Torturing the truth in 'Zero Dark Thirty'?

An ex-CIA official offers a firsthand review

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. / Special to The Washington Post /

It is an odd experience to enter a darkened room and, for more than 21⁄2 hours, watch someone tell a story that you experienced intimately in your own life. That is what happened recently as I sat in a movie theater near Times Square and watched “Zero Dark Thirty,” the new Hollywood blockbuster about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

When I was head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and then director of the National Clandestine Service, the campaign against al-Qaida was my life and obsession.

I must say, I agree with both the film critics who love “Zero Dark Thirty” as entertainment and the administration officials and prominent senators who hate the movie for the message it sends — although my reasons are entirely opposite theirs.

Despite its flaws, inaccuracies and shortcuts, I do believe this film is well worth seeing. But as I watched the story unfold on the screen, I found myself alternating between repulsion — more on that later — and delight.

First, my reasons for repulsion. “Zero Dark Thirty” inaccurately links torture with intelligence success and mischaracterizes how America’s enemies have been treated in the fight against terrorism. Many others object to the film, however, because they think the depiction of torture by the CIA is accurate but that the movie is wrong to imply that our interrogation techniques worked. They are wrong on both counts.

In the publicity campaign for the movie, the director and the screenwriter have stressed that “Zero Dark Thirty” was carefully researched and is fact-based. When discussing the so-called torture scenes, director Kathryn Bigelow has said: “I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.” Yet when pressed about inaccuracies, screenwriter Mark Boal has been quick to remind everyone: “This is not a documentary.”

Despite popular fiction, the so-called enhanced interrogation program — a term the Bush administration adopted for waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and other procedures — was carefully monitored and conducted. It bore little resemblance to what is shown on the screen. And while most Americans probably think waterboarding was stopped by President Barack Obama once he took office in 2009, few know the technique was last used six years earlier.

The torture scenes

The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.

The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program; most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention. To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face, CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington.

The filmmakers stole the dog-collar scenes from the abuses committed by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. No such thing was ever done at CIA “black sites.”

The CIA did waterboard three of the worst terrorists — Abu Zubaida, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — in an effort to get them to cooperate. Instead of a large bucket, small plastic water bottles were used on the three men, who were on medical gurneys. The procedure was unlike the one seen in the movie but was consistent with the same tactic used, without physical or psychological damage, on tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel as part of their training.

Inspired perhaps more by past movies than firsthand accounts, “Zero Dark Thirty” shows detainees being asked a question, tortured a little, asked another question and then tortured some more. Real detainees were instead given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive, with Washington’s approval, some of the “enhanced” techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded, a practice that at the time did not, in written clearance from the Justice Department, constitute torture. When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped, forever.

Some of those objecting to the movie are doing so not because of how the interrogations are depicted, but because of what the movie implies came out of them. The film suggests that waterboarding directly contributed to obtaining vital information about bin Laden’s courier — a break that eventually led to the al-Qaida leader. Opponents of the CIA are quick to insist that waterboarding played no role in tracking him down. Both the movie and those critics are wrong.

The first substantive information about the courier came in 2004 from a detainee who received some enhanced interrogation techniques but was not waterboarded. Although we had heard the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, until that time we were unaware of the central role he played in bin Laden’s communications. We checked out this information with other detainees. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who had been waterboarded, was by then cooperating to some extent. He denied any knowledge of the courier, but so adamantly that we knew we were on to something. We then intercepted secret messages that Mohammed was sending to other detainees, ordering them to say nothing about al-Kuwaiti.

After obtaining this lead on the courier, years of meticulous intelligence work followed. Having the black sites and compliant terrorists allowed us to repeatedly go back to the detainees to check leads, ask follow-up questions and clarify information. Without that, we would have been lost.

What they got right

“Zero Dark Thirty” has some minor flaws that will be laughable to CIA veterans. Early in the film, the agency’s chief of station in Islamabad walks around with a CIA lapel pin — not the best of tradecraft. Agency officers talk openly in hotels and restaurants about ongoing operations, and a junior officer threatens to have her boss hauled in front of a congressional oversight committee.

But Bigelow and Boal get a lot of things right, too. They portray the hunt for bin Laden as a 10-year marathon rather than a sprint ordered by a new president. The film gives a glimpse of the cooperation between the CIA and the U.S. military, a relationship that has only deepened in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.

And if you pay close attention, “Zero Dark Thirty” also concedes that it was a matrix of intelligence capabilities — including interrogation, other human intelligence, expert analysis, signals intelligence and imagery analysis — that came together to lead the SEALs to bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad — “if you pay close attention,” because the intelligence tradecraft is overwhelmed by the intense and, yes, misleading interrogation scenes.

I had to smile at one scene in which a White House official demands more information from the CIA, only to be asked how the agency is supposed to obtain it when the detention and interrogation program has been taken away. The screenwriter seemed to catch the nuance that the administration has made the CIA’s job much harder.

No doubt, the filmmakers had a difficult task. They had to boil down a decade of grueling work into a few hours — and make it entertaining. It is impossible for even the most skilled filmmakers to fully capture the context of the times. During the first few years after 9/11, the CIA was under enormous pressure, fearing an imminent and deadlier reprise of the attacks.

It is hard to accurately tell a story that spans more than a decade and involves a real-world cast of thousands. So Bigelow and Boal develop their narrative through the eyes of a small number of characters, such as a CIA officer they call Maya. A handful of officers in the Counterterrorism Center, mainly women, deserve a disproportionately large share of the credit for the relentless focus that eventually brought bin Laden down. But, while there are real-world equivalents of Maya and her colleagues in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the successes and the failures in this mission were the work of many, not a few.

More than the literal truth

According to recent news reports, the Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating whether the CIA inappropriately cooperated with the filmmakers. In my viewing of “Zero Dark Thirty,” I saw nothing that I believed to be classified — unless one considers secret the notion that enhanced interrogation techniques played a role in getting bin Laden. In my opinion, some senators seem to want to punish the agency for telling that truth.

Inevitably, films like this come to be seen by the public as a sort of proxy for reality. Even those who should know better get caught up in false arguments, debating, for example, “Can torture (as shown in the film) be justified?” rather than “Are harsh but legal measures (as not shown in the film) sometimes necessary?”

Like the real hunt for bin Laden, the movie goes on way too long, but there is value in the end. Theatergoers should understand that “Zero Dark Thirty” is more than a movie and less than the literal truth. This is especially apparent in the final scene, with Maya in tears, drained, not sure where to go or what to do next.

Her real-world counterparts have no doubt: The fight against al-Qaida is far from over.