Thursday, December 20, 2012

Torture & Zero Dark Thirty (Updated 4x: 1/20/2013)

At Opinio Juris, Deborah Pearlstein shares with us a letter from three U.S. senators to the Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment on the role torture plays in the new film, Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a “master of heightened realism and narrative drive.”

Update: A colleague at my school sent me a note expressing puzzlement over the letter from the senators, indeed, wondering if they’d actually seen the movie:

“I have. I watched it with the Santa Barbara Cinema Society last weekend, and Kathryn Bigelow and the writer Mark Boal were there for a Q/A afterwards.

As hard as the opening scenes of water-boarding were to watch, what the movie shows very clearly is that NO useful information was obtained by the torture.

Osama Bin Laden was found through relentless, old fashioned perseverance and gum-shoe sleuthing.”

*       *       *

I’ve not seen the movie, but it seems from everything I’ve read that some who see the movie might make (and some already have made) the inference that torture (waterboarding and so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques) in fact did play a role, given its placement in the overall narrative of the story (indeed, why the torture scenes if they’re irrelevant to the search?). I’ll accord the senators the benefit of the doubt, for I’d be surprised if they (or at least their staff members) did not see the movie before composing a letter of this sort (although little truly surprises me these days).

Again, I’ve yet to see the film, but what might we make of this:

“[I]t’s a sign of how much spin is going on in relation to this issue that Manohla Dargis, in her review of the movie in The New York Times, could flagrantly misinterpret one key scene out of a politically correct desire to see Kathryn Bigelow land on the noble side of the torture debate. Dargis writes: ‘The abuse scenes are crucial to Zero Dark Thirty because they serve as a claim — one made cinematically rather than with speeches — that these interrogation methods are unreliable when it comes to producing actionable information.’ And how, within the movie, are these methods shown to be unreliable? ‘It is only later, when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, sit across from him at a table, talk to him like a human being and give him food and a cigarette, that he offers them a potential lead.’ Dargis makes it sound as if Ammar offers up that lead simply because Dan and Maya decided to be ‘nice’ to him — that when it comes to terrorist prisoners, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Actually, what Dargis leaves out is that when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, telling him (falsely) that he offered up information that led to the defusing of a terrorist attack, the only reason that they’re able to get away with that crucial lie is that he’s been so bamboozled by torture that he can’t remember a goddamn thing.

So where does Zero Dark Thirty leave us as moviegoers? I would say that it’s not a pro-torture movie, but that it’s not anti-torture either. Rather, it says — rightly or wrongly — that the extreme interrogation methods that were put into practice after 9/11 were an integral part (though far from the only part) of what led the CIA to discover the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.” [emphasis added] (Owen Gleiberman, Inside Movies)

Yet more interesting stuff in this regard from Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, who concludes the film, albeit subtly and indirectly at times, does in fact add up to an endorsement of the indispensability torture, at least that’s the inference many will make, all things considered:

“After some critics called Bigelow a torture apologist, she defended the fairness and historical accuracy of her movie. ‘The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience,’ she told my New Yorker colleague Dexter Filkins, who interviewed her for a Talk of the Town piece. At a Los Angeles press junket, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, complained that critics were ‘mischaracterizing’ the torture sequences: ‘I understand that those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental. But I think that what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.’ His point was that because the film shows multiple approaches to intelligence gathering, of which torture is only one tactic, and because the torture isn’t shown as always producing correct or instant leads, it offers a nuanced answer to the question of whether torture works.

But whether torture ‘worked’ was far from the most important question about its use. I’ve seen the film and, as much as I admired Bigelow’s Oscar-winning picture ‘The Hurt Locker,’ I think that this time, by ignoring the full weight of the dark history of torture, her work falls disturbingly short. To begin with, despite Boal’s contentions, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ does not capture the complexity of the debate about America’s brutal detention program. It doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.

To establish a baseline of moral awareness, she shows her heroine—a C.I.A. counterterrorism officer called Maya, played by Jessica Chastain—delicately wincing as she hands the more muscled interrogators a pitcher of water with which to waterboard a detainee. Maya is also shown standing mutely by when the detainee is strung up by ropes, stripped naked, and forced to crawl in a dog collar. In reality, when the C.I.A. first subjected a detainee to incarceration in a coffin-size ‘confinement box,’ as is shown in the movie, an F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible. The fight went all the way to the top of the Bush Administration. Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees.

