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Cole writes: "The film is misleading precisely because it does what the Bush administration did not do. It stays with Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda."

Jessica Chastain plays the CIA's 'Maya' in Zero Dark Thirty, a film unfairly maligned as pro-torture. (photo: Sony/Columbia Pictures) ]
Jessica Chastain plays the CIA's 'Maya' in Zero Dark Thirty, a film unfairly maligned as pro-torture. (photo: Sony/Columbia Pictures) ]

What Zero Dark Thirty Really Leaves Out

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

15 January 13


n important problem with the narrative line of "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's film about the Central Intelligence Agency's quest for Usama Bin Laden, is not just that it comes across as pro-torture but that it ignores the elephant in the room: Bad intelligence elicited by torture almost derailed that quest to put down al-Qaeda by diverting most resources to Iraq.

"Zero Dark Thirty" stands in a long line of Hollywood-Washington collaborations that essentially do the work of propaganda. The lineage includes Michael Curtiz's 1942 "Casablanca" with Humphrey Bogart, which was produced under the Office of War Information's guidelines; the director assigned it the government-prescribed theme of "III B (United Nations - Conquered Nations) Drama," as Tanfer Emin Tunc argues.

The film is misleading precisely because it does what the Bush administration did not do. It stays with Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda. At one point a CIA official complains that there are no other working groups concentrating on al-Qaeda, that it is just the handful of field officers around the table. But he does not say that the Bush administration ran off to Iraq and closed down the Bin Laden desk at the CIA. Nor do any of the characters admit that bad intelligence, including that gathered by torture, helped send the United States off on the Great Iraq Wild Goose Chase.

I care about this issue in part for reasons of my own biography. As a Baby Boomer who was against the Vietnam War, I had never had much to do with the US government until the September 11 attacks. Had I not been on the doorstep of 50 when they took place, I might well have enlisted. I felt 9/11 profoundly, to my very soul, and was depressed about it for years. I wanted to do what I could to understand al-Qaeda and help destroy it. When RAND and other providers of speakers in Washington asked me to come out and talk to analysts from various government agencies, I was pleased to do it. At the time, Arabists and Islam experts in the US were not so numerous, and pernicious self-proclaimed experts had proliferated. There was a lot of Islamophobia around, and most Americans who did not know the Middle East first hand did not realize that al-Qaeda was a tiny fringe, not representative of Islam.

I don't know if all those talks I gave in DC to inter-agency audiences were ever useful in fighting al-Qaeda, but I certainly hope so, and I was proud to do my bit in presenting an informed and analytical approach to fighting the phenomenon. I was trying to model for them social analysis as academics understand it. I was also honored to address people who were doing their best to confront a major security challenge.

But because I saw the Iraq War as a distraction from the fight against al-Qaeda, and was vocal about critiquing its prosecution, the Bush White House decided that it did not want me consulting in DC and tried to have me blackballed. The Bushies were fine with a phalanx of quacks and phony experts descending on the capital to charge millions for their crazed schemes. But having someone come to town who knew whereof he spoke was intolerable. In the end, the White House asked the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA to find dirt on me and try to destroy my reputation.

Bush and Cheney exploited al-Qaeda and the threat of terrorism to erode civil liberties at home and to reshape Iraq and its oil riches abroad. But they weren't that interested in actually finding Bin Laden or rolling up al-Qaeda. Someone like myself, who could see that Iraq was a massive train wreck and that it actually prolonged al-Qaeda's significance, was most inconvenient in 2005 and 2006.

So, I mind the the narrative of "Zero Dark Thirty" for personal reasons. It leaves out a key obstacle to the quest it recounts. Some of what is wrong with the film may derive from its beginnings, as a story about how the quest for Bin Laden failed. That premise had to be changed after May 2, 2011, of course. But a film that began with an exploration of failure should have highlighted the Iraq distraction and the bad intel from torture all the more.

I made this point when al-Qaeda operative Ibn Shaykh al-Libi died in a Qaddafi prison in 2009:

The best refutation of Dick Cheney's insistence that torture was necessary and useful in dealing with threats from al-Qaeda just died in a Libyan prison. See also Andy Worthington.

Al-Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured trying to escape from Afghanistan in late 2001. He was sent to Egypt to be tortured, and under duress alleged that Saddam Hussein was training al-Qaeda agents in chemical weapons techniques. It was a total crock, and alleged solely to escape further pain. Al-Libi disavowed the allegation when he was returned to CIA custody. But Cheney and Condi Rice ran with the single-source, torture-induced assertion and it was inserted by Scooter Libby in Colin Powell's infamous speech to the United Nations.

