In the story "Zero Dark Thirty" tells, torture contributes to the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. The controversy over whether this story is historically accurate is intriguing for its political intensity, and worth discussion on that ground alone, but in the end the answer to the question “who learned what and how” in the pursuit of bin Laden by no means is an answer to the question of whether torture can actually be justified.
First, the controversy over the facts. In a December 19,2012 letter to Michael Morell, Acting Director of the CIA, Senators Feinstein, Levin and McCain cited a finding of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in its study of the role torture had played:
The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL [Osama bin Laden] courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier's identity from CIA detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No CIA detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which UBL was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name, and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.
But at least in most respects the film does not contradict this account. The film may portray the interrogators as having first learned of the courier’s existence from a tortured detainee – and if the film does tell the story in this way, that would be inconsistent with the first element of this Senate committee’s finding. But the film in fact makes clear that the courier’s identity was not learned from anyone’s revelation under torture. Instead, according to the film the courier’s identity was found in a file that had been overlooked for many years; none of the people tortured had referred to the courier by anything except a nom de guerre, and no one had provided his whereabouts. The CIA analyst who discerns the centrality of this elusive figure does so by recognizing a pattern of nondisclosure – men who revealed other things remained discrete about the courier, and that very lack of disclosure emphasized his importance.
The Senators’ letter also quotes confirmation of the Committee’s finding that Leon Panetta provided in a letter to Senator McCain in May 2011. Panetta wrote:
… no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.Again, the film’s account does not contradict this statement. What the film says is that interrogations, including interrogations with torture, provided evidence of the courier’s existence and – through silences – pointed to his importance. What Panetta wrote does not contradict this account, nor (except, as noted, in one significant respect) does the Senate Committee’s finding.
It seems clear that the facts about what the interrogations elicited can be spun in very different ways. It is interesting that the Senate Committee and Secretary Panetta construed the facts in a way that minimized the role that torture played. That reading supports a commitment to turn away from torture as an instrument of war. Perhaps there are some within the CIA who have a different agenda, meant to vindicate the reputation of an agency tainted by the practices of the Bush years. It seems pretty clear -- as the Senators’ letter emphasizes – that the CIA talked with the filmmakers, and it seems reasonable to infer that the story the film tells is the story the CIA told. One might also infer that the Senators, who have labored hard to remove torture from US anti-terrorism efforts, feel blindsided by the story the CIA seems to have told to the filmmakers and that the film has now told the world.
But, second, what does this controversy prove? To me the argument seems somewhat misguided. I don’t doubt that people who are tortured will often reveal information – they have agonizingly good reason to do so. No doubt they will also often distort what they say in any way they believe they can get away with, or give up some information but hold onto other more vital facts, and no doubt they will also sometimes invent facts either as diversions or as desperate efforts to please their tormentors. All of these make the information derived from torture suspect, but to me it is simply implausible to believe that no accurate information is elicited this way.
If the torture of Al Qaeda detainees really produced a telling pattern of nondisclosure of information about this courier, though, that’s actually quite odd. On this account, torture failed again and again to elicit this information; apparently a series of Al Qaeda detainees were able to draw the line against revealing this particular set of facts. If that were so, it would actually be some indication of the inefficacy of torture. Or perhaps what the pattern of nondisclosure means is not that the detainees somehow all resisted this last revelation, but rather that none of them had this information to disclose – which might indeed have suggested, tellingly, that Al Qaeda was very tightly controlling access to this information. But the film also tells us that the CIA inferred that bin Laden was in his refuge because more women than men were visible in surveillance photos of the building; the missing man, they inferred, could be bin Laden. That inference makes no sense at all, because Muslims can be polygamous (as bin Laden himself was). The presence of more women than men therefore didn’t demonstrate the existence of a missing man at all. It seems possible that the CIA analysts were right, but for the wrong reasons – and perhaps the pattern of silence about the courier was not so much a pattern as an inspired guess on the part of the investigators.
In any case, the issue about torture shouldn’t be whether it ever produces useful information. Rather the question should be whether the sometimes useful, sometimes useless or misleading, information is worth the price. One part of that calculus is the question of whether the same information could have been obtained in other ways – as the movie tells us that the crucial detail of the courier’s real name was. Another part, a crucial part, is the question of whether the harm done to the country by its embrace of torture outweighs – in moral terms, and in pragmatic terms as well – the value of whatever revelations torture might have produced. I think we should demand far more proof than the story this film tells (even assuming it is entirely accurate) to overturn the lesson that torture is wrong.
The film tells a version of the story of how the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. It does not tell us whether we might have achieved that objective better by other means. It does not even tell us whether achieving that objective ultimately mattered. It’s worth remembering that the hunt for bin Laden was certainly not a “ticking bomb” situation, where – as in “24” – only immediate, horrible acts could forestall even worse impending disaster. The day I watched the film was the day of the bloody end of a hostage crisis in Algeria, where Islamic militants -- not necessarily even Al Qaeda affiliates but perhaps a group split off from Al Qaeda -- seized the In Amenas natural gas plant in an operation presented to the world as a response to French military intervention in Mali against other Al Qaeda members or allies. Do we live in a more secure world because of Osama bin Laden’s death, achieved – if the movie is accurate – in part through the use of torture? It is not easy to reassure oneself that we do.