Zero Dark Thirty is fiction; the reality is worse

US-based Witness Against Torture protest against the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Brennan has outspokenly condoned the use of rendition and torture. Photo by Justin Norman, available on Flickr through Creative Commons License.

US-based Witness Against Torture and others protest against the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Brennan has outspokenly condoned the use of rendition and torture. Photo by Justin Norman, available on Flickr through Creative Commons License.

When the film “Zero Dark Thirty” started appearing dozens of times on our newsfeed each morning, at first I thought I wouldn’t have to address it. After all, we have written more than a handful of blogs on the U.S. torture programme, how torture in interrogations has been proven to be completely ineffective, and regardless is irrefutably illegal, amoral, offensive and prohibited under international law and under all circumstances.

But alas it seems I will have to repeat myself.

The problem with “Zero Dark Thirty” is not that it depicts torture. A film demonstrating the truly horrific act of torture, and what it does to people, the graphic cruelty, is not without worth. The problem with this film is that it presents itself as a realistic account of the search for Osama bin Laden, and that during this hunt, information obtained through torture was instrumental in finding him.

There-in lays the most devious lie. The CIA has repeated again that torture was not useful in obtaining the intelligence information that led to Bin Laden. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin also denied this was the case. But there it is in celluloid. Such a depiction simply bolsters the arguments of those who defend the efficacy of the US’s torture programme and the use of torture more generally as an effective measure to extract information and keep people ‘safe from terrorism’, a scenario that has been roundly debunked.

As Glenn Greenwald writes in The Guardian: “it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.”

The debate over the film, however, is so off-kilter that even in engaging in these arguments, I find myself repeating the same framing of this debate that I find deplorable in the first place.

So let’s rephrase. It doesn’t matter if torture is effective or not. It’s not effective, as numerous parties have stated. But that’s not the point. It’s immoral, inhuman, illegal, and counter to any modern notion of human rights and international law. Torture is prohibited. Period.

Of course, as we now know, the U.S. has tortured anyways, with impunity.

In spite of its extremely problematic depictions, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a film. And while I do understand that films become part of a national discourse – or, in the words of Karen Greenberg, “[Zero Dark Thirty] will unfortunately substitute for actual history in the minds of many Americans” – the furor raised by this film should rather be directed at more dubious political decisions of the last few weeks with regard to torture – decisions that may have real, palpable consequences for the continued use of torture and the continued impunity for those who carried out or supported that programme.

Just earlier this month, John Brennan, former director of CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center until fall 2005, was nominated to head the intelligence agency, a move that critics say is highly indicative to the ways in which the crimes of the Bush administration have been institutionalised during Obama’s first term (see also, the National Defense Authorization Act in institutionalising indefinite detention). Brennan was removed from the shortlist of nominees in 2008, largely because he was considered ‘too controversial’ a figure; he has been vocally supportive of some of the worst human rights crimes of the Bush administration, including rendition and torture.

Consider a 2005 interview he gave soon after leaving the CIA. Asked about rendition and why some terrorism suspects are sent to other countries, Brennan responded:

“Well, sometimes that is the case because there could be an outstanding warrant for someone’s arrest in another country or they need to go back to the country of their origin because the local government and service can in fact question them more effectively in that country than in the place where they had been captured.”

His opinion on rendition?

And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.”

What we now know is that his useless euphemisms on ‘effective interrogation’ really meant being tortured in other countries, whether it was Egypt, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, or other CIA ‘black sites’. Many of the countries where detainees were sent were cited by the US’s own State Department for human rights violations and torture – a clear violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits countries from sending individuals to a country where there is a clear risk of torture. Just last month, the European Court of Human Rights deemed the treatment of one such detainee, Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who was mistaken for another person, to be illegal. El-Masri was detained in Macedonia, handed over to CIA officials, who then sent him on an illegal rendition flight to an Afghanistan ‘black site’, where was secretly held and tortured for four months.

But a large point to consider is that we don’t even know the extent of Brennan’s involvement in the torture and rendition programme. US involvement in torture, its extent, and who is responsible remains shadowy and beset by piece-meal information.

The US Senate Intelligence Committee approved last month a 6,000 page ‘torture report’ on the CIA’s detention and interrogation policies. But it has not been made public. It currently remains classified, and considering the Obama administration’s ‘reluctance’ (to put it kindly) to address the crimes of the previous administration and hold anyone accountable, well, I’m not holding my breath.

The furor over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not without merit and cause. But it could also be directed to more pressing crimes – the continued impunity and, in Brennan’s case, the institutionalising of these crimes. Instead of boycotting the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow or protesting outside of cinemas, we should hold our policy-makers to account, bring out the full truth on these heinous crimes depicted in the film and ensure that those defending such crimes don’t end up in leadership positions again.

Tessa Moll

Tessa is a Communications Officer at the IRCT.


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  1. #1 by Richard PT Ots on 17/01/2013 - 14:26

    “the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques” – from

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