The debate about the film centers on what role torture played in pinpointing al-Kuwaiti and then bin Laden himself. The film suggests that without “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Orwellian euphemism), Maya might not have made the match. The movie doesn’t “advocate” torture — which it shows in horrifyingly believable detail — but it does demonstrate how evidence gleaned from it led to bin Laden’s door. Could Maya have gotten there some other way? The film doesn’t speculate.
Some critics contend that the film is wrong because, first, torture is ineffective and, second, bin Laden could have been found through other tactics. But I fear this argument softens the moral dilemma and overlooks part of the factual record. I asked intelligence officials to clarify some of the details, and they responded with information that may help audiences evaluate “Zero Dark Thirty” when it opens Dec. 19.
Let’s start with what Leon Panetta, then CIA director, said last year in a letter to Sen. John McCain, himself a victim of torture and one of its leading critics. Here’s an excerpt from the letter, written a week after the May 2, 2011, bin Laden raid:
“Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that bin Laden was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. . . . Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that the information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to bin Laden.”
So that’s a caution, at the outset: The role of harsh interrogation “cannot be established definitively.”
Let’s look specifically at information about the mysterious al-Kuwaiti. According to the intelligence officials, several dozen detainees provided information about him starting in 2002. Seven of the first eight detainees providing information were actually captives of foreign intelligence services, and the CIA can’t say whether they were tortured. (The eighth was held by the U.S. military.)