If torture can mislead you into launching a war that results in hundreds of thousands of deaths, then it should be avoided, quite apart from the fact that it is illegal and that the United States is signatory to binding treaties specifying its illegality. (It is coming out that Bush-Cheney's own CIA Inspector-General expressed the view that the Bush-era torture was medically unsound, did not produce the desired results, and contravened the UN Convention against torture.

Here is what Condi Rice told the Lehrer News Hour in 2002, based on the torture-induced statements of the late al-Libi:

‘ "We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of Al Qaeda going back for actually quite a long time," Rice said. "We know too that several of the [Al Qaeda] detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to Al Qaeda in chemical weapons development." ‘

In my book, Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East, I note that Gen. Bonaparte forbade the use of torture by French military interrogators in Cairo, on the grounds that it produced too much misinformation. Napoleon was not exactly squeamish. And even he would have been ashamed of the crew we had in Washington before last January.

End/ (Not Continued)

Critics such as Glenn Greenwald argued that the film assumes that torture yielded key intelligence, especially the identity of Bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti. Most intelligence officials say that the al-Kuwaiti lead did not come from waterboarding or other torture techniques,

In the end, I'm not entirely sure that the film shows torture succeeding for the CIA. In fact, al-Kuwaiti's identity is confirmed by other techniques in the film. In one instance a man ("Ammar") who was tortured to no effect is tricked into believing that he had already given up operational information. This kind of technique is called in intelligence work ‘false flag tradecraft,' i.e. fooling an informant by feeding him or her a set of false premises. In part, this success comes from a rapport the man made with "Maya," the relentless woman field officer. Again, in real life interrogations, such rapport and such false flag techniques are always more successful than torture.

In another scene, a Pakistani man who is interrogated begins by saying that he had been tortured in the past by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, and is willing to cooperate to avoid further mistreatment at American hands. I suppose that exchange serves as a suggestion that torture works in the long run, but what he gives the Americans is this case freely given.

The screenplay does, nevertheless, have a fascination with torture, and implies at several points its utility, as Karen Greenberg showed in these pages last week. Thus, when al-Kuwaiti's true identity is established, a field officer complains that it can no longer be double-checked with detainees because President Obama had closed down the torture program. This odd complaint assumes that detainees who had protected his identity despite years of abuse and brutalization would have fingered al-Kuwaiti if only waterboarded a few times more.

That torture was ineffective in tracing Bin Laden was confirmed by Senator John McCain.

McCain wrote in 2011,

"I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti - the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden - as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed's real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda. In fact, the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator - none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee - information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden - was obtained through standard, noncoercive means."

McCain was tortured while a POW in Vietnam and is among the few prominent American politicians to stand forthrightly against what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did in committing the US to war crimes. He is a critic of the film, and I think his view of this matter should be taken extremely seriously.

I did not like "Zero Dark Thirty" as a film. I found it emotionally thin, grim and relentless. It failed to establish an emotional connection to any of the characters, or to flesh them out as characters. The violence is deployed for the purposes of surprise rather than suspense, so that its dramatic effect is limited. It is episodic (we know that the Islamabad Marriott was blown up; shouldn't the film present a theory as to why?) Any suspense is further blunted by our lack of connection to the protagonist. Whereas in "Argo," my heart was in my mouth when the embassy employees were in danger, I just couldn't summon that kind of interest in Jessica Chastain's "Maya." The characters remain undeveloped because this film is plot driven, but also because it is primarily didactic, intended to send a message. Unfortunately, instead of glorifying the genuine heroes who have mostly rolled up al-Qaeda (an evil organization that wants to kill your children), it covers many of them with the shame of war crimes. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # opit 2013-01-15 16:20
There are slow learners around - and then there is you. Torture is used to do what torture has always been used to do : elicit false confessions. It was a component in generating the al CIA-da smokescreen for initiating the overthrow of the government of Iraq : a bastion of stability in the Middle East which had to go before the wholesale overthrow of governments in the region could commence. Did it work ? I assume you have heard of the Arab Spring.
+5 # RMDC 2013-01-16 05:58
Torture is a from of sadism. It is a crime just like rape. It is never about the victim but always about the torturer, in just the same way that rape is always only about the rapist. Torture satisfies some psychological disorder in the torturer. This is what the catholic church found in the middles ages. Just hearing a victim confess a belief in god under extreme pain was reassuring.

The fact is that torturers confirm their own confused and self-hating minds when they hear a victim confess to all the things the torturer wants to believe him guilty of.

