The Debate Over Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark ThirtyLet me go on the record – I thought Zero Dark Thirty was a great film. It doesn’t purport to be a documentary but it does claim fidelity to actual events surrounding the hunt for and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow, the director, was passed over by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the 2013 run for the Best Director Oscar, and word on the street is that the opening scenes of “enhanced interrogation” and “extreme rendition” are behind the Academy’s snub.

I’m disappointed that the debate following the film’s release was hijacked by critics who made it about America’s use of torture rather than a portrayal of the drudgery and sifting of detail that is at the heart of modern intelligence gathering. Critics turned the debate into a morality tale in which the US became the bad guy when the outcome was actually the elimination of the most dangerous terrorist on the planet.

Did torture yield the critical piece? The CIA, FBI and others have complained that enhanced interrogation and extreme rendition, where torture is outsourced to other countries, was not responsible for eliciting a critical piece of intelligence that identified the courier that eventually led them to the Abbottabad compound where Bin Laden was holed up. Does torture produce actionable intelligence? Sometimes it might. Experts disagree about its efficacy but most do agree that a good interrogator can get the actionable intelligence without torture and that the information obtained through torture is eminently suspect because subjects will say anything to bring an end to the pain. I don’t know the “truth.”

There is no question that Alberto Gonzales, as Attorney General, prodded by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, authorized and sanctioned the use of waterboarding as an interrogation tool during those years. President Obama has made it clear and established policy to eliminate waterboarding and extreme rendition. Let the record reflect that I am not a supporter of torture, but at the time of these interrogations enhanced interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition were sanctioned and authorized by the US government.

I don’t know what it’s really like to be tortured. I went through two survival schools – summer and winter – in the 1960’s. I was captured by the “aggressors” and taken to an interrogation compound where I was sleep deprived, left in a cell with no heat and an outside air temp of 15⁰F. I was interrogated under bright lights and when I refused to give anything but name, rank, and serial number I was placed in a small box (like the one shown in the film) and left for a few hours. It was no fun, and I don’t know how I would have fared had the situation been real. The point is that all enemy combatants use these techniques and worse. Let’s be clear; Zero Dark Thirty is not about the ethics of interrogation techniques. It is a damn good detective story about how the CIA tracked down the world’s most dangerous terrorist.

In addressing the critics of the film I like the words Hillary Clinton used in frustration the other day – “What difference at this point does it make?” We can’t rewind the clock and take back the active use of enhanced interrogation and extreme rendition. The world is not a black and white place, even though some would like to think it is. Since the end of the cold war and the advent of terrorism on a world scale the United States has been searching for a moral compass to guide its foreign policy. It wants to hold itself to a high moral standard while still protecting itself and its citizens. I think this film celebrates the hard work and perseverance that yielded a positive outcome. Let’s give the people who did it credit. After all it is a film about people. In the end, I believe a film’s importance is measured, at least in part, by the discussion it provokes. This isn’t a documentary; it’s a narrative film based on actual events and it is both art and fact. I think it’s a great one.


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