In short, the hunt for bin Laden could not have been accomplished without every form of American intelligence-gathering. And certainly, "Zero Dark Thirty" tries to make that point clear with gripping scenes of CIA officers using direction-finding technology to zero in on the courier's cell phone in a crowded Pakistani city. But there is little doubt that the torture scenes in the movie will be the ones that linger with filmgoers.
"Zero Dark Thirty" will be released at a time when Americans are becoming more likely to embrace the idea that torturing prisoners suspected of terrorism is justified. In September, a YouGov poll indicated that 41% of Americans endorse this view. That is up 14% from a similar poll taken in 2007.
While "Zero Dark Thirty" was in production, some Republican politicians were harshly critical of the manner in which the Obama administration was granting access to its director and screenwriter. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, warned that the filmmakers had engaged in an "extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration with top officials at the CIA, DoD (the Pentagon), and the White House."
In fact, the film, which will be released on December 19, barely mentions Obama, even though he did, after all, make the politically perilous decision to send the Navy SEALs deep into Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden.
The one time the president does appear in "Zero Dark Thirty" is in a clip from a "60 Minutes" interview in which he criticizes the use of "torture." By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama's opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.
Ironically, one of the most vocal supporters of the CIA's use of coercive interrogation techniques is the same Republican politician who was the most critical of the way that the Obama administration granted access to the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty." King told Fox News shortly after bin Laden was killed, "for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden."
That is certainly not the considered view of the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, who have spent the past three years investigating the CIA interrogation program. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Carl Levin, D-Michigan, released a statement in April that is completely at odds with the claims of King:
"CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL (bin Laden) courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. ... Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program. ... The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques."
Let's hope that the Senate Intelligence Committee report is largely declassified and made public. The American public has a right to know whether the coercive techniques that were used in its name actually worked or not.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a great piece of filmmaking and does a valuable public service by raising difficult questions most Hollywood movies shy away from, but as of this writing, it seems that one of its central themes -- that torture was instrumental to tracking down bin Laden -- is not supported by the facts.
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