a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The “Zero Dark Thirty” interbranch torture propaganda war

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 24th, 2012

…followed by the highest-grossing propaganda effort in history?

The makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” may have just learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  Peter Bergen (CNN) reports:

On Wednesday, three senior U.S. senators sent Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, a letter about “Zero Dark Thirty,” the much-discussed new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which described the film as “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

The letter, co-signed by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and John McCain (R-AZ), states:

…We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative….

LA Times reporters Zeitchik and Keegan cut to the chase as far as Hollywood is concerned:

…a bipartisan thumbs-down from Washington may dim the once-bright Oscar chances for Kathryn Bigelow‘s fact-based thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden“You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. That’s not the case,” McCain said on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” adding that torture had yielded false information from detainees. The former prisoner of war explained that he was speaking out because “movies, particularly by very highly credentialed producers, directors and cast, [do] have an effect on public opinion — not only in the United States but around the world.”

Zeitchik and Keegan continue, apparently not ironically,

The slam — and on a subject as provocative as torture — is part of a public relations nightmare in an industry where perception often trumps reality.

…by which they seem to mean criticisms from the news cycle trumping box office receipts and cinematographic artistry.  If so, karma may be a bitch in this case, given that “perception trumping reality” is what the movie makers (arguably) did to position their movie as an Oscar-bait, kinda-sorta-documentary “based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” mainly-sorta-blockbuster in the first place.

Yet there’s something that doesn’t sit well about the senators’ position here either.  I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s  David Ignatius, who clutches at his pearls and calls  the senators’ letter “intemperate” and suggests the senators’ position “sounds like censorship.”  As to the former: good grief, who cares?  But as to the latter: first, “sounds like” ain’t “is.”  Second, it doesn’t even sound like it: the senators suggest setting the record straight — no more — about the movie’s lack of veracity, as they rightly (I suspect*) see it, on the subject of the paltry role that CIA depravity ultimately played in locating Bin Laden.

No, far from censorship, “sounding like censorship,” or infringing Kathryn Bigelow’s constitutional right to an Oscar, what we’ve got here is an inter-branch propaganda battle: over here a blockbuster movie whose authenticity is brought to you by copious access to and capture by the CIA, over there the leadership of a congressional committee equally eager to shape the public’s understanding of the events — and, so far, equally unwilling to divulge any more basis for believing them than the implied parental “because we tell you so.”

I say this because the Senate Intelligence Committee recently (December 13) adopted a 6,000 page report detailing the findings of what the ACLU describes hopefully as “an exhaustive three-year review into the CIA’s interrogation, detention, and extraordinary rendition program.”  But even the ACLU doesn’t really know that, because the report remains classified:

“The next step, of course, is for the report to be made public, so that all Americans can understand the harm that the CIA’s use of torture caused to national security, American values, and to its often innocent victims,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Nothing good, and only bad, came from the torture program. But until the report is made public, most Americans will hear about the CIA and its torture program only from fictionalized movies and television shows, and not from this still-classified 6,000 page report on the actual facts.”

Maybe Ignatius is right to suggest that the three senator’s real target with their letter was “the intelligence community — and beyond that, the kind of public discussion that leads to good policy decisions.”  My initial guess is simpler and perhaps less ominous than that: this is a committee that had done years of work studying a hugely important issue, only to find itself upstaged at the last minute by Hollywood and a rather nimble CIA P.R. effort.  Yet it’s also true these are people generally no more interested than the CIA in actually leveling with actual American people about these policies.

The Senate Intelligence Committee should not have a monopoly on the truth about torture.  If Feinstein, Levin, and McCain really believe that SONY and Bigelow have a “social and moral obligation to get the facts right,” they needn’t waste their time now moonlighting as film critics or culture scolds.  Instead, they themselves now have the very same social and moral obligation to make those facts available — to the greatest extent possible — by making their committee report public.

That would do far more than a one-off letter to SONY to help the country determine for itself whether “Zero Dark Thirty” is largely fact or largely fiction.   It would also show far more respect to the people of the United States.


POSTSCRIPT: For an excellent discussion of “Zero Dark Thirty”, here’s a segment on “Up with Chris Hayes” featuring Glenn Greenwald, Spencer Ackerman, ACLU’s Hina Shamsi,  and CBS correspondent Nancy Giles, and FBI interrogator James Clemente.  Hayes didn’t mince words, calling the movie “objectively pro-torture” and saying it “actively colludes with evil.” (That said, Ms. Shamsi disagreed because “it doesn’t pull any punches.”)  The clip below is the first of five.   To see all five most conveniently, go to this playlist which plays each clip in sequence.

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* I base this on my own reading of the same document Ignatius cites: Leon Panetta’s May 16, 2011 letter to John McCain, and my current understanding of the movie’s plot.  POSSIBLE SPOILER, highlight to read: As I understand it, the movie suggests that a person who had been subjected to frequent torturous interrogations provided a crucial clue about a Bin Laden courier — not during such an interrogation, but because he was threatened with one.  The clue was then corroborated with documentary evidence already available.  So the movie says: no torture, no Bin Laden.  END POSSIBLE SPOILER. Panetta, by contrast, wrote this:

Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that Bin Ladin was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. there was no one “essential and indispensible” key piece of information that led us to this conclusion. Rather, the intelligence picture was developed via painstaking collection and analysis. Multiple streams of intelligence — including from detainees, but also from multiple other sources — led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was at this compound. Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the “only timely and effective way” to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that that information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to Bin Ladin.
Let me further point out that we first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002. It is also important to note that some detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier. These attempts to falsify the facilitator/courier’s role were alerting.
In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.

Reasonable people can differ, but to me this suggests a paltry, happenstance role for torture in locating Bin Laden, not the central, necessary one the movie seems to suggest.  In this connection, it’s inaccurate to suggest, as Ignatius does, that the senators or other serious analysts of the issue make the absurd claim that torture never, ever results in true information.  As Senator McCain wrote in a May 11, 2011 op-ed,

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.

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