The 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty implied the use of torture on al-Qaeda-affiliated detainees led to the discovery and eventual death of Osama bin Laden. The Oscar-nominated movie, which began with the declaration that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” came under fire from politicians and critics alike who said the film misrepresented the importance of the controversial interrogation techniques now widely condemned as torture. Now, a newly released Senate report documenting the CIA’s harsh interrogation tactics and their impact makes a convincing case that the movie got it wrong.
Mark Boal, a former journalist who penned the film’s script, said at the time that he conducted interviews (some of which were approved by the Obama Administration) with CIA agents, military officers and White House officials for the film. While he and director Kathryn Bigelow emphasized that they took some artistic license in creating the characters, they said the narrative was grounded in fact. In the film, CIA operatives use what they call “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding on detainees to identify bin Laden’s courier, known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Both in reality and in the film, following this courier led agents to bin Laden’s secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan—where the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011.
But the Senate Intelligence Committee report released Tuesday rejects this narrative. “The vast majority of intelligence” about the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden’s compound “was originally acquired from sources unrelated to the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program, and the most accurate information acquired from a C.I.A. detainee was provided prior to the C.I.A. subjecting the detainee to the C.I.A.’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the report says.
Revisiting the film in light of the report, it’s clear that even if the movie did not draw a direct connection between torture and this information, it did imply it. The protagonist—a CIA operative named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain—watches video footage of dozens of detainees providing information about al-Kuwait. It’s unclear to the audience how many of these informants have been tortured, but their exhausted, swollen faces suggest many have. The claim is brought out explicitly in one of Maya’s final interviews, during which a detainee tells her that he’ll provide information because he “has no desire to be tortured again.” Ultimately, Maya says 20 sources have helped to identify al-Kuwati and his relationship to bin Laden.
Viewers do see one man being tortured in the beginning of the film, Ammar. He is strung up by ropes, waterboarded, deprived of sleep and forced to lie in a small wooden box. (He is also put in a dog collar reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib photos though this was never an approved C.I.A. technique.) He doesn’t give up helpful information until years later when Maya and another operative fool him into thinking he’s already shared intelligence while he was delirious from lack of sleep. Whether torture “worked” in this case or not is left up to audience interpretation.
The movie also casts the reliability of information gained from torture in doubt. Toward the end, a former interrogator who has returned to Langley cites his experience with “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a reason he’s not fully confident in the information about the bin Laden’s courier. This suggests both that torture was directly involved in obtaining that information and that the movie is trying to offer a complex portrayal of the reliability of torture.
Bigelow and Boal have said the characters in their movies, including Ammar, are compilations of people they met, interviewed and researched in preparation for the film. (Maya, however, is based on a real intelligence operative Boal met.)
But according to the Senate report, the key information about al-Kuwait was not obtained using “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The report says it came from an al-Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul, who was captured in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ghul immediately provided his captures with information: One officer even said he “sang like a tweetie bird.” Ghul told the CIA that Abu Ahmaed al-Kuwaiti was bin Laden’s “closest assistant” and even said he believed bin Laden was living in a house in Pakistan. It was only after Ghul offered this information that the CIA decided to press him further. He was transferred to a “black site” prison, where he was placed in a “hanging” stress position and kep awake for 59 hours straight. He began hallucinating and gave “no actionable threat information.”
The committee concluded that the CIA had misled the public about the role of torture in locating bin Laden. The report says that most of the “documents, statements and testimony” connecting the use of torture and the bin Landen hunt were “inaccurate and incongruent with C.I.A. records.”
The CIA has pushed back, saying the Senate report overstates the importance of the pre-2003 intelligence from those who were not subjected to harsher interrogation tactics. “That intelligence was insufficient to distinguish Abu Ahmad from many other Bin Ladin associates until additional information from detainees put it into context and allowed us to better understand his true role and potential in the hunt for Bin Ladin,” the agency said. The CIA also asserted that another detainee, Ammar Al Baluchi, was the first to tell them—after being subjected to the harsher interrogations—that Kuawaiti was a courier. But the senate report says Baluchi’s information was not considered a breakthrough because he recanted the information later.
Zero Dark Thirty proves problematic in the face of the new report, though how inaccurate it is seems to depend on whether you ask the Senate committee or the CIA.