Terra Incognita: The CIA’s jihad against ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

It isn’t every day that members of the US Senate seek to interfere in a Hollywood production or other work of art.

guantanamo detainee (illustrative)_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
guantanamo detainee (illustrative)_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 wrote.
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.
Because the 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 Bin Laden.”
Radack suggested that the movie must have a disclaimer that explains “torture does not work and was of no value in finding Osama bin Laden.”
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.
Now the 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.
They 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 movie?