‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Not Pro-Torture

By Mark Bowden


The question of whether “enhanced interrogations” work is separate from whether they’re moral—a distinction Kathryn Bigelow’s film, but not all of its critics, understands.



There are two ugly interrogation scenes in the opening minutes of Zero Dark Thirty that haunt the rest of the experience, and that have come to haunt critical reception of the film itself.

After we hear the terrified voices of Americans trapped on the upper floors of the burning towers on 9/11 against a black screen, the movie opens on a character named Ammar, suspended from the ceiling by chains attached to both wrists. It is two years later. Ammar is bloody, filthy, and exhausted. We learn quickly that he is an Al Qaeda middleman, and a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, architect of the 9/11 attacks. Ammar is believed to know details of a pending attack in Saudi Arabia, and he is uncooperative.

His brutal questioning by CIA officer Daniel is uncomfortable to watch. It is cruel and ultimately futile. As his tormenters fold him into a small punishment box, demanding the day of the attack, Ammar murmurs “Saturday,” then, “Sunday,” then, “Monday,” then, “Thursday,” then, “Friday.”

In the script, referring to the frustrated Daniel, the scene closes with the words, “Once again, he’s learned nothing.”

The subsequent Saudi attacks occur. Daniel accepts responsibility for the failure, along with his new associate, the film’s heroine Maya. This is all in the first minutes of the movie. Torture has been tried, and it has failed. It is Maya then who then proposes something different. Why not trick him?

And it is cleverness, coated with kindness, that produces something useful. It is too late to stop the Saudi attack, but Ammar offers them a name. More correctly, a pseudonym, what in Arabic is called a “kunya,” a nom de guerre: Abu Ahmad al-Kuwait, the father of Ahmed from Kuwait. Maya doesn’t know it yet—indeed, she won’t find out for years—but this is the first small clue on the long trail to Abbottabad.

Zero Dark Thirty, by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, is an extraordinarily impressive dramatization of the 10-year-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, one that I wrote about in far more detail in my book The Finish. Warmly praised by many film critics (The Atlantic’s Chris Orr named it the best film of 2012) and so far a box office hit (it goes into wide release on January 11), it is sure to be in the running for major recognition during the coming awards season. But it has also been attacked by some viewers as a false version of the story that effectively advocates for the use of torture. Those viewers argue that the film, while brilliant, shows torture to have played an important role in finding bin Laden, which they say is not true. It is reminiscent of the late movie critic Pauline Kael’s memorable putdown of director Sam Peckinpah as a virtuoso of “fascist” art.

This no doubt comes as a shock to Bigelow, whom I have never met, but who has been described to me as the kind of gentle soul who “would stoop to lift a snail off the sidewalk.”

The criticism is unfair, and its reading of both the film and the actual story seems willfully mistaken. Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America’s messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is right to portray that fact.

A screenplay is more like a sonnet than a novel. Action on screen unfolds with visceral immediacy, but any story with sweep—this one takes place over nearly a decade—can only be told with broad impressionistic strokes. The challenge is greater when trying to tell a true story. The interrogation scenes in the beginning color the entire tale, but they are necessary. They are part of the story. Without them, I suspect some of the same critics now accusing it of being pro-torture would instead be calling Zero Dark Thirty a whitewash.

The charge that the film is pro-torture is easy to debunk. I have already noted the dramatic failure depicted in the opening scenes with Ammar. The futility of the approach is part of the more general organizational failure depicted in the movie’s first half, culminating in a dramatization of the tragic 2009 bombing of Camp Chapman, in Khost, Afghanistan, where an Al Qaeda infiltrator wiped out an entire CIA field office. The agency is shown to be not only failing to find bin Laden and dismantle Al Qaeda, but on the losing end of the fight. In case the point hasn’t been made clearly enough, a visit from an angry CIA chief to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan in the next scene underlines it:

“There’s nobody else, hidden away on some other floor,” he says. “This is just us. And we are failing. We’re spending billions of dollars. People are dying. We’re still no closer to the defeating out enemy.”

The work that leads to Abbottabad in the second half of the film unfolds as dramatic detective work in the office and the field, and ends with a faithful and detailed reenactment of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. Through it all, Maya is playing a long game, in dogged pursuit of a lead, battling those in command more preoccupied with short-term goals—finding and killing Al Qaeda operational figures. Torture is presented as part of this story, something Maya accepts. But it’s also shown to be at best only marginally useful, and both politically and morally toxic.

So, how true is it? It was a mistake for those involved in the film to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty is “journalistic,” and to have touted their access to SEAL team members and CIA field officers. No matter how remarkable their research and access, the film spills no state secrets. No movie can tell a story like this without aggressively condensing characters and events, fictionalizing dialogue, etc. Boal’s script is just 102 pages: fewer than 10,000 words, the length of a longish magazine article.

