Zero Dark Thirty
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By Gary Kern


The Montréal Review, February 2013


The phrase Zero Dark Thirty is mysterious and ominous, but meaningless to anyone unfamiliar with the lingo of the United States Armed Forces. Kathryn Bigelow, director of the film with this title, explained on the CBS This Morning show that Zero Dark Thirty is a military term designating thirty minutes past midnight. Neither she nor screenwriter Mark Boal chose to reveal this meaning in the film, so moviegoers were left in the dark. That apparently was the desired effect.

In contrast to the title, the subject of the film is known to practically everyone in the world with access to the mass media. On 1 May 2011, a United States Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) team killed Osama bin Laden (OBL) at his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was Sunday night in America and early Monday morning of 2 May in Pakistan, or, roughly, ZDT. Specifically, a little past 1 a.m.

I went to see ZDT because of the controversy surrounding its depiction of the interrogation methods used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in its hunt for the Al Qaeda (AQ) leader. The film begins with blurry white images and a caption: "This film is based on first-hand accounts of actual events." Such a caption implies that we will see a true story, yet the phrase "is based on" allows for fictionalization. The fine ambiguity protects the screenwriter and director from outright refutation. If anything doubtful appears in the film it can be considered either newly revealed by unidentified "first-hand accounts," or allowed by artistic license.

The advance publicity for the film put the emphasis on factuality: "Witness the greatest manhunt in history. The story you think you know - This is how it happened." And why should we think we know the story? Well, it must be because there were many news reports when OBL was killed, and many detailed accounts of how it happened soon followed.

To mention but a few, Leon Panetta, then current director of the CIA; Michael Hayden, previous director; Dick Cheney, former vice president; and a dozen other high officials from both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations went on TV in the first week after the event to give their perspective on the ten-year search for OBL. In September, the History Channel presented a documentary film, Targeting Bin Laden, in which President Obama, Hayden and National Security Advisor John Brennan, among other officials and intelligence experts, served as "talking heads" to narrate the events of "Operation Geronimo" step by step.

Last September SEAL team commando Mark Owen published a book, No Ordinary Day, and appeared on CBS 60 Minutes for the hour to walk host Scott Pelley and television viewers through the operation, using a table-sized mockup of the compound and toy helicopters. Owen (a literary pseudonym) said that he did not pass his manuscript through the usual CIA vetting process, because he wanted to tell the unexpurgated truth. He disclosed that he was not the first to shoot OBL, but did plug a number of safety shots into the old sheikh as he lay wounded on the floor. He gave slightly different details of the story told before him, so we had a variety of first-hand accounts before we turned to the film. We didn't think we knew the whole story, but we thought we knew a lot.

We could, of course, regard the caption and promotional blurbs as Hollywood hype were the film just another takeoff on a historical subject - say, the death of Adolf Hitler, the sexual escapades of Marilyn Monroe and President Kennedy, or some other story remote from present concerns that could be treated dramatically and even absurdly without affecting public opinion.

But we cannot dismiss ZDT as "just a movie," because the subject in question is the matter of torture, its use by the United States in the war on terror and its efficacy in eliciting actionable intelligence from suspects on whom it was applied. A blockbuster film that grosses $36 million domestically in its first week and becomes a media phenomenon in its second will reach millions of people and influence public opinion before it ends its run in the theaters and begins its afterlife in DVDs and endless TV reruns. So if it claims today to be the true story and shows torture as an effective tool in interrogation, it should be tested against the facts as we know them.

The Heroine

After the opening caption, there follows a black screen with actual recorded sounds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the voices of victims screaming, again emphasizing the idea of documental veracity. Then comes another caption: "Two years later." So the action of the film begins in 2003, with the memory of the terrorist victims fresh in mind. Now comes the acting part, the "docudrama."

The first location is a CIA "black site," one of those secret prisons abroad to which the Agency took captive suspects for indeterminate detention and unwitnessed interrogation. The hero of the film shows up, or rather, the heroine. It is Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, a newcomer to the CIA investigative team tasked to find OBL. She has a plain face with good bone structure, long orange hair and a completely blank expression. She wears jeans and a tee-shirt, just like the guys. The team (and the audience) is told nothing about her, save that she is tough as nails. She observes the interrogations, follows the leads and sticks with the quest while her male colleagues drift away one by one to other problems and concerns. Eventually she becomes a lone zealot staying the course while others have moved on.

