Zero Dark Thirty is a movie the CIA wants you to see.
It tells a tale of the search for Osama bin Laden wherein the key lead comes from a man softened up by waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in a coffin-like box and other forms of pain and humiliation. It shows CIA agents extracting subsequent clues by similar means or the threat thereof. It alludes to other evidence supplied by “the Paks” and “the Jords” that was also obtained from detainees under duress. It twice depicts CIA officials asking the higher-ups how they are to find bin Laden when, after Barack Obama’s election, “the detainee program” is taken away.
According to the film, in short, the United States couldn’t have tracked down and killed bin Laden were it not for the systematic torture of hundreds of alleged Islamist militants at the hands of the CIA and allied spy agencies.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t glorify torture, as some have complained. The torture scenes are graphic and hard to watch. The lead CIA interrogator is a sadist who feels no twinges of conscience and later vows to defend “the detainee program” against Congressional critics. The film’s message is more insidious: It says that torture is ugly, even corrupting, but necessary.
Three senators, including John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was tortured in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps, have labeled Zero Dark Thirty “grossly inaccurate and misleading.” The lawmakers say, correctly, that CIA torture did not yield the crucial nom de guerre that eventually led U.S. forces to bin Laden’s hideout. That name came from a detainee who was not in CIA custody. The film is just wrong on this point.
But once the debate is held on these grounds — whether torture “works” in specific instances — it’s effectively decided for the pro-torture side. Torture is illegal under U.S. and international law and it is utterly immoral. It doesn’t “work,” but that’s beside the point.
More disturbing than the waterboarding scenes is what the movie leaves out — the hundreds of people falsely identified as al-Qaeda fighters and shipped to Guantánamo Bay, the Arab travelers arrested on the basis of mistaken identity and tortured by U.S. allies, and the 166 “enemy combatants” still at the Guantánamo prison who cannot be tried in U.S. courts because they were tortured.
None of this heedless excess helped to catch bin Laden, but it made up the great bulk of the “detainee program.”
And that’s not to speak of the two invasions launched in the name of the “war on terror” and their countless Afghan and Iraqi civilian victims, or the ongoing drone strikes with those mounting body counts. In Zero Dark Thirty, the actual war on terror is white noise — a news snippet here, a snide comment there. Perhaps a single 157-minute film can’t cover all of the relevant facts, but screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow chose to incorporate only the background approved by the CIA.
The result is a series of fibs about torture wrapped up in a big lie of omission about the toll of the war on terror. Its Golden Globes and Oscar nominations notwithstanding, Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately a megaphone for that wily old whisper from the national security state: You don’t want to know what we do. But you need us to do it. Now let us go back to work in the shadows.