As troubling as what Zero Dark Thirty includes about torture’s role in the bin Laden hunt is what it leaves out. The record we have about the CIA interrogation program may be thin, but it tells a fuller story than the film does. For example, at some “black sites” where CIA prisoners were interrogated, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also present. Because these agents were trained to conduct interrogations that could withstand scrutiny in American courts, and because FBI training is rooted in police traditions, not counterterrorism or warfare, some of the agents on site objected vehemently to the CIA’s harsh methods. They denounced the agency’s “enhanced” techniques as counterproductive and morally wrong.
There is no secret about this strain of dissent within the government about the CIA program. Not only FBI agents, but also some CIA officers expressed qualms about waterboarding and sleep deprivation, as has been described in detail by the former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan in his 2011 book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.3 Soufan recalls commiserating over the use of “enhanced techniques” with a CIA officer who tells him, “There are the Geneva Conventions on torture. It’s not worth losing myself for this.” Soufan also describes an argument he had with a CIA interrogator about whether torture can produce reliable information from hardened ideologues. When the agency interrogator declared that he would make an al-Qaeda prisoner “fully compliant,” Soufan replied, as he recalls it:
These things won’t work on people committed to dying for their cause…. People like [him] are prepared to be tortured and severely beaten. They expect to be sodomized and to have family members raped in front of them! Do you really think stripping him naked and taking away his chair will make him cooperate?
None of this sort of argument is available to viewers of Zero Dark Thirty. It would hardly have undermined the film’s drama to have included such strong dissents, even in passing, in the interest of journalism that was more complete. The only qualms any of the CIA characters in the film express about torture are oblique and self-protecting. Dan, an interrogator portrayed by the actor Jason Clarke, laments wearily, as he rotates back to headquarters, that he has seen too many men naked, and that he fears the political environment in Washington that once created a permissive atmosphere for his dark arts may now be turning against them.
As cinema, the film’s torture scenes are at once rough and bland. Ammar’s degradation is obviously intended to shock but his mistreatment on screen is hardly more severe than what is routinely shown on television programs such as Homeland or 24. Ammar is stripped naked but we see him mainly from behind. Maya and Dan remark at one point that Ammar has lost control of his bowels but we see nothing of this humiliation directly.
The film’s torture scenes depart from the historical record in two respects. Boal and Bigelow have conflated the pseudoscience of the CIA’s clinical, carefully reviewed “enhanced techniques” such as waterboarding with the out-of-control abuse of prisoners by low-level military police in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Dan puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around in an act of ritualized humiliation, but this was never an approved CIA technique.
More importantly, Zero Dark Thirty ignores what the record shows about how regulated, lawyerly, and bureaucratized—how banal—torture apparently became at some of the CIA black sites. A partially declassified report prepared by the CIA’s former inspector general, John Helgerson, indicates that physicians from the CIA’s Office of Medical Services attended interrogation sessions and took prisoners’ vital signs to assure they were healthy enough for the abuse to continue. Agency officers typed out numbingly detailed cables and memos about the enhanced interrogation sessions, as the available outline of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s classified investigation makes clear. Videotapes were recorded and logged. This CIA office routine might have been more shocking on screen than the clichéd physical abuse of prisoners that the filmmakers prefer.
Zero Dark Thirty ultimately fails as journalism because it adopts shortcuts that most reporters would find illegitimate. From the Janet Cooke affair at The Washington Post onward, editors and journalism professors have cautioned against the dangers of employing a “composite” character that may stand in for several real people. Such characters offer the possibility of literary exposition, but they also falsify. Zero Dark Thirty reinforces this view. Boal told the Times that Ammar, the most fully realized al-Qaeda character in the film, is a composite. Yet the film is salted with details that suggest Ammar’s similarity to an actual former CIA detainee, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, whose nom de guerre was Ammar al-Baluchi.
The real Ali is a thirty-five-year-old nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the September 11 attacks. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and held in secret CIA prisons until he was transferred to Guantánamo in 2006, where he now faces capital charges before a military commission. He is accused of sending, at his uncle’s instructions, as much as $200,000 to the hijackers and providing them with other logistical support. Zero Dark Thirty’s composite Ammar is described at various points as “KSM’s nephew,” who is “tight” with his uncle and has fingerprints “on 9/11 money,” and particularly as someone responsible for transferring $5,000 to the hijackers.
The film’s Ammar is depicted as a doomed man who will spend his entire life behind bars without resort to lawyers or justice. In an early interrogation scene, Maya pulls off her black mask before entering to face the prisoner because Dan assures her that Ammar will never be free to menace her. We are invited to appreciate Ammar’s subjugation.
The truth about Ali is perhaps more interesting. He has been an active, defiant participant in Guantánamo court proceedings and his lawyers have sought permission from military judges to introduce evidence in his defense that he was tortured while in CIA custody, and to pursue information about the identities of the agency officers who interrogated him. That request has been refused on the grounds that what happened to Ali while in CIA prisons is classified. Zero Dark Thirty’s indirect depictions of Ali’s abuse might be the only accounting the real-life prisoner receives in public before he is sentenced to death. Yet the film does nothing to acknowledge its connection to this reality.
Zero Dark Thirty was constructed to bring viewers to the edges of their seats, and judging by its critical reception, for many viewers it has succeeded in that respect. Its faults as journalism matter because they may well affect the unresolved public debate about torture, to which the film makes a distorted contribution. On his second day in office, President Obama outlawed torture by executive order, but he has declined to order investigations to expose publicly or otherwise hold to account the CIA’s detention regime during the Bush years. In the recently concluded election campaign, Mitt Romney declared that he would revive the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Official torture is not an anathema in much of the United States; it is a credible policy choice. In public opinion polling, a bare majority of Americans opposes torturing prisoners in the struggle against terrorism, but public support for torture has risen significantly during the last several years, a change that the Stanford University intelligence scholar Amy Zegart has attributed in part to the influence of “spy-themed entertainment.”
Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral. Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur even in developed democracies because some public leaders have been willing to attach their prestige to an argument that in circumstances of national emergency, torture may be necessary because it will extract timely intelligence relevant to public safety when more humane methods of interrogation will not.
There is no empirical evidence to support this argument. Among other things, no responsible social scientist would condone peer-reviewed experiments to compare torture’s results to those from less coercive questioning. Defenders of torture in the United States therefore argue by issuing a flawed syllogism: the CIA tortured al-Qaeda suspects; those suspects provided information that helped to protect the public; therefore, torture was justified and even essential. In his recent statement to agency employees about Zero Dark Thirty, acting CIA director Morrell gave this argument implicit support when he said that the ongoing debate over the CIA’s treatment of al-Qaeda suspects after 2002 “never will be definitively resolved.”
That is a timid tautology; it is also evidence of a much wider political failure. As with discourse about climate change policy, the persistence of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument about the value of officially sanctioned torture represents a victory for those who would justify such abuse. Zero Dark Thirty has performed no public service by enlarging the acceptability of that form of debate.
3 Norton. ↩
How to Recruit Jihadis February 21, 2013