Her boss, the CIA station chief at the US Embassy in Islamabad, played with an appropriately harried look by Kyle Chandler, finally loses patience with her. Her leads are dead, he tells her; she's living in the past; the focus should be on the current attempts to attack America, not on OBL. Here Maya's backbone stiffens, her previously vapid face screws up in rage. With canines flashing, she snarls at the chief that she will bring a case against him in Washington for obstructing the CIA's best lead to the man behind the terrorist attempts. Stunned by her outburst, the boss backs down with a timid smile of admiration and gives her what she wants: two teams of four roaming technicians, one in Peshawar and the other in Rawalpindi, to follow the moving cell phone calls of a man called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, believed to be OBL's most trusted courier. Eventually he is tracked to Abbottabad and seen driving his white sport utility vehicle into the secret compound.

Once the compound is located, it is put under surveillance - satellites, drones, agents on the ground. In short order, a team of men in suits, plus Maya, tramp into the conference room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to inform the chief, Leon Panetta, played with admirable gravitas by James Gandolfini, that they think they have pinpointed bin Laden. While the men all posture with pride, Panetta notices lone Maya standing by the wall and wonders who she is. She snaps out: "I'm the motherfucker who found him!"

Whoa! What an odd thing to put in a serious movie! Or was it based on a first-hand account? The men all shrivel up in shame and slink from the room. Panetta smiles to himself and visits the heroine in the company cafeteria in the next scene. It seems she has scored another victory for women against the repressive patriarchal structure, leaving humbled men with a new riddle for the new age: How can a woman be a motherfucker? Isn't that traditional male territory? Must we now call her not a heroine, but a hero?

Final scenes and spoiler alert: OBL is going to get killed, and Maya is going to deserve the credit. She is there at the camp in Area 51 to brief the SEAL Team before Operation Geronimo and tell them to "kill bin Laden for me." She goes with them to Afghanistan and follows the action reports of the raid in Abbottabad in real time. She stands alone on the field in a circle of light when the helicopters return to base with the body. The body bag is laid out on the ground, and the burly men all back away so that she, the world expert and woman in charge, can zip down the bag and identify the greybeard within. Her positive nod is telephoned to the White House. She did it. She saved America. A tear runs down her chiselled cheek.

So it's all about her. The male-dominated CIA couldn't stay focused and get the job done without a tough chick to stick with it, go against the grain, connect the dots, whip the wimps into shape and get them to look at the map, then kill bin Laden for her. It's all too ridiculous to believe. The character of Maya is consistent with a stick action figure, devoid of background, personality, sexual desire and any interest but an all-consuming obsession to kill the bad guy and drive the action along. I decided that she was a comic-book invention used to link the scenes together and provide a personal, though cold and totally unlovable approach.

I took my notes from the theater back home and noticed on the TV program guide that Jessica Chastain would be appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In the interview she stated that the character of "Maya" did exist. She could not give the CIA officer's name, because she was working "undercover," but the woman was real and did the things that were shown. Chastain laughed that after Operation Geronimo "Maya" had been passed over for promotion. She referred to an article in the Washington Post.

Flabbergasted, I went online and found the article by Greg Miller. It reported that the prototype for "Maya," now in her 30s, had focused on the hunt for the courier early on, during the Bush administration, so that when CIA analysts began to reexamine this angle under the new Obama administration, she was at the head of the team. She and a half-dozen others won the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the Agency's highest commendation for analysts, but when dozens of others won lesser medals she was not a happy warrior. She sent an e-mail to all her colleagues complaining that she alone deserved the award and they had only stalled her. And indeed, as Chastain recounted, she was denied a promotion in 2012. Now she is working on a new counterterrorism (CT) assignment.

The surprises in the ZDT phenomenon were just beginning. A little more searching on the web turned up an article by John Cook on that identified the head of the CIA's Global Jihad Unit by name and filled in some of her background. It was spotty. The "red-headed thirtysomething" analyst was one of the CIA officers implicated in the withholding of information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about AQ operatives Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who entered the United States at Los Angeles in January 2000. Both men were "muscle hijackers" (non-pilots) for the 9/11 "Planes Operation." Never tracked in America by the FBI, they carried out their mission on American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed into the Pentagon. The information withheld by the CIA, if delivered, would have had every chance of stopping the 9/11 attacks.

