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Just call it ‘Zero Farce Thirty’

Film depiction of torture is fiction

If Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the best film of the year, it’s certainly the most controversial. The cinematic portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, has already been decried as a President Obama puff piece, prompted a Pentagon investigation into possible intelligence leaks, and dumped a cloud of controversy on Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, a man rumored to be on the shortlist to replace David Petraeus at the CIA.

But as the bin Laden blockbuster hits the big screen, partisans are buzzing about something else entirely: the film’s portrayal of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs for short). Bigelow and Boal go for the throat with a series of grisly interrogation scenes – featuring waterboarding and sexual humiliation – that indirectly yield the intelligence that leads to the al-Qaida leader. The film was supposedly based on extensive field research and has been billed as a faithful reconstruction of the facts. As Bigelow told New York magazine this month, “The goal was to be as accurate as we possibly could without, obviously, having been there.”

But for all its journalistic conceits, Zero Dark Thirty runs afoul of a mounting body of evidence – compiled by the FBI, CIA inspector general, Department of Justice, and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – that EITs simply don’t work. Foreign Policy spoke with Ali Soufan, the lead FBI investigator into the USS Cole bombing and the man who first discovered the identities of the 9/11 hijackers, about this discrepancy and about a wide range of issues related to the war on terror, including drone warfare and Guantánamo Bay.

“The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture,” said Soufan, who is the author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.

“Of all the people that are talking about this, I was the only one that was in the room,” he said. “Enhanced interrogation techniques did not work.”

What do you make of the way enhanced interrogation techniques are portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Zero Dark Thirty?

It’s fiction. Based on all the information that I know, based on the 6,000-page report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and based on what many of the experts that follow these things have said – at least one of whom actually served as an adviser on the film – this is not fact. This is Hollywood. The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture. And the Senate report that has been voted on in the committee – which included at least one Republican – made it very clear that enhanced interrogation techniques and waterboarding did not work. And that just confirms what the CIA inspector general said about that program, and what the Department of Justice said about it. The facts are there. I came to my opinion based on experience. I opposed enhanced interrogation techniques not really because of the moral issues. I opposed it from the efficacy perspective.

In the past, you have raised another objection to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques: that it reinforces the so-called Chinese wall between intelligence agencies. Can you explain why that is and why it’s dangerous?

The “Chinese wall,” or the lack of cooperation, between agencies – when we don’t talk to each other and work together – caused 9/11. When you have secret jails, and programs that are so highly classified that information is not being shared and people are not working together, that’s dangerous. I gave an example, the details of which are still classified, in my Senate statement back in 2009, when these kinds of techniques backfired. We had a situation where some entities refused to believe that terrorist attacks were being planned because the information came through smart interrogations and didn’t come through their enhanced interrogation program, and, of course, we found out otherwise.

Right, and Lawrence Wright’s profile of you in the New Yorker tells that story – about how information that was withheld by the CIA prevented you from foiling the 9/11 plot. There’s a throwaway line in that article about how after 9/11 you were given orders to identify the hijackers “by any means necessary.” Wright notes that that was the first time you had heard such an order, but leaves it at that. What changed after 9/11? Did we essentially abandon the tried-and-true interrogation techniques that had been developed over decades?

When I heard that line, I never thought in a million years that it meant beating the detainee up, or doing whatever I needed to get the information. You have to put it in the context of what was happening in Yemen at the time. The Yemenis were not giving us access to suspects. For example with Fahd al-Quso, one of the co-conspirators in the USS Cole bombing, they used to say, “He’s in Sanaa,” so we’d go to Sanaa. Then they’d say, “No, he’s in Aden.” So I interpreted the directive as “Make sure you get to him and get the information.” It wasn’t about torture, but now, because of what was done later in the spring and summer of 2002, people have looked at it from a different perspective. They interpreted it as if someone in Washington or in FBI headquarters said that we need to abandon the way we do things. This wasn’t the case. As a matter of fact, when I went back and we identified the hijackers – I talked to Quso, Abu Jandal and many others – I actually read them their Miranda rights every time that I interrogated them. So that line has been taken out of context.

You said earlier this year that you’d give the Obama administration an A- on its counterterrorism record so far. Do you think drones are a viable long-term option or could they ultimately serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists?

No, I don’t necessarily think it will be a recruitment tool. I believe it’s a good tactic to use, but it shouldn’t be a strategy. Our counterterrorism strategy should be a multifaceted. It should include military, intelligence, law enforcement, economic programs, psychological programs, cultural and education issues – we have to use all the tools that we have in the toolbox in combating the enemy. We have to keep in mind that this is asymmetrical warfare, and an essential component of asymmetrical warfare is winning hearts and minds.

Are we doing enough of that in places like Somalia, northern Mali and Yemen, where we’re losing the ideological battle?

No, I think what we’re doing is trying to react tactically to events that are unfolding. But we never had a strategy from the beginning to combat the motivation and counter the narrative of these groups. And countering the narrative is not just a media event; it involves having intelligence programs and operational programs that diminish the ability of terrorist groups to operate, recruit and win hearts and minds.

If Bin Laden was killed on Bush's watch - would the media be scrambling as fast to discredit the opening scene of this film? Hmmmmmm . . . . . . . .

No, if Bush had killed bin Laden and disposed his body at sea, the press and Islamic countries would have a Fatwah out on him. The press would be outraged. They would be asking, why we did not bring him to trial and accuse him of a war crime. That is the progressive way.

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