Zero Dark Thirty

by Deborah Pearlstein

Today marked the limited release in the United States of the already much heralded new film on the United States’ hunt for Osama bin Laden. I have not yet seen the film and won’t comment on it until I do. But I do want to at least pass along this remarkable open letter issued today by 1 Republican and 2 Democratic Senators regarding the film’s depiction of torture.

December 19, 2012

Mr. Michael Lynton
Chairman and CEO
Sony Pictures Entertainment
10202 W. Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232-3195

Dear Mr. Lynton:

We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie Zero Dark Thirty. We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.

We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.

Pursuant to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently-adopted Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program, Committee staff reviewed more than 6 million pages of records from the Intelligence Community. Based on that review, Senators Feinstein and Levin released the following information on April 30, 2012, regarding the Usama Bin Laden operation:

• The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Usama Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which Usama Bin Laden was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.

• Information to support this operation was obtained from a wide variety of intelligence sources and methods. CIA officers and their colleagues throughout the Intelligence Community sifted through massive amounts of information, identified possible leads, tracked them down, and made considered judgments based on all of the available intelligence.

• The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.

In addition to the information above, former CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote Senator McCain in May 2011, stating:

“…no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.”
We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.

The use of torture should be banished from serious public discourse for these reasons alone, but more importantly, because it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, because it is an affront to America’s national honor, and because it is wrong. The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.

Please consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Usama Bin Laden. It did not.

Thank you for your assistance on this important matter.


Dianne Feinstein
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Carl Levin
Senate Armed Services Committee
Ex-Officio Member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

John McCain
Ranking Member
Senate Armed Services Committee
Ex-Officio Member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

11 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this: I’ve linked to it at two blogs and on my FB page. I hope it receives wide publicity.

  2. Thanks for breaking the silence of the lambs in the national security space on this government embedded propaganda effort by CIA middle schoolers with security clearances to perpetuate this myth on torture.

    But it goes way beyond just a movie critique. Unless one has amnesia, for nearly 12 years American citizens have been sold a bill of goods on the necessity of this torture and its effectiveness by Executive and Legislative types and whenever a victim of it has sought relied in our legal system, our Judiciary has accepted state secret doctrine type defenses to dismiss those cases and the Supreme. Court has denied cert (El-Masri decision para 62 and 63 of 12/13/12 of the European Ct of Human Rights shows the path).

    On the criminal side DOJ non-prosecution of intelligence or military types at a high level as accountability. When tried overseas like in Spain recently for Yoo and other lawyers or back in 2004 and 2006 in Germany for Rumsfeld a d others, relentless efforts to suppress those investigations and prosecutions. Only the Italian in absentia case got to conviction.

    The books by all the protagonists like Jose Rodriquez, Goldsmith (rebuked by the UK courts for his flawed Geneva Convention “transfer” analysis, Thiessen at the Washington Post, appt of Bellinger a counselor at the American Society of International Law, all the apologists like Peyer King, Dale Rohrabacher, Kit Bond. The putting in place of military commissions and protective orders to hide all aspects of the torture from the American people while the torture works and is necessary myth was relentlessly sold to us.

    No this is much bigger than a gross manipulation by a movie – it is the nearly 12 years of subtle and gross manipulation.

    I called for boycott of ZDT on 12/10 at and called for the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report in several further posts there. The Nayional Telogious Campaign Againsy Torture has also raised objections to ZDT and called for release of the Senate Ontelligence Commottee Report.

    Torture was not only ineffective and counterproductive, it was a crime and remains a crime of massive proportions done across the world at the behest of the American government and done in my name as an American.

    The kind of acquiescence to official lawless through absurd logic of conduct immunity such as Curtis Bradley suggested om the Samantar case last week at is an example of the depths to which this relentless effort has twisted so many in the US foreign relations crowd.

    I am researching the citizen’s right to the truth in the US context as I was intrigued by the discussion of it in the El-Masri decision concurrences as a fundemtal right.