Within these limits the film is remarkably accurate, and certainly well within what we all understand by the Hollywood label, “based on a true story,” which works as both a boast and a disclaimer. There was apparently was a female CIA field officer who performed heroic service in the 10-year hunt for bin Laden, and whose fixation on “Ahmed from Kuwait” helped steer the effort to success. In the film she is seen butting heads with an intelligence bureaucracy that regards her fixation on Ahmed as wishful thinking. This makes for some dramatic scenes, and gives Jessica Chastain a great many chances to brood with ethereal intensity. The real life “Maya” may have been even more lovely and tenacious, but she was just one of many officers and analysts focused on “Ahmed,” in an agency that never stopped regarding him as an important lead. The Saudi attacks in the beginning of the film, identified as the “Khobar Towers” incident, actually occurred in 1996, six years prior to the action in the film. The raid itself involved four helicopters, two Chinooks and two Black Hawks, not the three Black Hawks shown. Key planning sessions that happened in the White House Situation Room, chaired by President Obama, are depicted as having happened at Langley with CIA director Leon Panetta. Indeed, those who have accused the current administration of rolling out the red carpet for Bigelow and Boal in the hopes of hyping its role may be surprised to find that the president, whose participation was central throughout, has been almost completed edited out. The list could go on, but so could the list of fudged details for any film “based on a true story,” whether it’s the Jerry Bruckheimer/Ridley Scott version of my book Black Hawk Down or Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Everyone understands the rules of this game. Theater is theater, not a scrupulous presentation of fact. We ought to feel betrayed only when filmmakers depart egregiously and deliberately from the record, as Oliver Stone so often has done, substituting what he thinks might be true or perhaps would like to be true for what is known. Reality, after all, is messy and only rarely lines up neatly enough for a two-hour script. Hollywood’s “true story” aims only to color safely inside the lines of history.

In this broader sense, Zero Dark Thirty is remarkably true. The hunt for bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders began with efforts that were clumsy, costly, and cruel. We wrongly invaded Iraq, for instance. We stupidly embraced a regime of torture in our military prisons. Some of the steps we took were tragic and are likely to endure as national embarrassments. But tactics, priorities, personnel, and even administrations changed over those years. The nation learned how to fight this new enemy intelligently. Through it all, the search for bin Laden proceeded with bureaucracy’s unique talent for obduracy. This isn’t as sexy or dramatic as watching Jessica Chastain paling before the stink and blood of rough interrogation, a red-tressed Ahab pursuing her white whale through bullets, bombs, and boneheaded bosses … but it stays within the lines.

As for the real story, the question of what role torture played is more difficult. I wrote about coercive interrogation at length in this magazine—“The Dark Art of Interrogation,” in October, 2003. I argued then, before the revelations of Abu Ghraib and other scandals, that the use of such morally repugnant tactics may yield important information and may even be morally compelling in certain rare circumstances, but that it ought to be banned and that interrogators who practiced it should do so only at risk of being disciplined or prosecuted. The word “torture” itself is pejorative, in that it equates keeping a prisoner awake with the most sordid practices of The Inquisition. But even mild pressure does tend to lead rapidly to severe mistreatment, as we saw during the Bush administration, which made the mistake of authorizing it, a step that predictably led to tragic and widespread abuses. These have been ably documented by, for one, Alex Gibney (a prominent critic of Zero Dark Thirty) in his stirring documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, and by tenacious journalists like Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer, not to mention by the candid and devastating snapshots of depraved American military jailors.

Dick Cheney and others have argued that this coercive regimen produced vital information that prevented terror attacks. So far we have only their word for it, and plenty of other informed voices that contradict it. I do not know the answer, although the reluctance of the current professedly anti-torture administration to explore and punish past abuses may suggest such practices were not altogether useless. The one thing that is certain is that they happened, and on a large scale. The abuses became such a scandal that the Bush administration itself halted the use of coercive methods in 2004. But by then the early interrogations that put “Ahmed from Kuwait” on the CIA’s radar had all happened, and nearly all had involved torture.

These are facts. Critics of these practices, and of the film, now find themselves in the curious position of arguing that torture played no role in the intelligence-gathering that led to Abbottabad. This is presumably because if the opposite were true, then the hunt’s successful outcome might lead weak minds to conclude that torture has been proved effective.

Their logic has become, forgive the word, tortured. The key interrogation that focused the CIA’s attention on “Ahmed” concerned Mohammed al-Qhatani, whose relentless months-long ordeal was detailed in a particularly gruesome Wikileaks disclosure and prompted the Defense Department to rewrite its guidelines for interrogation—part of that overall course correction in 2004. Qhatani said that “Ahmed” was a key Al Qaeda player and one of bin Laden’s prime couriers, a fact that elevated him to high importance in the search. Those who now say that torture played no role in Qhatani’s revelations argue that he offered the information before the rough stuff started. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll accept it for argument’s sake. It hardly removes torture from the mix. The essential ingredient in any coercive interrogation is not the actual infliction of pain or discomfort, but fear. There can be little doubt that far before Qhatani was actually tortured, he knew damn well that he was in trouble. In Zero Dark Thirty, “Ammar,” who is a fictional amalgam, gives up the name after, not during, his torture sessions. Does this mean that the prior pain and discomfort played no role? In either case, real or fictional, torture creates a context. It creates fear. The only way to know if Qhatani would have been cooperative without being pressured is to have conducted a torture-free interrogation, which did not happen.