After 9/11, the analyst was noted for her exceptionally gung-ho approach to CT. She is believed to be the same "particularly overzealous female officer" described by Jane Mayer in The Dark Side (2008) who was reprimanded for flying from Langley to a black site in Afghanistan to be present at the naked waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, though she was not an interrogator and had no business there. Early in 2004 she insisted on the five-month detention of a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, at the "Salt Pit" prison in Afghanistan, one of the worst cases of American torture in the war on terror: beatings, darkness, isolation, putrid water, rotten chicken. Eventually the CIA team at the site determined that el-Masri was a case of mistaken identity, but still the zealot at Langley would not relent. She was said to have a lot of clout, because sometimes she briefed President Bush personally. Finally el-Masri was dumped on a road in Albania, then driven to the airport. Last December the European Court of Human Rights judged the el-Masri detention to be a case of kidnapping and torture.

When Zero Dark Thirty first came out, some people began to make the connection between the CIA fanatic and "Maya." The fanatic was advanced to the head of the Global Jihad Unit by CIA Director Michael Hayden so as "not to deter initiative within the CT ranks." It is amazing that she was not relieved of duty. This line of interpretation is explained on the website Real-life prototypes for other characters in the film have been named by

The many questions about Maya, plus the controversial nature of the film, plus the concern of Congress about the access of the film's director and screenwriter to CIA sources, prompted CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, taking over at Langley after the unexpected departure of his chief, David Petraeus, to post a statement to CIA employees on the Agency's website.

Normally, he wrote, he would not comment on a Hollywood film, but due to the publicity he thought it important to emphasize that ZDT is "a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts." The film, he objected, "takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate." He stressed that the hunt for bin Laden was not the province of just "a few individuals," but a "decade-long effort" that depended on "hundreds of officers." He scored the "liberties" taken in the portrayal of CIA personnel and insisted that "multiple streams of intelligence" had led the hit team to Abbottabad. He did allow, however, that one stream was gained from coercive interrogation. Finally, he made it clear that though the CIA had "interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs," it was not responsible for the final product.

So we have a dispute. Bigelow and Boal got access to "Maya," heard her story and made it the center of their film, though without any reference to her psychological motivations. The WP article reports that "Maya" has her defenders and detractors inside the Agency, and some of the latter are green with envy over her Hollywood glory. Morell gives the official view, which, like the film's opening caption, admits of some ambiguity. Was "Maya" dramatized, over-dramatized, or given due recognition? Could "the greatest manhunt in history" really be a feminist issue? That certainly is the thrust of the film. Or is the real story about someone nearly driven mad by her unthinkably horrible failure?

Sensing that I had missed something in my research, I went back and rewatched Mark Owen on 60 Minutes. And there she is - the CIA analyst with the SEAL team on the plane from America to Afghanistan. Owen said that he could not give her enough credit. She was "wicked smart, kinda feisty," and in his opinion had "teed up this whole thing." Everything she said about the compound, he laughed, proved to be accurate. I had forgotten. I thought I knew a lot, but didn't know about this.


As to the film's portrayal of the technical surveillance, the interception of e-mails and telephone calls, the tailing of al-Kuwaiti, the low night flight of the stealth helicopters through the valley from Afghanistan to Pakistan and the assault on the bin Laden household, it is all vividly portrayed and consistent with previous accounts that we have, especially Owen's. This is the story we thought we knew, and we did.

So the "what really happened" part must concern how the name of al-Kuwaiti and the leads to his contacts were obtained. Was it by torture? That's the big question. Or, since a docudrama is not usually regarded as a reliable source of information, the question really is this: Does the film show that torture was necessary to extract this "actionable intelligence?" Does it make an argument for torture? And if it makes an argument, is it a fair one? Or, if it is rigged, is it propaganda?

Americans are astonishingly deaf and blind to propaganda. When Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his speech to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, claiming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and had contacts with Al Qaeda, every argument he made was spurious, yet America went to war on Iraq, unleashing a maelstrom of death and destruction on a population of twenty-four million people, over-extending its own armed forces and driving thousands of its own men into post-traumatic stress, and hundreds to suicide. And when no weapons of mass destruction were found, Americans were persuaded that the real mission was not to protect the nation from the "smoking gun that might become a mushroom cloud," but to bring liberty to Iraq. President Bush was not impeached, but allowed to go on proclaiming that he was spreading peace, freedom and democracy in the Middle East. That's propaganda.

