” played by torture looms larger than it does in the journalistic accounts. The filmmakers didn’t set out to be Bush-Cheney apologists. But they adopted a close-to-the-ground point of view, and perhaps they’re in denial about how far down the path to condoning torture this led them. (Surely it didn’t hurt that the scenes with Amar are as riveting—as pure cinema—as they are disturbing.)
All of this means that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the movie the left wanted made about the death of Bin Laden. But as the debate about the movie unfolds, we opponents of harsh interrogation need to remember that we can make the moral case against torture—and even the cost-benefit case that it’s not worth the trade-off in reputation, political capital, and honor—without resorting to the claim that torture never accomplishes anything. In his op-ed, John McCain also said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear.” That’s the unfortunate, uncomfortable truth. But we can make room for a little gray and still come to a conclusion—the United States should not torture—that is resolute.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.