On ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and Torture

Mark Bowden doesn’t believe the movie is pro-torture:

zero dark 30 corr 615 sonyTorture is part of the story, but not a key part of it, just as the film depicts. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture. It makes a poor case for torture because neither of the original sources, Slahi nor Qhatani, necessarily realized they were giving up something terribly important by naming “Ahmed from Kuwait.” It’s doubtful they even knew who he really was. Neither they nor their questioners could have imagined that “Ahmed” would end up sheltering bin Laden in Abbottabad. Khalid Sheik Mohammed could not have known this either, but he certainly realized the man’s importance. Despite repeated waterboarding, he lied about “Ahmed.” So much for torture producing a breakthrough. Ironically, Mohammed’s mendacity—his claim contradicted everyone else’s—further piqued the agency’s interest. Under torture he lied, but his lies helped.
We don’t know much about the key breakthrough that led to bin Laden. That came years later, when the CIA was finally able to connect the pseudonym “Ahmed from Kuwait” with a real person, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In the film this moment is handled perfunctorily. A young CIA officer simply hands the information to Maya and says, “It’s him,” explaining that she happened across the nugget while “painstakingly” reviewing “old files.” My sources at CIA refused to say how the connection was actually made, saying only that it involved sources from “a third country.” One high level agency official told me, “You could write a book about how we [did it].” The agency says torture was not involved, and there’s no evidence to suggest it was.

If you start the story of finding bin Laden from there, and only from there, then the hunt was torture-free. It’s almost a passable argument. Until then, after all, “Ahmed from Kuwait” was just one insubstantial lead among many, just a semi-fact in an ocean of facts. But torture was in the room when that semi-fact was delivered up, and belongs in any truthful telling of it.

I’ve yet to see Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie, but it’s widely regarded as the year’s best film and it’s interesting to me that the torture aspect of the film has become its focal point.

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