“Zero Dark Thirty”: Dramatized Fiction on CIA “Torture”


How accurate and realistic is the portrayal of CIA interrogation in the film? The movie, after all, opens with a statement saying “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”; then goes on to show the fictionalized brutal abuse and torture of a fictional high value terrorist, including waterboarding.

Well, one “firsthand account” not utilized as an expert consultant to the movie is Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, author of Hard Measures, and unapologetic defender of the CIA’s “torture” program….

When I reviewed Zero Dark Thirty, the focus of my review was on whether or not political partisanship played a role in the film. I believe Kathryn Bigelow’s intent in making the film was devoid of a political agenda. However, in an attempt at “historical accuracy”, just whose history narrative did Mark Boal (screenwriter and professional journalist) listen to? The movie lays claim in its opening moments to being “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” And Boal states that he didn’t “want to play fast and loose with history”. Yet in dramatizing one of the most controversial of political issues- whether or not we tortured HVDs- it appears they did just that, whether due to following the narrative formulated by critics or due to artistic liberties and dramatization. Bigelow and Boal did also warn,

that “Zero Dark Thirty” remained a thriller and not a kind of documentary intended to stand up to nit-picking by historians. For instance, their film is rooted — more by cinematic choice than by historical necessity — in the experience of a young American intelligence operative, Maya, who is portrayed by Jessica Chastain.

But in going to see the film, how many gullible moviegoers are going to come away from the film not believing that this is a dramatization, meticulously researched in historical details and facts? Especially with a blurb at the beginning that this film is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”?

One person who I doubt Boal chose as an onset film adviser and expert consultant is Jose Rodriguez.

The “torture scene” in the first quarter of the movie didn’t sit well with me because it seemed to jumble together some of the worst “stereotypes” of Guantanamo/CIA blacksites/interrogations/detainee abuses that our CIA AND military interrogators were accused of (the HVD being brutalized by CIA interrogator “Dan” in the film seems to represent several real-life HVTs rolled up into one). The interrogation scenes also played out in a manner that is consistent for the sake of dramatizing; but not consistent with the clinical and professional nature of how EITs were conducted (based upon details layed out in the OLC memos and as described by Marc Thiessen and Jose Rodriguez in their respective books).

Writes Mark Bowden:

So, how true is it? It was a mistake for those involved in the film to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty is “journalistic,” and to have touted their access to SEAL team members and CIA field officers. No matter how remarkable their research and access, the film spills no state secrets. No movie can tell a story like this without aggressively condensing characters and events, fictionalizing dialogue, etc. Boal’s script is just 102 pages: fewer than 10,000 words, the length of a longish magazine article.

Within these limits the film is remarkably accurate, and certainly well within what we all understand by the Hollywood label, “based on a true story,” which works as both a boast and a disclaimer.

Bowden understands the film’s presentation as “remarkably true”, in the broad sense. But how fair and accurate is the movie’s rendition of CIA “torture”?

Here’s a random review that is revealing of the standard, general opinion many in the political middle have on the “torture” issue:

The film’s opening sequences take place in a cement-bunker “black site” somewhere in the Middle East, where bad things are happening to a suspected terrorist named Ammar (Reda Kateb) at the hands of a bearded young dude of an agent named Dan (Jason Clarke). Bigelow and writer Mark Boal make us look — they want us to look — at the pummelings, the waterboarding, the dog collars, the imprisonment in tiny wooden boxes.

The movie neither glorifies the use of torture nor explicitly condemns it, which has become a serious problem for some commentators. But the filmmakers aren’t out to persuade. “Zero Dark Thirty” is, in its entirety, an act of imagined witness, and those early scenes are meant to confront Maya and ourselves equally. She initially shrinks from what Dan and others are capable of, then makes an inner decision and gets back to the business at hand, which for her isn’t torture but everything that comes after: what you do with the information you have or haven’t got.
Kyle Chandler (left) stars an embassy bureaucrat and Jason Clarke plays a CIA agent.

Yet by not protesting, she’s condoning, and that, the movie implies, is a burden she’ll have to live with for the rest of her days. For us, it’s a similar bargain. Your individual response to the torture sequences in “Zero Dark Thirty” marks your willingness to be complicit in them, which is a conversation only for yourself and the darker corners of your conscience.

What troubles me in this is that the author of the review doesn’t question whether or not the interrogation scenes as they are portrayed are historically accurate and fair. Basically, it’s accepted that what the CIA did amounted to torture, and this was the standard norm for CIA interrogations of HVTs. You’d never know that only 3 HVTs- Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and KSM- were ever waterboarded .

I’ve been waiting for Rodriguez to speak out on the movie’s portrayal of CIA “torture”; especially in wake of the criticism. And so he has in this Sunday’s WaPo online version released Thursday):

“Zero Dark Thirty,” which will open for Washington audiences Friday, inaccurately links torture with intelligence success and mischaracterizes how America’s enemies have been treated in the fight against terrorism. Many others object to the film, however, because they think that the depiction of torture by the CIA is accurate but that the movie is wrong to imply that our interrogation techniques worked.

They are wrong on both counts. I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture.

One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways. In the publicity campaign for the movie, the director and the screenwriter have stressed that “Zero Dark Thirty” was carefully researched and is fact-based. When discussing the so-called torture scenes, director Kathryn Bigelow has said: “I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.” Yet when pressed about inaccuracies, screenwriter Mark Boal has been quick to remind everyone: “This is not a documentary.”