Fear was a part of the climate of American interrogations in those years. In a May 2007 Atlantic story entitled “The Ploy,” I detailed the clever and essentially nonviolent interrogation of a detainee in Iraq that led to the successful targeting of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The story was later told in even greater detail in a book, How to Break a Terrorist, by the interrogator himself, who wrote under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander and offered the story as proof that an artful interrogator need not employ coercion. Yet the detainee in his own story voluntarily submitted to questioning in part to avoid being sent to Abu Ghraib, which by then had a fearful reputation.

The most prominent among those who now insist torture played no part in the bin Laden hunt are Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain. All three serve on congressional committees with access to classified material and are in a position to know what they are talking about. Indeed, in a letter protesting Zero Dark Thirty to Sony Chairman Michael Lynton last month, they claim to have reviewed “six million pages” of intelligence records, which may help explain why Congress has such a hard time getting anything done.

But there is lawyerly subtlety here. In the letter, they raise the rather fine point about the timing of Qhatani’s mention of “Ahmed” as proof that torture was not involved, and write that the CIA “did not first learn” of the courier’s existence “from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.” True. They first heard the name from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested in 2001 at the behest of American authorities and questioned in that country and in Jordan. He says he was tortured. I believe him. Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, another critic of the film’s veracity, has been more careful. He does not deny that torture is part of the story, although he uses different words to describe it:

“Some [information leading to bin Laden] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well,” he wrote. “And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”

Torture is part of the story, but not a key part of it. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture.

I’m with Morrell on this. Torture is part of the story, but not a key part of it, just as the film depicts. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture. It makes a poor case for torture because neither of the original sources, Slahi nor Qhatani, necessarily realized they were giving up something terribly important by naming “Ahmed from Kuwait.” It’s doubtful they even knew who he really was. Neither they nor their questioners could have imagined that “Ahmed” would end up sheltering bin Laden in Abbottabad. Khalid Sheik Mohammed could not have known this either, but he certainly realized the man’s importance. Despite repeated waterboarding, he lied about “Ahmed.” So much for torture producing a breakthrough. Ironically, Mohammed’s mendacity—his claim contradicted everyone else’s—further piqued the agency’s interest. Under torture he lied, but his lies helped.

We don’t know much about the key breakthrough that led to bin Laden. That came years later, when the CIA was finally able to connect the pseudonym “Ahmed from Kuwait” with a real person, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In the film this moment is handled perfunctorily. A young CIA officer simply hands the information to Maya and says, “It’s him,” explaining that she happened across the nugget while “painstakingly” reviewing “old files.” My sources at CIA refused to say how the connection was actually made, saying only that it involved sources from “a third country.” One high level agency official told me, “You could write a book about how we [did it].” The agency says torture was not involved, and there’s no evidence to suggest it was.

If you start the story of finding bin Laden from there, and only from there, then the hunt was torture-free. It’s almost a passable argument. Until then, after all, “Ahmed from Kuwait” was just one insubstantial lead among many, just a semi-fact in an ocean of facts. But torture was in the room when that semi-fact was delivered up, and belongs in any truthful telling of it.

Gibney, an especially influential critic given his standing as a filmmaker and as a principled opponent of such methods, agrees that it was right for Bigelow and Boal to show the torture, but argues that they ought to have used these scenes to more clearly demonstrate how futile and “ridiculous” such tactics were. He sees the subject of torture as “one of the great moral issues of our times,” and views this story as one that could have made a strong argument against the use of torture. Bigelow and Boal might well agree with him about this. If the film leans in any direction on the subject, it is in this one. Gibney doesn’t see it that way. He is a passionate artist, and makes films that are shaped by his convictions. That is a fine thing to do. But pure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It is can be simply about telling the truth. Because torture was in the mix during all of the early interrogations, it would be wrong to ignore it, and impossible to say it had no effect.

The truth about torture itself is not clear-cut. Those who argue that it simply does not work go well beyond saying that it is wrong. They may not even consider it a moral question. After all, if threatening or mistreating a detainee will always fail to produce useful intelligence, who other than a sadist would bother? I am not convinced. I think the moral question arises precisely because torture, or fear, can be an effective tool in interrogation. If we as a nation ban it, we do so despite that fact. We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy.

That is not the choice our nation made back in 2001, when this story begins. The fear that contaminated our military prisons in subsequent years became a scandal. It would be very neat to conclude that it was not only wrong, but useless. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t do that, nor should you.


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