Inspired perhaps more by past movies than first-hand accounts, “Zero Dark Thirty” shows detainees being asked a question, tortured a little, asked another question and then tortured some more. That did not happen. Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.
Some of those objecting to the movie are doing so not because of how the interrogations are depicted, but because of what the movie implies came out of them. The film suggests that waterboarding directly contributed to obtaining vital information about bin Laden’s courier — a break that eventually led to the al-Qaeda leader. Opponents of the CIA are quick to insist that waterboarding played no role in tracking him down. Both the movie and those critics are wrong.