What I haven’t heard anyone acknowledge is that the interrogation scenes torture the truth. Despite popular fiction — and the fiction that often masquerades as unbiased reporting — the enhanced interrogation program was carefully monitored and conducted. It bore little resemblance to what is shown on the screen.

The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.

The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program that I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention. To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face, CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington. No one was hung from ceilings. The filmmakers stole the dog-collar scenes from the abuses committed by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. No such thing was ever done at CIA “black sites.”

The CIA did waterboard three of the worst terrorists on the planet — Abu Zubaida, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — in an effort to get them to cooperate. Instead of a large bucket, small plastic water bottles were used on the three men, who were on medical gurneys. The procedure was totally unlike the one seen in the movie but was consistent with the same tactic used, without physical or psychological damage, on tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel as part of their training.

Most Americans probably think waterboarding was stopped by President Obama once he took office in 2009. Few know that the technique was last used in 2003, when Obama was still an unknown state senator in Illinois.

And when President Obama gets credited with “banning torture”, his EO was redundant.

Rodriguez goes on to describe how the movie perpetuates the interrogation stereotype, dramatized in popular fiction and imagination, and of course, Hollywood films:

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.

Marc Thiessen’s book, Courting Disaster, describes the purpose and difference between interrogation sessions and debriefing.

Rodriguez also goes on in his op-ed to point out why those who claim the CIA EIT program did not play a role in leading us to bin Laden’s key courier and to bin Laden himself are wrong. Basically (as also laid out in Thiessen’s book), knowledge of how the courier system worked and much of what we gleaned about how al Qaeda operated, arose out of the CIA program:

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.

The first substantive information about the courier came in 2004 from a detainee who received some enhanced interrogation techniques but was not waterboarded. Although we had heard the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, until that time we were unaware of the central role he played in bin Laden’s communications. Subsequently, as we always did, we checked out this information with other detainees. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who had been waterboarded, was by then cooperating with us to some extent. He denied any knowledge of the courier, but so adamantly that we knew we were on to something. We then intercepted secret messages that Mohammed was sending to other detainees, ordering them to say nothing about al-Kuwaiti.

After obtaining this essential lead on the courier, years of meticulous intelligence work followed. Having the black sites and compliant terrorists allowed us to repeatedly go back to the detainees to check leads, ask follow-up questions and clarify information. Without that capacity, we would have been lost.

Rodriguez also quibbles over the kind of unrealistic nonsense that appears in any dramatized work that intentionally and knowingly takes artistic liberties for the sake of time constraints, story-communicating to its audience, etc.:

“Zero Dark Thirty” has some minor flaws that will be laughable to CIA veterans. For example, early in the film, the agency’s chief of station in Islamabad walks around with a CIA lapel pin — not the best of tradecraft. Agency officers talk openly in hotels and restaurants about ongoing operations, and a junior officer threatens to have her boss hauled in front of a congressional oversight committee. (Now that would be torture.)


No doubt, the filmmakers had a very difficult task. They had to boil down a decade of grueling work into a few hours — and make it entertaining. It is impossible for even the most skilled filmmakers to fully capture the context of the times.


It is hard to accurately tell a story that spans more than a decade and involves a real-world cast of thousands. So Bigelow and Boal develop their narrative through the eyes of a small number of characters, such as a CIA officer they call Maya.

Rodriguez concludes his op-ed by saying the film is worth seeing. Just go in realizing that this is Hollywood entertainment. Not to be mistaken for documentary.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Very interesting, Word. I am positive, though, that the staunch liberal/progressives will deny what Rodriguez has said, in favor of what is depicted in the movie itself. They have been doing so for nearly a decade now, regarding the “torture” and interrogation techniques.

I keep trying to tell a couple co-workers about how the movie is not 100% factual and they keep insisting that one lone woman was the person who followed up on finding the courier that led to OBL. The sheer stupidity that one person would be able to do all of this on their own is too much to argue with, so now I have Mr Rodriguez name to give them so it will finally shut them up.

Rodriguez should just set them straight by going to the video record.

Torture is not good for obtaining actionable intelligence. If it were the Nazis would have wiped out all resistance groups. Torture is excellent for obtaining a confession. Proponents of torture sometimes use as an example its effectiveness during medieval times in combatting satanic witchcraft then thought to be raging across Europe. Through the use of “proper” techniques witches would not only confess but also point out who the other witches were. This was the only way to stop them, especially since many were the most difficult to find “sleeper” witches. The end result is of course that Europe no longer has a witch problem, although 5000 witches are killed each year in Africa by Christians http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/return-to-africas-witch-children/

EIT was not used to “obtain” a “confession”. It was used to get the 3 people it was used on “pliable” and cooperating and talking who had earlier been silent and not been cooperative at all and to take whatever bits that came out of that to send on for others to investigate. Could those people, over time, become cooperative without the use of EIT? Perhaps. Maybe not. That’s not something you’d know until after. The problem in the first few years after 9/11 flying blind was…we didn’t have time to wait.

Once they started talking…then…you have data to work from to use any number of interrogation and investigative methods to get information.

The whole reason for being of revisionist history is to propagandize the masses.
The fact that a FEW educated folks know it is just a pack of lies is irrelevant.
I still hear blacks who ”know” Cleopatra was black.
And most Muslims are certain that America was discovered by three ships filled with Muslim crews.

are you insane? stop putting torture in quotation marks!! EITs or not, does not justify that Guantanamo was an illegal prison that stripped all rights that the US and UK have spent centuries building, the tried and true way. Bush and Blairs regime created more terrorists and extremists than what they started with in 2001.