The award-winning screenwriter of Zero, Mark Boal, said in a recent interview that the film is not a documentary. He wrote the torture scene to make the point that the CIA used torture, not to assert that torture works. Last night, director Katheryn Bigelow noted, “I think what’s important to remember is it’s a movie and not a documentary. It’s just a movie. It’s a dramatization of a 10-year manhunt compressed into two-and-a-half hours.”
There are important scenes you’re not going to see in Zero that if they had been included, would have more accurately portrayed the true story. For example, you won’t see the 2002 waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the al Qaeda mastermind behind 9/11. KSM was waterboarded 183 times. When asked about bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, KSM lied and said the courier had retired. In his book The Black Banners, FBI Agent Ali Soufan notes that the information that led to his whereabouts came from a detainee captured in Pakistan who divulged the crucial intelligence before he was subjected to torture.
If professional interrogators had been allowed to conduct these interrogations instead of contractors with towels and buckets but no experience, perhaps KSM would have provided useful information in a timely manner. After all, professional interrogators used time-tested non-coercive techniques on Saddam Hussein, a hardened and brutal dictator, and he provided reliable intelligence.
But let’s assume torture produces bits of evidence. Is it worth it? Absolutely and unequivocally not. As Senator McCain recently said regarding the SSCI report on CIA torture, “Our enemies may act without conscience, but we do not…. [W]e are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.”
Here’s another scene you’re not going to see in Zero: an al Qaeda recruiter approaching a vulnerable young man somewhere in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, or the Americas, and using the fact that the U.S. government tortured detainees as his recruiting calling card. And you won’t see that new recruit joining al Qaeda and traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan, or even America, to fight against Americans. You won’t see the funerals at Arlington National Cemetery for the soldiers who were killed by those foreign fighters because our government decided to embrace the lie that lives could only be saved by using torture.
There are opportunities every day in war zones for the U.S. military to use unlawful tactics that would save lives. There are chemical weapons, flamethrowers, and other devices that have been deemed unlawful and unethical by international law and the Geneva Conventions. If the torture supporters allow a loophole for illegal interrogations because they may save lives, why not other tactics? What about, for example, the occasional use of mustard gas when it could save the lives of soldiers pinned down by enemy fire?
Another scene you won’t see in Zero Dark Thirty is one of the numerous intelligence professionals from the FBI, CIA, and military, objecting to torture and opposing its use – sometimes at great costs to their careers. Many of these officers conducted successful interrogations that led to significant success against Al Qaeda detainees without torture.
We don't condone torture not because it isn’t effective, but because we place our moral principles and lawful obligations first. As we reaffirm our commitment to our values, there's no reason to ignore the record. It’s time for Americans to know the truth about the real consequences of the CIA’s torture program. Now that the SSCI has approved its study, it should be made public.
Camerino is a retired 20-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves. He is a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his achievements. His latest book, Kill or Capture (written under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander), was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2010. Camerino is currently a fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations.