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Terra Incognita: The CIA’s jihad against ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
It isn’t every day that members of the US Senate seek to interfere in a Hollywood production or other work of art.
In mid-December, US Senators Diane Feinstein and John McCain wrote a letter to
Sony Pictures condemning the movie Zero Dark Thirty. The film was “grossly
inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information
that led to the location” of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, they
It isn’t every day that members of the US Senate seek to interfere
in a Hollywood production or other work of art. It isn’t every day that senators
seek even to decide which history books are “grossly inaccurate and misleading”
and which represent the “correct” narrative. In fact it would seem that not
since the days of Joe McCarthy, has the US Senate shown such interest in the
creative instincts of Hollywood. Those days it was Communists, now it seems to
be the fear audiences might get the wrong message.
What prompted this
outburst was the Kathryn Bigelow masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty, a well
constructed film about the hunt for Bin Laden.
Bigelow was the toast of
the town for her gritty portrayal of solders working on bomb disposal in The
Hurt Locker. But in Zero Dark Thirty she sought to tell the story of the
decade-long hunt for Bin Laden, focusing on a female CIA officer who kept the
oil burning when all else seemed lost. In doing so Bigelow had to re-visit those
controversial days when the US whisked men off to “black sites” and subjected
them to “enhanced interrogation.”
These interrogations involved placing
detainees in “stress positions,” some beatings, simulated drowning (known as
waterboarding) and other less than kosher means of extracting information.
Critics deemed it torture, and anyone watching it in Zero Dark Thirty will
agree. But as George Bush is shown quipping in the Oliver Stone film W, “that
reminds me of my fraternity days.” No one died or had their fingernails ripped
out one by one.
And here Bigelow’s troubles began.
film seemed to remain moralityneutral on the subject, without some character who
says “I won’t stand for this” or “America doesn’t torture,” it is construed as
condoning the actions.
Jesselyn Radack wrote at the Daily Kos, “I saw
Zero Dark Thirty yesterday and it’s revolting – for its blatant propaganda,
glorification of torture and false narrative that torture led to the demise of
Radack suggested that the movie must have a disclaimer that
explains “torture does not work and was of no value in finding Osama bin
In their letter to Sony the US senators asserted that the studio
has an “obligation” to state that the film “is not based on facts, but rather
part of the film’s narrative.”
The senators believe in the narrative
presented by the Senate Intelligence Committee, a secret document, that
supposedly shows “other means” were used to locate Bin Laden’s courier, not
interrogation of a subject.
The senators are incensed that the film is
“perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.”
But now things have
taken an unusual turn. Jose Rodriguez, who supervised the interrogation program
from 2002 to 2007, has claimed: “Sorry, Hollywood, what we did wasn’t torture,”
and has noted that “no one was bloodied or beaten” on his watch.
US Senate Intelligence Committee has sent the head of the CIA a letter demanding
to know more about contacts between the CIA and the filmmakers and arguing that
perhaps the CIA misled the Hollywood artists. For his part, the CIA director has
sent around a letter to CIA employees explaining that “multiple streams of
intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in
Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there
were many other sources as well.”
What seems to bother everyone is that
Zero Dark Thirty is about a true story. However, other movies based on real
events, such as Oliver Stone’s Nixon, or Charlie Wilson’s War, have not been
upbraided by the US government.
Films about the CIA have also never come
in for such a complaint from the agency, whether it is The Quiet American, The
Good Shepherd, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Spy Game or Russia House, to
name a few. So why did this particular film strike so close to home? In the wake
of the revelations about what the “enhanced interrogation” program entailed and
after America had cooled off from the shock of 9/11, numerous people became
unhappy with the apparent illegality of America whisking terror suspects off to
“black sites” in foreign countries where they were denied rights they would have
had under military law and civilian law in the US.
The discomfort bred a
narrative that “torture doesn’t work” as a response to those who maintained the
need for torture in the “ticking bomb scenario” where a terrorist is caught and
a bomb he knows about will explode in several hours. This was the subject of the
2010 film Unthinkable, in which Samuel L. Jackson must torture a terrorist to
find a nuclear bomb that is about to explode.
The idea behind the “it
doesn’t work” argument is that it defangs the critics who want to torture and
also gives the anti-torture people an argument that seems hard-nosed and
intelligent. Of course it ignores the moral issue of torture; if torture did
work, would it be justified? The US Constitution has said no, in denying “cruel
and unusual punishment” and providing a host of rights to defendants. The
senators and others cling to the “it doesn’t work” argument out of fear that
people know, in the back of their minds, that maybe it does work.
are afraid that Zero Dark Thirty is an accurate depiction of events. But since
when were people so worried about moviegoers getting the “wrong message” from a