Among the critics of the new movie by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty, are other filmmakers, journalists, and even Senators. Not to mention two former recipients of the Ridenhour Book Prize: the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, and former FBI agent Ali Soufan.
The controversial movie, which, according to the opening credits is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events," depicts the decade-long search for al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden that began in 2003 with a tip in Pakistan and ended eight years later with a nighttime raid in a compound in Abbottabad. The first half hour has gruesome scenes of torture, including waterboarding and sexual humiliation, which supposedly yields the information about bin Laden's courier that leads to the discovery of his hideout.
Yet 2012 Ridenhour recipient and FBI counterterrorism investigator Ali Soufan told Foreign Policy magazine in December, "The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture. Of all the people that are talking about this, I was the only one that was in the room. Enhanced interrogation techniques did not work."
Soufan was awarded the Ridenhour Book Prize last year for The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, an extraordinary account of his time at the FBI and his investigations into al-Qaeda, starting with the beginnings of the group during the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamic militants of 1979 and ending with the death of Osama bin Laden in 2010. As the judges wrote, with The Black Banners, Soufan "has written the definitive history of al-Qaeda, and provides irrefutable evidence that torture is not only antithetical to American values, but produces false and dangerous information."
From the Foreign Policy interview:
FP: What do you make of the way enhanced interrogation techniques are portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow's new film, Zero Dark Thirty? Is it wrong or misleading?
AS: It's fiction. Based on all the information that I know, based on the 6,000-page report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and based on what many of the experts that follow these things have said -- at least one of whom actually served as an advisor on the film -- this is not fact. This is Hollywood. The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture. And the Senate report that has been voted on in the committee -- which included at least one Republican -- made it very clear that enhanced interrogation techniques and waterboarding did not work. And that just confirms what the CIA inspector general said about that program, and what the Department of Justice said about it. The facts are there. I came to my opinion based on experience. I opposed enhanced interrogation techniques not really because of the moral issues. I opposed it from the efficacy perspective.
Read the rest of the interview here.
Another former Ridenhour recipient also weighed in on Zero Dark Thirty: Jane Mayer, who won the 2009 Book Prize for The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into A War on American Ideals. In this New Yorker piece, Mayer writes more broadly about the depiction of torture in the film and the subtle, troubling way that torture is condoned, and even celebrated, by the filmmakers.
"Kathryn Bigelow," Mayer writes, "milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful."
[Zero Dark Thirty] 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.
In fact, as national security expert and the author of a book on the hunt for Osama bin Laden Peter Bergen writes, Zero Dark Thirty also ignores the history of interrogations by FBI agents such as Soufan, who questioned Abu Zubaydah, the first captive to be taken to a CIA overseas secret prison.
Abu Zubaydah was first interrogated by Ali Soufan, one of the few Arabic-speaking FBI agents. Soufan softened up Abu Zubaydah by calling him "Hani," the childhood nickname his mother had used for him, a fact that the FBI agent had gathered from intelligence files. The approach started yielding quick results.
When Abu Zubaydah was shown a series of photos of al Qaeda members by Soufan, he identified one of them as the operational commander of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Abu Zubaydah's confirmation of Mohammed's role in 9/11 was the single most important piece of information uncovered about al Qaeda after the attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon, and it was discovered during the course of a standard interrogation, without recourse to any form of coercion. Soufan recalled that Abu Zubaydah gave up the information about a week or so into his interrogation.
Abu Zubaydah was later waterboarded 83 times by the CIA. This form of simulated drowning is generally considered torture, but none of it produced much in the way of useful information.
In Mayer's acceptance speech at the Ridenhour Prizes ceremony, she said, "One of the main reasons I wanted to actually turn these stories in the New Yorker into the book that became the Dark Side...was to show that contrary to what Donald Rumsfeld said in his characterization of Abu Ghraib of course was it was not just a few rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel. This was not just an aberration. Abuse and torture were the systematic deliberate and official policy of the Bush Administration, in violation not just of multiple laws, but of the core values of our country." Read Mayer's review of Zero Dark Thirty here.
UPDATE: Plus, Karen J. Greenberg, who introduced Soufan and presented the Ridenhour Book Prize to him last year, has written "Learning to Love Torture, Zero Dark Thirty-Style: Seven Easy, Onscreen Steps to Making U.S. Torture and Detention Policies Once Again Palatable" for TomDispatch. Read it here.