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Jingo(ism) Unchained: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year. For some.

The film, now in limited release (and opening for real January 11), delivers a bounty of bangs and booms, and swaggering American heroes torturing swarthy bad guys—with no consequences—packaged in a ripping yarn.

The yarn: A waifish and improbably fragile CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, spends 12 years doggedly tracking Osama bin Laden, countenancing and supervising torture of detainees—beatings, waterboarding—along the way. As ZDT has it, her work led us to bin Laden’s fortress hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs dropped in and killed him and several members of his family. As she flies home alone in the belly of a military cargo plane after the deed is done, she sheds a tear. Roll credits.

Only the last part of the story line, the SEALs bit, resembles the most authoritative versions of what actually happened (much information about the operation and the intel that led to it is classified). The rest is a brutal Hollywood fantasy, a kind of jingo(ism) unchained, that stretches deep into the movie and corrupts it.

Several critics have taken a lighten up, it’s just a movie tack. Makers of fictional films have dramatic license to pump up a story, after all. Screenwriters and directors composite dreary real-life humans into a single, sexy dynamo, like Chastain’s Agent Maya, all the time. They add a boom here and a boom there, where no booms should be. No harm in that.

Problem one: The film itself asserts that ZDT is based on facts and firsthand testimony. But this is the least important flaw. The real concern for me is, there is a bar for fidelity to history— particularly such recent and raw history—that must be vaulted in a film that begins as Zero Dark Thirty does: with 911 audio from doomed callers trapped in the Towers on 9-11, which implicitly justifies what comes next. ZDT’s makers appear to have crawled under that bar without ever glancing up.

(Jane Mayer, who’s been writing about torture for the New Yorker for years, and Glenn Greenwald unravel the film’s fabric of distortion, seemingly stitch by stitch.)

Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan, among other truly dogged investigators, blazed the path to bin Laden by extracting information from al Qaeda enablers and operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He did it by talking to them.

“Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”

Soufan continues: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” Soufan also notes that many Americans assigned to investigations and detainee interrogation, including CIA agents, objected to the torture that was being carried out.

A long line of men and women who are in a position to know what happened have stepped up to challenge ZDT’s adaptation of real-life events, including some of our elected officials.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and raging liberal John McCain have taken on ZDT directly in a letter to the director: “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.” They’re not denying that torture took place. The senators are saying, unequivocally, that the true road to bin Laden did not begin, as it does in the film, with the violent extraction of vital information by a charming and strategically cruel CIA agent through beatings and waterboarding. “Everyone breaks in the end,” the interrogator tells his captive. “It’s biology.” This is, of course, untrue. Not everybody breaks. Most people lie. And some people die.

All three senators serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently completed a 6,000-page report, approved by a nine-to-six vote, that also states torture did not play a role in the mission to kill bin Laden.

Journalist Mark Bowden, however, writes in his recent book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden that two detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, did in fact provide actionable intelligence when tortured that aided the bin Laden hunt. “It should […] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods.”

Assuming that Bowden is correct and that some information was beaten or boarded out of Qahtani and Slahi, others in the know like Soufan tell us that using brain, not brawn—or dogs or Metallica cranked to 11—elicits better information more reliably.

Ultimately, torture boomerangs on the nation that authorizes it—us—by inciting others to retributive violence and fouling bona fide efforts to root out terrorism, not just kill terrorists (or those suspected of being terrorists).

We tortured Qahtani,” Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who oversaw military commissions for Guantanamo detainees, told the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

“War crimes charges against Mr. al Qahtani have been dismissed but may be refiled,” the NY Times reported recently.

“Of the cases I had seen, he was the one with the most blood on his hands,” Stuart Couch, the Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi (also rendered Salahi), told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

But: “Col. Couch would uncover evidence [that] the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated,” reporter Jesse Bravin wrote. Couch told his commander he was “morally opposed” to the methods used on Slahi, and declined to the take the case.

“I’m hoping there’s some non-tainted evidence out there that can put the guy in the hole,” Couch said. Both Qatani and Slahi have been held in limbo at Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

The Senate Select Committee’s report is classified, but may be released one day. That said, we will never know the whole story. The CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who has asserted for the record (and in his own book, Hard Measures) that torture works, destroyed videotapes documenting “coercive interrogation.” Ninety-two tapes, he told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty does terrible violence to the story on which it is based, the real story of the hunt for bin Laden. It popularizes a narrative that justifies inhumane and self-defeating practices. Fundamentally, in my view, it does a disservice to those who died trying to track down bin Laden the right way, and it dishonors those who lost their lives to the terrorist himself.

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