The lone anti-torture voice shown in the film is a split-second news clip of President Barack Obama, taken from a ‘60 Minutes’ interview, in which he condemns torture. It flashes on a television screen that’s in the background of a scene set in Pakistan; the movie’s terrorist-hunters, who are holding a meeting, barely look up, letting Obama’s pronouncement pass without comment. ‘By this point in the film,’ as the CNN national-security analyst Peter Bergen wrote recently, ‘the audience has already seen that the C.I.A. 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.’

Bigelow has portrayed herself as a reluctant truth-teller. She recently described the film’s torture scenes as ‘difficult to shoot.’ She said, ‘I wish it was not part of our history. But it was.’

Yet what is so unsettling about ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain, clearly stating that ‘we first learned about ‘the facilitator / courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.’ Panetta wrote that ‘no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.’ [….]

In addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ endorses torture in several other subtle ways. At one point, the film’s chief C.I.A. interrogator claims, without being challenged, that ‘everyone breaks in the end,’ adding, ‘it’s biology.’ Maybe that’s what they think in Hollywood, but experts on the history of torture disagree. Indeed, many prisoners have been tortured to death without ever revealing secrets, while many others—including some of those who were brutalized during the Bush years—have fabricated disinformation while being tortured. Some of the disinformation provided under duress during those years, in fact, helped to lead the U.S. into the war in Iraq under false premises.

At another point in the film, an elderly detainee explains that he wants to coöperate with the U.S. because he ‘doesn’t want to be tortured again.’ The clear implication is that brutalization brings breakthroughs. Other ways of getting intelligence, such as bribing sources with expensive race cars, are shown to work, too. But while those scenes last only a few minutes, the torture scenes seem to go on and on.

The filmmakers subtly put their thumb on the pro-torture scale, as Emily Bazelon put it, in another scene, too. A C.I.A. officer complains that there is no way for him to corroborate a lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts now that the detainees in Guantánamo all have lawyers. The suggestion is that if they are given due process rather than black eyes, there will be no way to get the necessary evidence. This is a canard, given that virtually all suspects in the American criminal-justice system have lawyers, yet their cases proceed smoothly and fairly every day.

Bigelow has stressed that she had ‘no agenda’ when she made ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Unsurprisingly, though, those who have defended the brutalization of detainees have already begun embracing the film as evidence that they are right. Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC’s show ‘Morning Joe,’ said recently that the film’s narrative, ‘whether you find it repugnant or not,’ shows that the C.I.A. program was effective and ‘led to the couriers, that led, eventually, years later, to the killing of Osama bin Laden.’ My guess is that this is just the beginning, and that by the time millions of Americans have seen this movie, they will believe that, as Frank Bruni put it in a recent Times column, ‘No waterboarding, no bin Laden.’” [....]

A NY Times article notes the director and writer stated that the film “[makes] clear that the most important break in the Bin Laden hunt did not come from a coercive interrogation,” which clearly leaves open the possibility it played some role at some earlier point in time (e.g., as a necessary yet not sufficient condition) or was nonetheless a possible variable in the chain of events. In other words, at best, it’s ambiguous or an open question as to the part “enhance interrogation” (i.e., torture) in fact played, simply ruling out the possibility that it was pivotal to “the most important break in the Bid Laden hunt.” That in fact is how some (many?) reviewers have interpreted the film, and why Mayer concludes above “that by the time millions of Americans have seen this movie, they will believe that, as Frank Bruni put it in a recent Times column, ‘No waterboarding, no bin Laden.’”

[Please see the original articles for the hyperlinks embedded in them.]

Second Update: In a letter to employees, the Acting Director of the CIA states, among other things, that

“the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.” The entire letter comes, once more, courtesy of Deborah Pearlstein at Opinio Juris.

Third Update: Karen J. Greenberg at Salon writes of the “Seven Ways ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Excuses Torture.”

Fourth Update: Steve Coll, “Disturbing & Misleading,” in the New York Review of Books, and Juan Cole at Informed Comment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Patrick. Thanks for this. I haven't seen the movie yet.


John Dehn

1/04/2013 12:47 PM  
Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

It's nice to hear from you, thanks John.

All good wishes,

1/04/2013 11:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home