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Movie 'Zero Dark Thirty' stokes debate on CIA torture

The new Hollywood film depicts harsh CIA interrogation techniques as helping lead the U.S. to Osama bin Laden, intensifying a political debate in Washington.

December 13, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik and Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times
  • Jessica Chastain portrays Maya, a mid-level CIA operative who is the central character in "Zero Dark Thirty," about the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Jessica Chastain portrays Maya, a mid-level CIA operative who is the central… (Columbia Pictures )

Did the torture of detainees lead the U.S. to Osama bin Laden?

Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee say no. A major new film that was researched with high-level CIA access, however, shows torture as yielding a big break and setting in motion the chase that ended in the terrorist's death in Pakistan last year.

The Hollywood drama, "Zero Dark Thirty," is intensifying a sharp political debate in Washington about the value of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Although the filmmakers say they never intended to take sides in the debate and the movie is not a documentary, "Zero Dark Thirty" implies that torture can be effective. Now, the film stands poised to shape perceptions of the issue for Americans far beyond the nation's capital.

Written by the journalist Mark Boal and based on several years of real-world reporting, "Zero Dark Thirty" tells the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden by following a character named Maya, a mid-level CIA operative. She is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, about eight years before Bin Laden's death, working alongside a hard-knuckle interrogator operating under a George W. Bush-era policy that allowed the agency to use techniques on detainees widely considered to be torture.

The movie's plot takes many turns before culminating in the midnight raid on the Al Qaeda leader's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But several days of brutal tactics against a detainee — including locking him in a small box, beating him severely and pouring water over his face through a cloth — prompt him to divulge the name of the courier who the CIA eventually tracked to Bin Laden.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who teamed with Boal on the Iraq war story "The Hurt Locker," "Zero Dark Thirty" was nominated for four Golden Globe awards Thursday. It will arrive in theaters next Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, though early screenings to Hollywood awards organizations and a few other select audiences have yielded a strong dose of Oscar hype — and political chatter.

The film is opening just as Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a 6,000-page report Thursday concluding that torture did not play a significant role in finding Bin Laden.

Republicans have disputed the intelligence committee findings; on Thursday they refused to vote to adopt the document, saying that it was politically charged and complaining that it was based only on documents, and not interviews.

The report remains classified. But Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), two key lawmakers involved in the report, have previously said the detainee who provided a crucial lead on the courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, did so before he was subjected to coercive CIA techniques.

On Thursday, Feinstein reinforced the point. "I strongly believe that the creation of long-term, clandestine 'black sites' and the use of so-called 'enhanced-interrogation techniques' were terrible mistake[s]," she said.

Many senior CIA officials fervently believe that important intelligence was gleaned from coercive interrogations.

Some former CIA officials insist the agency's coercive techniques elicited important information that helped locate the courier.

Mark Bowden, whose book "The Finish" provides an account of the Bin Laden operation, agrees. "The road to Abbottabad was not torture-free," he said in a telephone interview.

In May 2011, Leon E. Panetta, then the director of the CIA, wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that "some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier's role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques."

But he added that no detainee in CIA custody revealed the courier's "full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means."

According to emails the CIA released under the Freedom of Information Act, Boal had extensive access to senior agency officials as he researched "Zero Dark Thirty."

When Boal and Bigelow were researching the film, Republicans on Capitol Hill raised concerns about how much access the Obama administration was granting the filmmakers. Now, in an odd turn, Democrats and others fear that the movie may give credence to those who say torture was necessary to track down Bin Laden.

Those concerns are echoed by Peter Bergen, an intelligence expert who advised Boal and Bigelow on the film. He says the finished picture goes too far.

"It's a great piece of filmmaking," Bergen wrote in an email, but audiences will "walk away from this film with the false impression that torture led to Bin Laden."

Asked for comment Thursday, Boal and Bigelow said in a statement that it was too reductive to read the film as drawing a line between the harsh interrogation and the successful targeting of the Al Qaeda mastermind.

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