I did not watch the movie and probably won't. It sounds just like more hollywood trash. We still don't have enough facts even to believe that it was in fact Osama bin Laden who was killed and dumped in the Indian Ocean. The release of hundreds of emails from the ship that supposedly dumped the body show no mention of any body or any dumping of anything in the ocean.
+6 # Glen 2013-01-16 08:42
Excellent, RMDC. I couldn't have said it better. But - I definitely will not see this movie.
+4 # RMDC 2013-01-16 09:57
There are not many good books on torture. There are 40 museums in Europe to the torture regimes of the middle ages or the inquisition. The techniques shown in them are exactly the same as the US is using today and has developed since the 1950s (minus the new technology). Clearly the psychological issues are the same. There's always a puzzling obsession with the victim's sexuality or sex organs in both cases. The effort is to make the victim feel dirty or have desires, which of course is impossible under the conditions of torture. But these are the feelings the torturers are having.

In the 1220s Pope Innocent III declared a set of universal principles for christian faith. Anyone who did not believe them all was a heretic and was condemned to hell. By 1250 torture was approved for getting heritics to confess the one true faith.

All declarations of any kind of one true faith always produce very many "heretics."

In 2004, Bush in the National Security Strategy of the United States declared "free market capitalism" the only permanent political ideology on earth and for all people. That declaration suddenly flushed out into the open billions of heretics. They will all have to be tortured to confess their faith in "free market capitalism."

Welcome to the new inquisition. That's what this movie is all about.
+1 # Glen 2013-01-16 15:01
Torture is an historical characteristic of a number of cultures, including the Chinese and American indian. If the Bible is to be believed, the Jews were pretty good at it too. The level of pain and suffering is the same, but with much more sophisticated methods today and very widespread. I appreciate your additional information on the subject, in spite of my knowing especially the religious aspects of the uses. You added to that.

The inquisition aspects of the movie, not to mention the propaganda and commercialism of U.S. brutality, is the reason I will not pay to see this plastic nonsense.
+9 # mudbike 2013-01-15 23:14
Add the new SyFy (ignorant spelling but it's theirs, not mine) to the list of propaganda crap as it portrays anti-corporate freedom advocates as radical mass murderers and the corporatist as the heroine. Give me a break
+1 # mudbike 2013-01-15 23:49
I left out the name of the corporate propaganda show on SyFy. It's Continuum.
+4 # RMDC 2013-01-16 05:53
"I wanted to do what I could to understand al-Qaeda and help destroy it."

One would think that Juan Cole would understand what a fraud al Queda has been all along -- a figment set up by the CIA in order to manipulate the emotons of the US population. Al Queda and especially Osama give a real face for Amerikkkans to hate.

In reality, al Queda has worked hand in hand with the CIA since its creation in the 1980s. It has helped the CIA in its wars in the Balkans, Chechnya, Ossetia, North Africa.
+1 # jmac9 2013-01-17 12:58
America the great hypocrite.

Indoctrinating its citizens that they have freedom -

but in reality America is supporting and creating dictatorships all around the world that suppress freedoms -
Shah of Iran in 1953, Guatemala military junta in 54, Nicaragua Samosa, Vietnam Diem, Saddam Hussein Iraq, Pinochet Chile, Batista in Cuba, Mexican governments, Marcos in Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Sam Doe and Charles Taylor Liberia, military junta in Burma (Myamar), Chinese dictatorship, ...

and at home in USA under the fraud of the "war on terror" -
due to Patriot Act, FISA, NDAA etc.
you are in a police state with just the propaganda of "freedom".
Now exercising your constitutional freedom of dissent, demonstration, questioning of government - as seen with the FBI and the Occupy movement - you are now a "domestic terrorist."
0 # glistening4u 2013-01-17 14:43
Hi Matt. No one cheered during Zero Dark 30 at the final showing the night of Jan. 11 here in Austin, Texas-- this was the first night of the major release for the movie. I was prepared to see the torture scenes just go by as some stream of factual events without editorial implications and I pretty much did that. (The torture scenes are the opening visuals of the movie and are immediately following the opening dark screen that has the audio recordings playing of the phone calls of actual people fatally trapped in the towers of the world trade center. Of this jutaposition most certainly one dould certainly see as some sort of editorial message in the film.). In another tidbit, the author of No Easy Day, who put a few bullet in Bin Laden on the raid, has the Maya character in his autobiograhical account of the raid. This Seal Team 6 member describes her much as the movie does. In his book "Miss 100 Percent " really didn't want to see Bin Ladin's body/face. And in one scene in his book, the Seal Team and "Maya/Miss 100 Per Cent" are flying back. They are all sitting on the floor of the military transport. "Maya" is sitting with her legs curled up " in a fetal position" and is crying. The author goes over to sit by her and has a brief exchange. I don't have a copy of the book now, but I think he appreciated her for being so certain about Bin Laden being there and being right. I could imagine that there could be many, many, reasons for her to cry.
0 # Shanti 2013-01-18 14:53
Sadness and shame. Shanti
0 # PABLO DIABLO 2013-01-18 18:50

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