During President Bush's Global War On Terror, he, the vice-president and all their high officials unfailingly referred to the prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Bagram Detention Center in Afghanistan and CIA black sites around the world as "terrorists," never once in their speeches, television interviews and official documents employing the word "suspect." It is easier to torture a terrorist responsible for 9/11 than a man suspected of something, picked up somewhere and turned over to US authorities for a bounty by not too reliable Pakistani or Afghani allies. The practice of calling all detainees "terrorists" - thousands of them - was adopted by Fox News pundits and mainstream news anchors alike. That's propaganda.

From the very beginning of Zero Dark Thirty I began to notice the careful construction of a visual argument in favor of torture. (Soviet studies have sensitized me to propaganda.) The first torture scene shows Dan, a husky young American with a beard, played amiably by Jason Clarke, working over a scrawny Arab named Ammar, played with convincing desperation by Reda Kateb. Ammar, who belongs to the "Saudi group," is hoisted up to the ceiling with his arms stretched out in Y formation. Newcomer Maya stands to the side and watches.

Dan tells Ammar: "I'm not your friend. I'm not going to help you. I'm going to break you. Any questions?" This opening serves notice that the standard method of interrogation, which hitherto has served the FBI, the US military forces (as mandated by the Army Field Manual), and the nation's police departments (as mandated by the US Criminal Code), no longer applies. This method is known as the rapport-building technique (we shall call it RBT). It often begins by telling the detainee that the situation looks bad for him, but the interrogator can help to mitigate it if he will explain a few things. Thus begins a battle of wits in which the detainee enters the contest like a chess novice against a grand master. A grand master does not need to use physical force. He can even be friendly.

Having dispensed with RBT, the film shows what replaced it: the euphemistically entitled Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), based on methods of torture used by the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, North Korea and China to break a man and extract a confession from him. Dan tells Ammar that he knows that he transferred money to the US to fund the 9/11 attacks. Ammar says he knows nothing. Dan gets angry, roughs him up, forces him back on a blue plastic mat and gives him the water treatment. On command, Maya fetches a pot of water for Dan. "When did you last see Osama bin Laden?" yells Dan. Ammar gurgles up water, but refuses to speak. Maya is appalled by the torture, but does not object. Ammar is strung back up in Y formation. Dan tells him: "You lie, you get hurt!" This is the CIA interrogation technique, often called "aggressive," "harsh," or "coercive."

On the second try, Dan takes Ammar down and gives him a little bottle of orange soft drink and a package of food balls. Ammar wolfs everything down, slobbering. Dan takes away the bottle and says: "Tell me for water - when is the next attack?" Ammar refuses. Dan pulls down his pants in front of Maya. "I hope you don't mind if she checks out your junk," he says, using American slang for our benefit. He jokes about Ammar crapping in his pants and leaves the room. Exposed and humiliated, Ammar appeals to Maya: "Your friend is an animal." She replies: "Tell the truth, and you won't get hurt." She's at one with the program.

Dan returns and forces Ammar into a tiny box, demanding that he tell him the day of the next attack. Ammar is terrified of the box, but physically exhausted and losing consciousness. He starts naming the days of the week in order. Dan insists on the real day of attack, but Ammar keeps blubbering all the days of the week as he is locked into the box.

Big explosion in Saudi Arabia. People are running in the street, bleeding and screaming. (I missed the caption: the scene may refer to the 8 Nov. 2003 attack on a residential compound in Riyad.) Ammar didn't deliver, so people got killed. Still Dan and Maya are convinced that he has vital information. Maya suggests that since he is closed off from the news and exhausted by sleep deprivation, they can tell him that he did reveal the date of the attack. They can thank him for helping them to stop the carnage, then he will open up.

The ruse works. Ammar, cleaned-up and well-rested, enjoys a meal of hummus, tabouli and dates, and chats with Dan and Maya. "You've already told us about Mukhtar," they begin, using the nickname ("the Brain") for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. "Now give us some more names." He gives them the name of a courier, Abu Ahmed. When he hesitates to say more, he is threatened with a return to his cell. He doesn't want to go there, so he readily gives them everything he knows about Abu Ahmed.

