December 15, 2012

'Zero Dark Thirty' intensifies debate about detainees' torture

The complexity of the hunt for Osama bin Laden could be lost as the film implies that torture yielded some information that helped. And that could shape beliefs as Congress disagrees over that very question.


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.

Screenwriter Mark Boal and Director Kathryn Bigelow
click image to enlarge

Screenwriter Mark Boal and Director Kathryn Bigelow said it would excessively simplify their film “Zero Dark Thirty” to conclude that it draws a line between torture and the successful targeting of Osama bin Laden.


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 Qaida 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 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."

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

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)