    It is that right that we need to invoke on this side of the pond with ZDT as the characteristic acting out that reveals the deep flaw of our political class and its apologists for torture over the past nearly 12 years.

  3. Sorry for typos – iPhone typing. Relied is relief and a couple of others. Tried to edit but did not appear to come through.

  4. Even with the typos, Ben makes valid points.  We have yet to understand fully what was done supposedly in our name — and yet, there is plenty of evidence of criminal liability — admitted liability is some cases by Bush, Cheney, Rice, and impliedly by Gonzales, Rumsfeld, and others — including authorizations of torture and forced disappearance, illegal transfer of persons from occupied territory (the Goldsmith memo, etc.),  and complicity by so many persons, including the memo writers.
    There is also the failure of President Obama faithfully to execute the laws, including treaties and customary international laws requiring aut dedere aut judicare that all who are reasonably accused be handed over to another forum or that prosecution in good faith be initiated.
    It took Argentina some 20 years to finally convict three former presidents and others for the 1970s “dirty war,” which involved torture and disappearances.

  5. ZDT on my AT&T movie pitch show has Bigelow and Chastain and Chandler talking about this being real people and real stuff. They are talking about this movie being about how it happened – all nonsense and misleading.

    You can bet the apologists are now going to come out in force doubling down on the media – Hannity, O’Reilly, CNN, and all over trying to stop accountability for their misleading of Americans all this time. They will say they were misled – no they misled us and more importantly ordered or went along with the order to torture.

    This is a fight for the American soul.

  6. Theories is this movie. iPhone typing, sorry.

  7. It’s hard to take seriously the claim that torture is wrong because it’s ineffective.  If you think it’s morally wrong in all circumstances, then you should hold to that position whether it’s effective or not.  I don’t have any knowledge one way or the other about whether extreme interrogation techniques yielded any useful information to the CIA.  But that question is irrelevant to the moral question.  Indeed, insistence on the ineffectiveness of waterboarding or playing AC/DC 24/7 suggests a lack of belief in the force of the moral argument.    

  8. Douglas,
    I’ve never read any serious argument to the effect that torture is wrong merely because it’s ineffective, thus that’s a strawman or even red herring. Those who point out torture’s ineffectiveness (meaning it fails to accomplish the ends for which it is employed) are responding to those who use consequentialist type arguments to say that torture works, and thus the means justify the ends, or the benefits outweigh or are worth the costs, in this instance: they are simply accepting the premises of their opponents for the sake of argument, not because they are themselves committed to them. I personally oppose torture on something closer to Kantian ethical grounds, but even those who believe torture is generally wrong, have sometimes been open to arguments that, given special sorts of circumstances (e.g., ‘ticking-bomb’ type scenarios which are perhaps too fanciful if not implausible), torture may find some justification, thus giving some scope to consequentialist considerations under highly specific circumstances. Again, this is not a view I subscribe to but it does reveal there are people who in all moral seriousness make an argument for torture’s necessity (under a desparate attempt to exhaust all possible options?), given certain conditions that are considered highly unusual or rare or unlikely but otherwise are opposed to its practice.
    Should you know of an argument in the literature to the effect that torture is wrong merely because it is ineffective, by all means let me know of it.  

  9. “Torture worked and was necessary” has been a pervasive argument of the defenders of enhanced interrogation techniques for all these years. A report that directly refutes that canard comes out. A movie that misleads on that point comes out and people object to the lie.

    Taking the argument on directly on its own terms is about confronting the rationalizing myths on every front – not about believing the myth.

    A call for prosecution is a call for criminal accountability for a crime of massive proportions that was committed with official sanction.

  10. If you click on my name it will lead to a post at Ratio Juris in which I treat the first paragraph of Professor Davis’s comment.

  11. Last attempted post was suddenly blocked with a message about whether it was too short. So changed my ne and email to see of this would post. Whatever.

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