How Deep Was The CIA’s Involvement In Zero Dark Thirty?


In what is a somewhat delicious irony, the movie that Republicans once denounced as a possible propaganda move for Obama's re-election is now being assailed by the Senate Intelligence Committee as pro-CIA propaganda. Hosenball has the goods:

In the latest controversy surrounding the film, Reuters has learned that the committee will examine records charting contacts between intelligence officials and the film's director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.

Investigators will examine whether the spy agency gave the filmmakers "inappropriate" access to secret material, said a person familiar with the matter. They will also probe whether CIA personnel are responsible for the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices, and in particular the suggestion that they were effective, the person said.

The intelligence committee's Democrats contend that is factually incorrect.

A couple of comments. Not just the Democrats: McCain is very much in the mix. And I very much hope that Bigelow and Boal are in no way investigated for committing a work of art. That would be a horrifying precedent. The Hosenball piece relieves this anxiety a little:

The person familiar with the committee's plan to review administration dealings with the filmmakers said initially this would involve reviewing uncensored copies of CIA records regarding the film. The committee presently does not plan to contact the filmmakers directly, the source said.

I have no problem with an investigation into whether an agency trying to clear its name in public opinion told a movie-maker or screen-writer self-serving lies. The relationship between the CIA and Hollywood bears scrutiny, especially in this case. But I return to a core disagreement with the Senators involved, Feinstein, Levin and McCain, whose integrity on this matter I do not impugn.

They say that the movie "clearly implies that the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier". The trouble is revealed by the language itself: "clearly implies".

An "implication" is rarely that "clear". It requires subjective interpretation. I've only seen the movie once, so maybe I missed something. But to my mind, there is only one scene where torture plays a role in attaining actionable intelligence – and it is indirect. It is a classic intelligence bluff move after a prisoner has been tortured that reveals a small clue.

I agree that this implies that torture played a role in the process, but the movie in no way suggests that this was the only way to get that information. In fact the very scene suggests that simply bluffing may have worked in a humane context far more effectively than torture. I say "suggest" because the movie is infuriatingly opaque about its intent and message – an almost shameless flight from political and moral responsibility – which is why I respect the views of those who think it will encourage undiscerning viewers to draw a damaging and false conclusion about torture. But those critics have to come to terms with the fact that the movie has many, many scenes where torture is shown to be fruitless and barbaric. And by far the bulk of the evidence is shown by the movie to come from relentless traditional ethical intelligence work.

Let's find out if the CIA – including its current acting director, Michael Morell – tried to spin a defense of its own war crimes. Let's find out how credulous or "embedded" Boal became. But let's also note that this is a work of art, open to a variety of interpretations. That artistic freedom – to say things others really don't want to hear – is also critical to defend.