by Marjorie Cohn
January 11, 2013
On January 11, eleven years to the day after
George W. Bush sent the first detainees to
Guantanamo, the Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty is
making its national debut.
Zero Dark Thirty is disturbing for two
First and foremost, it leaves the viewer
with the erroneous impression that torture helped the CIA find bin
Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan.
Second, it ignores both the illegality
and immorality of using torture as an interrogation tool.
The thriller opens with the words,
“based on first-hand accounts of actual
After showing footage of the horrific 9/11
attacks, it moves into a graphic and lengthy depiction of torture.
The detainee “Ammar” is subjected to
waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and confined in a small
box. Responding to the torture, he divulges the name of the courier who
ultimately leads the CIA to bin Laden’s location and assassination. It may
be good theater, but it is inaccurate and misleading.
The statement “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” is deceptive
because it causes the viewer think the story is accurate.
All it really means, however, is that
provided Hollywood with information about events depicted in the movie.
Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell wrote a letter to the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence in which he admitted the CIA engaged extensively
with the filmmakers.
After receiving his letter, Senators John
McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin requested information and documents
related to the CIA’s cooperation.
The senators sent a letter to Morrell saying they were,
“concerned by the film’s clear implication
that information obtained during or after the use of the CIA’s coercive
interrogation techniques played a critical role in locating
“the film depicts CIA officers repeatedly
torturing detainees. The film then credits CIA detainees subjected to
coercive interrogation techniques as providing critical lead information
on the courier that led to the UBL compound.”
They state categorically:
“this information is incorrect.”
The letter explains that after a review of more
than six million pages of CIA records, Feinstein and Levin made the
The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL courier from CIA
detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA
discover the courier’s identity from CIA detainees subjected to coercive
techniques. No CIA detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific
whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which UBL was
Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the
courier, his true name, and location through means unrelated to the CIA
detention and interrogation program.
In a speech on the Senate floor, McCain declared,
“It was not torture, or cruel, inhuman, and
degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that
ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden.”
“In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced
interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheik Mohammed not provide us with
the key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced
false and misleading information.”
Many high-level interrogators, including
Glenn L. Carle, Ali Soufan and Matthew Alexander, report
that torture is actually ineffective and often interferes with the securing
of actual intelligence.
A 2006 study by the National Defense
Intelligence College concluded that traditional, rapport-building
interrogation techniques are very effective even with the most recalcitrant
detainees, but coercive tactics create resistance.
Moreover, torture is counter-productive.
An interrogator serving in
Afghanistan told Forbes,
“I cannot even count the amount of times
that I personally have come face to face with detainees, who told me
they were primarily motivated to do what they did, because of hearing
that we committed torture... Torture committed by Americans in the past
continues to kill Americans today.”
Torture is also illegal and immoral - important
points that are ignored in Zero Dark Thirty.
After witnessing the savage beating of a
detainee at the beginning of the film, the beautiful heroine “Maya” says
As he’s leaving Pakistan, Maya’s colleague Dan
“You have to be real careful with the
detainees now. Politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last
one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”
Torture is illegal in all circumstances.
The Convention Against Torture and Other
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty the United
States ratified which makes it part of U.S. law, states unequivocally:
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,
whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political
instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a
justification of torture.”
The prohibition of torture is absolute and
unequivocal. Torture is never lawful.
Yet despite copious evidence of widespread torture and abuse during the Bush
administration, and the Constitution’s mandate that the President enforce
Obama refuses to hold the
Bush officials and lawyers accountable
for their law breaking.
Granting impunity to the torturers combined with propaganda films like
Zero Dark Thirty, which may well win multiple Oscars, dilutes any
meaningful public opposition to our government’s cruel interrogation
Video 1 or
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Armed with full and accurate information, we
must engage in an honest discourse about torture and abuse, and hold those
who commit those illegal acts fully accountable.