An important problem with the narrative line of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the Central Intelligence Agency’s quest for Usama Bin Laden, is not just that it comes across as pro-torture but that it ignores the elephant in the room: Bad intelligence elicited by torture almost derailed that quest to put down al-Qaeda by diverting most resources to Iraq.
“Zero Dark Thirty” stands in a long line of Hollywood-Washington collaborations that essentially do the work of propaganda. The lineage includes Michael Curtiz’s 1942 “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart, which was produced under the Office of War Information’s guidelines; the director assigned it the government-prescribed theme of “III B (United Nations — Conquered Nations) Drama,” as Tanfer Emin Tunc argues.
The film is misleading precisely because it does what the Bush administration did not do. It stays with Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda. At one point a CIA official complains that there are no other working groups concentrating on al-Qaeda, that it is just the handful of field officers around the table. But he does not say that the Bush administration ran off to Iraq and closed down the Bin Laden desk at the CIA. Nor do any of the characters admit that bad intelligence, including that gathered by torture, helped send the United States off on the Great Iraq Wild Goose Chase.
I care about this issue in part for reasons of my own biography. As a Baby Boomer who was against the Vietnam War, I had never had much to do with the US government until the September 11 attacks. Had I not been on the doorstep of 50 when they took place, I might well have enlisted. I felt 9/11 profoundly, to my very soul, and was depressed about it for years. I wanted to do what I could to understand al-Qaeda and help destroy it. When RAND and other providers of speakers in Washington asked me to come out and talk to analysts from various government agencies, I was pleased to do it. At the time, Arabists and Islam experts in the US were not so numerous, and pernicious self-proclaimed experts had proliferated. There was a lot of Islamophobia around, and most Americans who did not know the Middle East first hand did not realize that al-Qaeda was a tiny fringe, not representative of Islam.
I don’t know if all those talks I gave in DC to inter-agency audiences were ever useful in fighting al-Qaeda, but I certainly hope so, and I was proud to do my bit in presenting an informed and analytical approach to fighting the phenomenon. I was trying to model for them social analysis as academics understand it. I was also honored to address people who were doing their best to confront a major security challenge.
But because I saw the Iraq War as a distraction from the fight against al-Qaeda, and was vocal about critiquing its prosecution, the Bush White House decided that it did not want me consulting in DC and tried to have me blackballed. The Bushies were fine with a phalanx of quacks and phony experts descending on the capital to charge millions for their crazed schemes. But having someone come to town who knew whereof he spoke was intolerable. In the end, the White House asked the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA to find dirt on me and try to destroy my reputation.
Bush and Cheney exploited al-Qaeda and the threat of terrorism to erode civil liberties at home and to reshape Iraq and its oil riches abroad. But they weren’t that interested in actually finding Bin Laden or rolling up al-Qaeda. Someone like myself, who could see that Iraq was a massive train wreck and that it actually prolonged al-Qaeda’s significance, was most inconvenient in 2005 and 2006.
So, I mind the the narrative of “Zero Dark Thirty” for personal reasons. It leaves out a key obstacle to the quest it recounts. Some of what is wrong with the film may derive from its beginnings, as a story about how the quest for Bin Laden failed. That premise had to be changed after May 2, 2011, of course. But a film that began with an exploration of failure should have highlighted the Iraq distraction and the bad intel from torture all the more.
I made this point when al-Qaeda operative Ibn Shaykh al-Libi died in a Qaddafi prison in 2009:
The best refutation of Dick Cheney’s insistence that torture was necessary and useful in dealing with threats from al-Qaeda just died in a Libyan prison. See also Andy Worthington.
Al-Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured trying to escape from Afghanistan in late 2001. He was sent to Egypt to be tortured, and under duress alleged that Saddam Hussein was training al-Qaeda agents in chemical weapons techniques. It was a total crock, and alleged solely to escape further pain. Al-Libi disavowed the allegation when he was returned to CIA custody. But Cheney and Condi Rice ran with the single-source, torture-induced assertion and it was inserted by Scooter Libby in Colin Powell’s infamous speech to the United Nations.
If torture can mislead you into launching a war that results in hundreds of thousands of deaths, then it should be avoided, quite apart from the fact that it is illegal and that the United States is signatory to binding treaties specifying its illegality. (It is coming out that Bush-Cheney’s own CIA Inspector-General expressed the view that the Bush-era torture was medically unsound, did not produce the desired results, and contravened the UN Convention against torture.
Here is what Condi Rice told the Lehrer News Hour in 2002, based on the torture-induced statements of the late al-Libi:
‘ “We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of Al Qaeda going back for actually quite a long time,” Rice said. “We know too that several of the [Al Qaeda] detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to Al Qaeda in chemical weapons development.” ‘
In my book, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East, I note that Gen. Bonaparte forbade the use of torture by French military interrogators in Cairo, on the grounds that it produced too much misinformation. Napoleon was not exactly squeamish. And even he would have been ashamed of the crew we had in Washington before last January.
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Critics such as Glenn Greenwald argued that the film assumes that torture yielded key intelligence, especially the identity of Bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti. Most intelligence officials say that the al-Kuwaiti lead did not come from waterboarding or other torture techniques,
In the end, I’m not entirely sure that the film shows torture succeeding for the CIA. In fact, al-Kuwaiti’s identity is confirmed by other techniques in the film. In one instance a man (“Ammar”) who was tortured to no effect is tricked into believing that he had already given up operational information. This kind of technique is called in intelligence work ‘false flag tradecraft,’ i.e. fooling an informant by feeding him or her a set of false premises. In part, this success comes from a rapport the man made with “Maya,” the relentless woman field officer. Again, in real life interrogations, such rapport and such false flag techniques are always more successful than torture.
In another scene, a Pakistani man who is interrogated begins by saying that he had been tortured in the past by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, and is willing to cooperate to avoid further mistreatment at American hands. I suppose that exchange serves as a suggestion that torture works in the long run, but what he gives the Americans is this case freely given.
The screenplay does, nevertheless, have a fascination with torture, and implies at several points its utility, as Karen Greenberg showed in these pages last week. Thus, when al-Kuwaiti’s true identity is established, a field officer complains that it can no longer be double-checked with detainees because President Obama had closed down the torture program. This odd complaint assumes that detainees who had protected his identity despite years of abuse and brutalization would have fingered al-Kuwaiti if only waterboarded a few times more.
That torture was ineffective in tracing Bin Laden was confirmed by Senator John McCain.
McCain wrote in 2011,
“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. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda. In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.”
McCain was tortured while a POW in Vietnam and is among the few prominent American politicians to stand forthrightly against what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did in committing the US to war crimes. He is a critic of the film, and I think his view of this matter should be taken extremely seriously.
I did not like “Zero Dark Thirty” as a film. I found it emotionally thin, grim and relentless. It failed to establish an emotional connection to any of the characters, or to flesh them out as characters. The violence is deployed for the purposes of surprise rather than suspense, so that its dramatic effect is limited. It is episodic (we know that the Islamabad Marriott was blown up; shouldn’t the film present a theory as to why?) Any suspense is further blunted by our lack of connection to the protagonist. Whereas in “Argo,” my heart was in my mouth when the embassy employees were in danger, I just couldn’t summon that kind of interest in Jessica Chastain’s “Maya.” The characters remain undeveloped because this film is plot driven, but also because it is primarily didactic, intended to send a message. Unfortunately, instead of glorifying the genuine heroes who have mostly rolled up al-Qaeda (an evil organization that wants to kill your children), it covers many of them with the shame of war crimes.