Now other detainees can be questioned about the courier. Each man in the chain is tortured, or has already been tortured and doesn't want any more. He delivers a key name or contact that narrows the focus on OBL's trusted confidant. Each man gives all he can, since he knows only his part of the AQ structure. The CIA analysts and trackers fit each piece together into the big picture and find their way to Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and follow him to Abbottabad.

It's a great success story, and consistent with what Michael Hayden told Fareed Zakaria on the latter's Sunday show, "GPS," one week after the OBL execution. Speaking as the former director of the National Security Agency (1999-2005) and the CIA (2006-2009), Hayden hailed the manhunt as a triumph of "classic analytical work." According to him, the CIA had no clue to OBL's whereabouts in 2007 and decided that he was communicating exclusively by word of mouth and courier. It then subjected prisoners in CIA black sites to EITs in order "to move them from an air of defiance into a zone of cooperation." Afterwards one of them produced the nickname of bin Laden's courier. Four more years of collecting and collating bits of information about Abu Ahmed, moving forward "a pebble at a time," were needed to discover his true name and to follow him to the man he served. So both in his account and in the movie these techniques were productive and justified.


What's wrong with this picture? It's rigged. In ZDT each scene of torture or threat of renewed torture is followed by a terrorist attack. The torture of Ammar immediately follows 9/11 and immediately precedes the explosion in Saudi Arabia. The scenes are strategically placed so that the viewer will be appalled by the torture, but more appalled by the terrorist attack. The reasoning will be that torture is cruel, but the enemy is inhuman. The bargain offered by Dan seems fair: "Tell the truth, and you won't get hurt." Sensitive Maya feels Ammar's pain, as do we, but agrees with Dan, as should we.

But that's not the way it happened. Every man captured and abused after 9/11 was asked: "Where is Osama bin Laden? When did you last see him? When is the next attack?" Thousands of men who knew nothing about anything went through this treatment. Yet in the film every man tortured works for AQ and possesses key information, which is extracted from him by torture or the threat of more torture. In his talk with Zakaria, Hayden, of course, did not mention the detainees who knew nothing, yet were moved by EITs into "a zone of cooperation." Nor did he mention any spin-offs of torture.

In reality, torture produces "force drift" and "mission creep." Thousands of men, some AQ, some Taliban, some non-jihadists, some unknown men running from explosions, old men, mentally defective men, petty thieves, boys, people with similar names, foreigners, were beaten, kicked, cuffed, stripped, shorn, cloaked, hooded, flown somewhere, yelled at, starved, stressed, deprived of sleep, humiliated, frozen, battered by noise, exhausted in an angry and increasingly frenzied attempt to break them and get information from them that they did not have. The line was blurred between getting information and making someone pay for 9/11.

One CIA prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was duct-taped and sent in a box to Cairo for proxy torture and waterboarding. He stopped his harsh treatment by confessing that AQ terrorists were receiving training in the use of chemical and biological weapons from Saddam Hussein. When Colin Powell distrusted the information he was given linking Baghdad to AQ and told his chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson to throw it out of his forthcoming speech to the United Nations, CIA director George Tenet showed up with a fresh report of what a "high-level Al Qaeda operative" (al-Libi) had revealed. This report was decisive for Powell and went into his speech, opening the floodgates to tens of thousands of deaths and millions of casualties. Meanwhile, al-Libi recanted his confession and US Military Intelligence sent out a burn notice to rescind it, but Tenet later claimed that a computer glitch had prevented the notice from reaching Powell in time.

Of course, filmmakers cannot go into such detail about historical events. But if Bigelow and Boal were interested in "creating a conversation," as they now claim, and not in making an argument, as they did, they should have shown at least one innocent man tortured, or one penitent interrogator, or one CIA officer outraged and opposed, or one prisoner giving misleading and wasteful information, or one FBI agent refusing to participate, not as a politically correct invention, but because all these people existed in significant numbers and underscore the "harsh realities," as Bigelow now calls them, that were shown.

There is also the problem of the argument in a vacuum. The action of the film begins in 2003. The torture scenes and the terrorist attacks produce only one or two scenes for each year that follows. A key source, Abu Faraj al-Libi, is arrested and tortured in 2005. Terrorist attacks occur in 2008 and 2009. All of these scenes run in sequence as if linked together, with nothing else happening in the years from 2003 to 2009. The conclusion of the film depicts the successful last two years of the manhunt in detail, the years when no one is tortured and Maya begins to shine.

