"Zero Dark Thirty" is a likely shoo-in, deservedly, for Oscar nominations for best director (Kathryn Bigelow) and best screenplay (Mark Boal) and perhaps a slew of other categories.
Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, a CIA analyst who in the film is the key player in finding Osama bin Laden, is reminiscent of Cate Blanchett in both looks and talent. The movie is beautifully filmed, and the propulsive score moves the action forward effectively.
Leaving aside its obvious merits as a film, how well does Zero Dark Thirty tell the complex tale of the decade-long hunt for bin Laden after 9/11? It's a valid question to ask since, after all, Bigelow told The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, "What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film," and Boal told the Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to approach the story as a screenwriter but do the homework as a reporter."
The compelling story told in the film captures a lot that is true about the search for al Qaeda's leader but also distorts the story in ways that could give its likely audience of millions of Americans the misleading picture that coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees -- such as waterboarding, physical abuse and sleep deprivation -- were essential to finding bin Laden.
This week, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee plans to vote on whether to approve the as-yet unreleased findings of a 6,000-page report about its three-year investigation into the secret CIA interrogation program that is depicted in "Zero Dark Thirty."
This report promises to be the definitive assessment of the intelligence value of the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques. After the examination of millions of pages of evidence, the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee have publicly stated that coercive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding did not provide the information that led to bin Laden.
Endorsing the view that waterboarding was key to finding bin Laden does not seem to have been the intention of "Zero Dark Thirty's" filmmakers. Boal said that, in reality, a "whole array of tools" were used to find bin Laden and that the film "tried to be balanced." And certainly, "Zero Dark Thirty" shows some of the Agatha Christie-like sleuthing at the CIA and high-tech surveillance techniques that were instrumental in tracking down al Qaeda's leader.
But the fact is that about half an hour of the beginning of "Zero Dark Thirty" consists of scenes of an exhausted, bloodied al Qaeda detainee named Ammar who is strung to the ceiling with ropes; beaten; forced to wear a dog collar while crawling around attached to a leash; stripped naked in the presence of Maya, the female CIA analyst; blasted with heavy metal music so he is deprived of sleep; forced to endure crude waterboardings; and locked into a coffin-like wooden crate.
These visceral scenes are, of course, far more dramatic than the scene where a CIA analyst says she has dug up some information in an old file that will prove to be a key to finding bin Laden.
(Full disclosure: Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of "Zero Dark Thirty." We advised that that the torture scenes were overwrought. Al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Boal said that as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were "toned down" in the final cut of the film. I also saw this final version of the film. Finally, HBO is making a theatrical release documentary based on my book entitled "Manhunt," which will be out in 2013.)
Tricked into talking
After the detainee Ammar is systematically abused by his CIA captors in "Zero Dark Thirty," he is tricked into believing that he has already inadvertently given up key information about al Qaeda as a result of all the abuse and sleep deprivation that he has undergone. At this point, Ammar starts cooperating with his CIA interrogators and tells them about a man known as "Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti" who played some kind of important role in al Qaeda.
It is Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti -- which in Arabic means "the father of Ahmed from Kuwait" -- who ultimately proves to be bin Laden's courier and whose trail leads CIA officials to the compound in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan where they eventually come to believe that bin Laden himself is hiding.
How much does this correspond to what is now known about how the Kuwaiti was, in fact, found? In real life, the character known as Ammar in the film is quite similar to Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi whom al Qaeda was grooming to be the 20th hijacker in the months before the 9/11 attacks. It was al-Qahtani who supplied the CIA with what may have been the first clue that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti had some importance inside al Qaeda.
Between November 23, 2002, and January 11, 2003, al-Qahtani was interrogated for 48 days at Guantanamo more or less continuously, kept awake for much of that time by loud music being blasted when he was falling asleep, doused with water and subjected to cold temperatures, kept naked and forced to perform tricks as if he were a dog. However, he wasn't waterboarded or beaten.
From the secret summaries of al-Qahtani's Guantanamo interrogations made public by WikiLeaks, at some point, it's not exactly clear when, he told interrogators about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was part of the inner circle of al Qaeda's leaders.
Another al Qaeda member named Hassan Ghul who was also subjected to coercive interrogation techniques in a CIA secret prison told his interrogators at some point -- when, it is also not clear -- that the mysterious Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was one of bin Laden's couriers.
Balanced against this, harsh techniques including waterboarding were also used by the CIA on two of the most significant leaders of al Qaeda: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, as well as his successor as No. 3 in al Qaeda, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both these al Qaeda leaders gave up disinformation about the Kuwaiti to their interrogators. ("Zero Dark Thirty" shows al-Libi lying to his interrogators about the Kuwaiti.)
For the defenders of coercive interrogation techniques, the example of al-Qahtani and Ghul might seem to prove that these kinds of approaches actually worked, while for critics of such techniques, the cases of Mohammed and al-Libi show that coercion also produced false information.
The FBI's role
Of course, "Zero Dark Thirty" can't address in 2½ hours the whole complex tale of the CIA interrogation program, but an important strand of that tale is missing from the film.
FBI officials were adamantly opposed to the use of coercive techniques by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees because they deemed them both unethical and counterproductive. An FBI official noted that after his abusive interrogations by the CIA, al-Qahtani began "evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end.)"
And the story of Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner to be placed in a secret overseas CIA prison, is an instructive counterargument to the idea that coercive interrogations are the best way to get useful information out of terrorists and is a tale that does not appear in "Zero Dark Thirty."
Abu Zubaydah was first interrogated by Ali Soufan, one of the few Arabic-speaking FBI agents. Soufan softened up Abu Zubaydah by calling him "Hani," the childhood nickname his mother had used for him, a fact that the FBI agent had gathered from intelligence files. The approach started yielding quick results.
When Abu Zubaydah was shown a series of photos of al Qaeda members by Soufan, he identified one of them as the operational commander of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Abu Zubaydah's confirmation of Mohammed's role in 9/11 was the single most important piece of information uncovered about al Qaeda after the attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon, and it was discovered during the course of a standard interrogation, without recourse to any form of coercion. Soufan recalled that Abu Zubaydah gave up the information about a week or so into his interrogation.