Dark Deeds: EITs and Detainee Torture in “Zero Dark Thirty”

Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow sparks controversy with her latest film, “Zero Dark Thirty.” We address critics’ concerns over the historical accuracy and scenes of detainee torture depicted in the Oscar-nominated film.

War isn’t pretty, and “Zero Dark Thirty” didn’t try to dress it up. The film has been criticized for painting “enhanced interrogation tactics” and the torture of detainees as a necessary evil. Republican and Democrat Senators from California, Michigan and Arizona have condemned the film as “grossly inaccurate and misleading,” claiming that the information leading to the apprehension and death of Osama bin Laden did not come as a result of information provided by detainees under duress. 

This line of discussion leads to a debate on whether torture is an effective interrogation method, which may not be the right question. The question should be “Is torture wrong?” Whether or not torture is effective, if something is morally reprehensible, it should not be condoned. If you watch the film, it’s not hard to see that “Zero Dark Thirty” depicts torture in a way that leaves the audience thinking it is brutal and ethically wrong.

zero dark thirty

Source: motherjones.com

The film opens with audio of emergency calls from the September 11 attacks. The first half of the film centers largely on interrogations at different CIA black sites beginning two years after the 9/11 attack. Ammar, a detainee who helped finance the 9/11 terrorist attack, is kept tied up in a solitary building where he is interrogated by a group of operatives headed by an agent named Dan. The audience sees Ammar waterboarded by CIA operatives, deprived of sleep, degraded and disrobed, made to crawl like a dog with a collar around his neck and forced into a small wooden box where he is left for an indefinite amount of time. Maya, the protagonist, is visibly offended by these actions and tells her superiors she feels it is uncalled for. Yet, however reluctantly, she partakes in these measures.

During these scenes, Ammar’s raw humanity is on display. He is a person broken and pitiable. The treatment Ammar receives combined with the composure he is able to muster makes empathy easy to feel.  Despite the knowledge that he helped fund the attack, viewers feel remorse for his situation.

The CIA gains nothing from Ammar during the brutal interrogation. The CIA had been attempting to discern information regarding an attack expected to be carried out by a group of Saudi terrorists. The attack was not prevented. Afterward, Maya suggests to Dan that they mislead Ammar about the outcome of the attack; since he has been in isolation, they can tell him he gave up information while sleep deprived. Ammar is brought out of his cell, given a large meal and told that he sold out his cohorts, but may not remember it. He then provides additional details, including the name of a courier used by bin Laden named Abu Ahmed.

Ammar offered this information not under duress, but because the CIA began trying to out-think instead of out-muscle their enemy. Even if Ammar had not been previously mistreated, the CIA could have still used a version of this tactic. Pitting partners in crime against each other and bluffing the amount of information at their disposal are common police tactics.

At this point in the film, the attitudes and security policies within the CIA and Pakistan begin to change. Pakistanis are seen protesting outside the U.S. Embassy to “end American terrorism.” America condemns and ends the practice of enhanced interrogation techniques and the torture of detainees, as well as closes Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo). At this point the CIA really begins to make headway.

Maya is given a file by a CIA operative who believed in her Abu Ahmed lead. This file had been on the back burner due to a lot of white noise caused by bad information obtained by detainees under duress (a subtle but important indication of the condemnation of torture by the filmmakers). Maya recognizes the man in the file. His given name is Ibrahim Sayeed, but he bears a striking resemblance to Abu Ahmed.

With her lead reinvigorated, Maya is able to get resources to pursue it. Dan bribes a high-ranking informant by purchasing him a Lamborghini in exchange for the Sayeed matron’s phone number. By listening into weekly calls to Sayeed’s mother, Maya and her team are able to track Sayeed’s patterns. They then put a network of Pakistani civilian spies in place to monitor Sayeed’s movements. Eventually, Sayeed purchases a cell phone, which the CIA is also able to track. The CIA eventually pinpoints Sayeed while on the phone in a busy market and traces him to a compound outside Abbottabad. From there, it’s downhill for bin Laden.

The important distinction to make here is that the work that truly led to bin Laden’s execution was strong detective work. Throughout the film, Maya uses her understanding of Muslim culture and profiling of jihadist behaviors and attitudes to chase the Abu Ahmed lead, although her superiors do not give it much credence. Maya debunks the common theory that bin Laden is hiding in a cave, stating, “you can’t run a global network of interconnected cells from a cave.” She uses her knowledge of Muslim cultures to deduce that a third male must be living in Abu’s complex due to the presence of three Muslim women and practices in orthodox living arrangements. She often discredits leading intelligence as “pre 9-11 behavior” and posits more plausible theories and alternative scenarios that pan out.

Whether or not Maya was one person or a team of CIA operatives is a question of what made the best movie narrative, but the hard work and diligence that went into capturing bin Laden was not fabricated. Yes, the first tip about Abu Ahmed was from a detainee who had been mistreated. However, he was not under duress at the time when he supplied the information. If Bigelow had wanted to make an argument that torture is a necessary evil, she would have had Ammar give up the information in the moment of torture, which is not the way it was depicted.

Though politicians argue that information leading to the apprehension of bin Laden did not come from tortured detainees, we may not know the truth until CIA documents are released decades from now. The fact is that, whether or not torture led to the death of bin Laden, torture did happen. It’s a part of the history. We can’t skirt over the ugly parts just because we don’t like it. It’s important to know what we did wrong, to see it and to come face-to-face with it. Otherwise, we won’t learn from our mistakes.

If anything, “Zero Dark Thirty” shows that torture is not only wrong, but ineffective. It was intelligence that led to bin Laden, and the CIA needs more hard working, ethical operatives like Maya to continue the fight against security threats. If you think you’re up to the task, a degree in security policy studies is a great first step toward serving your country. Learn more about getting a Masters in Security Studies. For a list of current job offerings with the CIA, click here.

A statement from director Kathryn Bigelow on the depiction of torture in her film was published in the Los Angeles Times.

The full-text of the condemnation letter penned by U.S. senators Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain can be found here.

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