But other things, relevant things, happened in 2003. When America went to war in Iraq, it drew forces away from the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for OBL. It opened up a new menace, AQ in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, civil war. In 2006 a US military interrogator using RBTs, not EITs, was able in three months to uncover the track to the bloodthirsty al-Zarqawi, so that he could be blasted to hell by missiles, while the CIA temporized in its ten-year search for OBL. Matthew Alexander tells the story of the manhunt for al-Zarqawi in his book, How To Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, To Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq (2008).

Something else happened in 2003. On 1 March Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), alias "Mukhtar," was captured in Rawalpindi. Within the next year he was kept naked for a month, deprived of sleep for seven days straight, subjected to a battery of EITs and waterboarded repeatedly on five separate occasions - a total of 183 times. KSM was the mentor of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. He knew everything about him. He could have told an exact way to reach him without a moment's thought. Exact names, places and procedures.

Yet according to Hayden he provided only "some very partial lead information" during his interrogation. Years later, when the CIA obtained the name of the courier from another source, Hayden told Zakaria, they went back to KSM and asked him about Abu Ahmed. KSM, now cooperating with the Agency and enjoying better treatment, said that the man was a nobody and out of the organization. His insistence on this point alerted the intelligence men, and they decided that Abu Ahmed was truly important. For Hayden this proved the value of EITs. But this kind of insight, that a prisoner is lying or minimizing, is the very essence of the rapport-building technique. It does not require torture.

Two days after the OBL killing, former interrogator Matthew Alexander was asked on the TV program Democracy Now! for his opinion of the affair. To have such a high-value detainee as KSM, he replied, and to get so little out of him in eight years that could be used to find OBL does not credit the EIT program, but discredits it. In his view, EITs slowed down the effort to find OBL and other AQ leaders. The torture program sacrificed American principles, lowered America's moral standing in the world and prolonged the war against Islamic extremism. American torture, he noted, is Al Qaeda's No. 1 recruiting tool.


Given the complexity and trickiness of history, one might question the wisdom of dramatizing any big event within five to ten years of its occurrence. Reviewers have universally praised ZDT' s cinematography, its acting, its action, but many have condemned its storyline. Jane Mayer found it distorted and dishonest, and judged the film to have "zero conscience." Alex Gibney, director of the Academy Award winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), praised the film's masterful style but faulted its "sloppy" treatment of torture. He called the filmmakers "irresponsible and inaccurate," and thought they had been seduced by their sources. Former interrogator Glenn Carle repudiated the film as a Jack Bauer ("24") style production. Clifford May, writing in The National Review, defended the film, suggesting that it would help Americans decide whether they should be "robustly defending" the nation against its sworn enemies or seeking to address the complaints of those "supposedly wronged." Inevitably reviews split into political left and right.

The split occurred even before the release. When ZDT was announced in the summer of 2012, Republicans suspected that the Obama administration was promoting a film on the OBL killing as part of its election campaign. The conservative group Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the e-mail contacts between the filmmakers and the CIA, which did show an eagerness on the part of the Agency to publicize its success. So as to avoid any appearance of collusion with the White House, the film's producers delayed the premiere. After the election, ZDT screened early in January 2013, and then Republicans were happy and Democrats upset as they saw the Bush EIT program vindicated.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, joined Democratic Senator Carl Levin and Republican Senator John McCain, both of the Senate Armed Service Committee, in denouncing the movie. In a letter of protest to Sony Pictures Entertainment, the producer, they labeled the portrayal "grossly inaccurate and misleading" and stated that a Senate investigative report, Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation program, based on a review of six million pages of intelligence documents, showed that the existence, name and location of the courier came to the Agency through means "unrelated" to its interrogation program. Sony responded with a disingenuous statement from Bigelow and Boal protesting that they were wrongly accused, because the film taken in its entirety showed that a variety of methods were used in locating OBL, and that no single one was necessarily responsible.

As the affair heated up, the Senate committee moved to investigate whether sources inside the CIA were responsible for the positive portrayal of torture in the film. Acting CIA Director Morell, who had met with Bigelow and facilitated her contacts with the Agency, received two letters from the senators asking for details of the Agency's contacts with the filmmakers and requesting proof of his statement that one line of intelligence on al-Kuwaiti had come from EITs. The senators noted that the former director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, and the former supervisor of the EIT program, Jose Rodriguez, were making falsely postitive statements about the program. Morell, previously considered the likely successor to Director Petraeus, was passed over on January 7th, when the president nominated John Brennan for the post. But probably the president wanted Brennan anyway.

