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 reasons. First and foremost, it leaves the viewer with the erroneous impression that torture helped the CIA find bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan. Secondarily, 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 events.” 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 to think the story is accurate. All it really means, however, is that the CIA 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 Usama Bin Laden (UBL).” They noted, “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 following determination: