The Zero Dark Debate, Ctd

More and more, people viewing it are disturbed and concerned that – even in the interstices – it gives an impression of something false: that torturing suspects with Nazi and Communist-style  techniques played some role in finding and killing the theocratic mass murderer, Osama bin Laden. The Senate Intelligence Report – the most exhaustive and penetrating study of Cheney's torture regime – says otherwise, we are authoritatively told by Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain (pdf). The current deputy head of the CIA has also now weighed in:

In a message sent Friday to agency employees about the film, "Zero Dark Thirty," Mr. Morell said it "creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation torture techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false."

In fact, he said, "the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led C.I.A. analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad," the city in Pakistan where a Navy SEAL team killed him in May 2011. "Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques torture" Mr. Morell wrote, using the C.I.A.’s euphemism for harsh and sometimes brutal treatment that included waterboarding torture. "But there were many other sources as well."

He said that "whether enhanced interrogation techniques were torture was the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved."

So there you have it (I have translated the Orwellian text into plain English).

But notice that the CIA therefore in some tiny fashion backs up the movie. There is only one moment in the film when torture is shown to have played any role in the intelligence gathering, as I noted in my own review of the movie. It was when a clue was uncovered after someone had been tortured and then treated kindly and then bluffed into giving up a piece of information which, on its own, could not have led to finding bin Laden. And the acting CIA chief does say that some tiny fragments might have come from previously tortured suspects – and this is not something that those of us who oppose torture in all its forms would be surprised by. Of course, every now and again, torture will cough up something that is true. But it is so often surrounded by mountains of lies Ag13and misdirections that it soon becomes impossible to tell what is real evidence and what is not, what are blind leads and what are real ones. The case against torture is simply that it is torture, that capturing human beings and "breaking" them physically, mentally, spiritually is a form of absolute evil that negates the core principle of human freedom and autonomy on which the West is founded. It is more fatal to our way of life and civilization than terrorism.

And we can do better. We will never know, for example, if painstaking intelligence-gathering under the law would have discovered that nugget if Cheney had not insisted on torturing suspects to death in some instances. But it seems stupid and futile to say that such horrifying torture never produced anything remotely true. Just almost never anything remotely reliable, and at a cost in false leads and loss of moral integrity that vastly outweighs any tiny benefits. And remember it was long after the torture program had been ended that the real intelligence work to find and kill bin Laden worked. We were never up against the ticking time-bomb exception devised to justify a massive, on-going torture apparatus. And by the end of the Bush years, the movie makes clear that the effort to track bin Laden was a "failure" and that no one had been able to prevent by torturing suspects, any of the massive terror attacks – from London to Mumbai – that continued.

I do not want to be an apologist for those too cowardly to make a movie that tackles torture and its lies head-on. But I do believe that an artist and a movie should be judged in toto. I can only say, having watched the entire thing like a hawk, that it is a movie neutral about the use of torture, but one that also clearly demonstrates its barbarism and extremely limited utility. That is not the movie I would have written or made. It is, to my mind, too deferent to some who want somehow to justify retroactively the war crimes they committed. I do not believe that any American movie about a foreign country that tortures suspects would bend over backwards to be neutral about it.

But that simply makes Boal and Bigelow cowards rather than liars. And cowards can make great movies as well.

(The full Dish thread on Zero Dark Thirty here)