The following week Director Bigelow published a statement of her own in the Los Angeles Times, defending herself as a lifelong pacifist opposed to torture who merely brought "harsh realities" to the screen. "Depiction is not endorsement," she insisted, not failing to mention the First Amendment to the Constitution. People who object to the torture scenes, she continued, should direct their remarks to the people who "instituted and ordered these US policies."

She added, however, that she thought it illogical "to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in US counterterrorism policy and practices." And how did she know what role it had played? Had she made a study? Was she there? No, she had CIA sources. Those sources would likely be a faction from the Bush years who were inspired by the tough words and actions of CT chief Cofer Black and/or worked under the aforementioned Jose Rodriguez. (Watch him angrily advocate torture on 60 Minutes.)

Washington was agitated. Hollywood was upset, with politically prominent actors calling for a boycott of the movie while others called for its monumentalization. Jessica Chastain, whose performance struck me as singularly wooden, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. Kathryn Bigelow was passed over as Best Director, which drew cries of foul from her fans. Then Bigelow appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Mark Boal, resenting the Senate inquiry, cried "McCarthyism!" and hired a high-powered lawyer.

Fantastic things began to happen. The film was shown in Pakistan and became a big hit. The moviegoers there loved its action, but those who were interviewed believed it was all fiction. The raid in Abbottabad never happened, they said. Osama bin Laden died years ago. Why were there no photos?

More fantastic, in my estimation, was an event that took place on 29 January at the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, several blocks from the White House. Here three former CIA officials appeared onstage under the rubric: "Watching Zero Dark Thirty with the CIA." They were Michael Hayden, who ran the Agency from 2006 to 2009, Jose Rodriguez, who supervised CIA interrogations from 2002-2007, and John Rizzo, who served as the chief and deputy legal counsel at the Agency from September 2001 to October 2009. All three were integral to the EIT program and the hunt for OBL. The event was shown live on C-Span and reshown repeatedly on the last weekend of the month, thence to be stored in the expanding C-Span digital video library for perennial retrieval and reviewing.

All three torturers liked the film, but had their quibbles. Rizzo was dismayed that it didn't show the safeguards designed for the man undergoing EITs, such the medical team on hand to monitor his physical condition. He objected that it looked in the film as though the interrogator made up things as he went along, whereas in fact he followed a plan. And he was troubled by the torture box: Was it really that size, or did the movie make it too small? He couldn't make up his mind.

Rodriguez came to his aid. In real life, he said, the interrogator had to ask permission for what he would do; no one ad-libbed techniques. It was a meticulous procedure. Waterboarding had to be requested in writing and approved at headquarters. He recalled that there were two sizes of boxes - a big box to stand in and a little box to be forced into.

General Hayden said that the figure of Maya was a composite. " Most of the people who briefed me on Osama bin Laden were women officers of the CIA," he recalled with a cherubic smile. He characterized these women as "an incredible band of sisters who spearheaded the OBL cell." His cheerful account presented a picture of sexual equality and esprit de corps, with no woman sending an angry e-mail to her colleagues and making her case to filmmakers.

Aside from the film, the CIA team used the occasion to defend the EIT program as crucial to the hunt for OBL, the decimation of AQ and the security of the nation. The undeterred spread of terrorists and AQ affiliates in the Middle East and Northern Africa, which had received so much news coverage in recent weeks, was blamed on the Obama administration and its termination of the EIT program.

Since no one on the team was in danger of prosecution for war crimes, unless he should travel abroad, the purpose of the exercise seemed to be not only to defend the CIA program in the past, but also to lobby for its adoption in the future. Both Hayden and Rodriguez described fine points of the techniques, the latter entering into a sinister area of psychology as he extolled the value of bringing a detainee to the breaking point, after which the broken man would feel that he had resisted to the limits of his ability and would be forgiven by Allah if he cooperated with his tormentors.

"I don't know if we ever use this program again," he said with a meaningful squint. "It's up to the president; it's up to the people. The American people can choose, but I take exception to the attempt to say that it did not work. We need to be honest with ourselves, make an honest assessment, because we may have to do something like it again... someday, maybe, you know. It's a dangerous world out there."

