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The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty

Director Alex Gibney on the dangerous myth perpetuated by the film.

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Many writers have focused on the brutality of the al-Qahtani interrogation. They were right to do so. After all, even Susan Crawford, a Bush Administration official, ultimately admitted that his treatment was, in fact, "torture." Using techniques loosely based on the CIA's Kubark Interrogation Manual, and influenced by CIA's loony new playbook for questioning prisoners in the global war on terror, interrogators kept al-Qahtani from sleeping, force fed him liquids which caused him to urinate on himself and came close to killing him. But what many have overlooked is what happened to the interrogators during the al-Qahtani interrogation. They fell victim to what is called "force drift" (a tendency for interrogators to increase brutality when they don't get answers) and resorted to increasingly bizarre techniques. What are we to make of the fact that interrogators tried to get al-Qahtani to crack by using authorized "techniques" such as "invasion of space by female"; putting panties on his head, making him wear a "smiley-face" mask (I'm not making this up) and giving him dance lessons; making him watch puppet shows of him having sex with Osama bin Laden, administering forced enemas and making him crawl around like a dog.

The point I'm making is that, when the full history of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" is told we will see that it was not only brutal and counterproductive but ridiculous. The CIA waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times. Considering the repetition, just how effective were those techniques? And how good does the CIA look for insisting on mindless repetition of useless tactics?

But in ZD30, Boal and Bigelow have a problem. In the logic of a "movie," it's difficult for viewers root for people who are making terrible mistakes, have become corrupted or who are showcasing needless brutality. As a result, while the filmmakers do showcase American brutality, they suggest that it was necessary. Over and over again, Maya watches DVDs of interrogations using waterboarding and other forms of torture as if these were useful techniques which provided actionable intelligence. She herself uses a fellow operative to be her "muscle," punching a detainee when she does not get the answer she's looking for. Absent any other kind of interrogation, viewers of this film must conclude that beating the hell out of people is the only way to get answers. As one detainee says in the film, "I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it." Sounds like torture works, right? But as we know from the Senate and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who wrote McCain in May 2011, that EITs did not play any more than an incidental role in the discovery of UBL.

No main characters in the film ever question the efficacy or corrupting effects of torture. Just the opposite. When Barack Obama appears -- on television in a CIA conference room -- he remarks that prohibiting torture is "part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world." In the foreground, another female CIA agent, Jessica (played by Jennifer Ehle) shakes her head in disgust.

Later, a CIA figure nicknamed "the Wolf" makes a speech on how his efforts to get bin Laden have been undermined by the sissies in Congress. "As you know," he says, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us. The detainee program is now flat. We've got Senators jumping out of our asses..."

This line not wrong, in the sense that, in the context of a movie, it conveys the views of a particular character and, further, accurately represents those in the CIA -- and there were many -- who defended EITs. But what is pernicious about it is that the statement exists in a vacuum, as if, for the tough-minded folks who had "boots on the ground," to use the expression Bigelow likes so much, there was no other possible point of view. But that's wrong.

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