Moderator Marc Thiessen contributed with calculated minimizations of torture, remarking that more lawyers had been waterboarded than had detainees, since they wanted to understand the experience. To which Rizzo replied that he knew such a lawyer, but he himself had not tried it, drawing hearty and friendly laughter from the audience. Thiessen added that thousands of servicemen had undergone EITs, failing to explain that they were in training at Fort Bragg, sampling the torture techniques of America's enemies in case they should ever be captured, and a sample, though no joke in this training, is a long way from the real thing. The real thing is a battery of EITs around the clock with no safety word to make it stop.

The stage performance of the CIA veterans was astonishing not only for promoting a program that is opposed by the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the UN Convention on Torture, as well as by the US Constitution, which mandates the president to follow the laws and treaties of the nation, but also by the current administration, which includes the present CIA. The participants spoke casually and sometimes jokingly about the experience, seeking to normalize the practice of torture as a valuable tool in the arsenal of national defense. It was as if someone could say on a stage to a national audience that our program of slave labor had been most efficacious in protecting the nation, and the income gained from child pornography had proved a real boon to military funding. A civilized country supposedly does neither the one nor the other, nor the third, which is torture.

Torture vs. Assassination

In the 2012 presidential campaign, one after the other Republican candidates eagerly professed his or her support for coercive interrogation: Hermann Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney. Fox News pundits unceasingly profess their advocacy of it: Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Monica Crowley, Ann Coulter. Right-wing radio can't get enough: Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage. The former president, his vice president and several members of his cabinet published their memoirs justifying EITs. There can be no doubt that had candidate Mitt Romney become president, the United States would have officially reinstated the EIT program. The Republican Party is the party of torture.

The Democratic Party is officially opposed to torture, but in fact has only outsourced it. President Obama outlawed the Bush program and restored the Geneva accords on his third day in office, but later instituted a US policy of turning military captives over to Iraqi and Afghani allies, who tortured them unmercifully. At the same time the president tightened secrecy in all areas, so that no news leaked out of CIA black sites or from the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG). It is not clearly known whether anyone is being interrogated. The official policy is not to capture terrorists, but to train US allies to do it. If they capture and torture suspects, the US must have clean hands. (The government treatment of Bradley Manning, accused as the source of stolen government documents to WikiLeaks, constitutes torture, but in another context.) Also in his first term, the president expanded the Bush drone program, steadily replacing the interrogation of captives with targeted killing. The drones rain down death from the sky on known terrorists and terrorist suspects alike, with lots of collateral damage - mothers, children, babies - terrorizing national populations and generating new converts to terrorism. Protest from inside the Democratic Party is polite and muted. The Democratic Party is the party of assassination.

The twin horrors of torture and assassination come together in the person of one man: John Brennan. As a 25-year veteran of the CIA, Brennan served under George Tenet during the Bush years, publicly defended the Agency's black-site program and appeared on national TV in March 2006 to say that sometimes you have to "take off the gloves." As President Obama's National Security and CT Advisor, he not only advised the hit on OBL, but oversaw the killer drone program, constructed the "Disposition Matrix" (integrated kill lists) that guides it and defended the program in public with a wall of boilerplate impressive even by Washington standards. For all these good services he earned the epithet "the Assassination Czar."

Considered for the post of CIA director in 2008, Brennan withdrew his name when his service to the prior torture regime threatened to become a liability to the new president. Five years later he became the nominee. At his confirmation hearing this February 7th, some senators on the Intelligence Committee gave him a bit of static, but Dianne Feinstein was very polite. The Chairwoman, so critical of Zero Dark Thirty and its portrayal of EITs, lobbed up softball questions to him about Anwar al-Awlaki as an American citizen who deserved to be assassinated, not mentioning others who fell into that category. The Assassination Czar, ever cautious, bunted each one to the side.

Only two weeks previous, in his second inaugural address, President Obama proclaimed: "We will defend our people and uphold our values by strength of arms and rule of law."

That remains to be seen.


Gary Kern is the author of The Kravchenko Case: One Man's War on Stalin and other books and articles on Russian history and espionage. For more information on non-coercive interrogation, see his article "Kill or Capture, Torture or Deceive" in the Washington Decoded website


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