The Ticking Time Bomb in Zero Dark Thirty

Editor’s note: the author works at the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

A Story Based on Facts

A Story Based on Real Events

Now that Zero Dark Thirty is hitting cinemas in Europe viewers can finally form their own opinion about the debate that has swept over here from the United States for the past month.

The story about “the greatest manhunt in history” traces the steps of the intelligence effort in finding Osama bin Laden, from the first interrogations of captured terrorists in 2002 to the 2011 raid by American special forces on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  At the center of the plot is Maya, a young and ambitious CIA official. While researching the script, director Kathryn Bigelow and screen writer Mark Boal had access to some high level officials within the CIA and the Defense Department for background interviews. Bigelow has advertised the fact that they used almost journalistic approach to piece together what happened. Since much of the information about the real life events depicted in the movie are still classified and publications about the hunt have been few, part of the film’s appeal is the promise to provide movie goers with new insights.

Most of the controversy the film generated has focused on the first half hour, in which Maya and her CIA colleague Dan interrogate a terror suspect named Ammar. They employ a number of brutal methods, including stress positions, sleep deprivation, starvation, waterboarding and confinement in a box barely larger than the detainee himself. At first Maya is somewhat repulsed by the violence, but she quickly adjusts and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the detainee to talk. A number of commentators have pointed out that the plot wrongly implies that the use of torture was integral to finding bin Laden.

The sequence of events does indeed seem to suggest that the interrogation of Ammar provided a first clue that set the CIA on the right track. According to Senator John McCain former CIA director Leon Panetta has disputed  this version of events. McCain and two of his Senate colleagues on the Intelligence Committee, chair Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin,  have written a letter to acting CIA director Michael Morell asking for clarification what kind of information CIA officials hat provided to the filmmakers. In the letter, they state that a classified study on the detention and interrogation program by committee staff based on internal CIA records has shown that the decisive information that led to bin Laden had not been gained through coercive techniques.

In this context one dramaturgical decision by the filmmakers that so far has received little attention deserves mentioning. While generally not much except Maya’s immediate surrounding is shown, terrorist attacks are part of the plot at regular intervals. After opening with a sound montage of 9/11 itself, the movie shows an attack on a Saudi oil installation in Khobar in 2004; the London bus bombings of 7/7/2005; the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel in 2008 (Maya is eating there with a colleague and barely survives); the suicide bombing that wiped out almost an entire CIA unit at the US military base Camp Chapman near the Afghan town Khost (Maya loses a close colleague); even the failed attempt to set of a car bomb on Times Square in New York in 2010. As Karen Greenberg has noted, these attacks provide a constant backdrop of fear. But they do more than that. They provide the ticking time bomb scenario that is indispensable to anyone who wants to defend the use of torture. Even advocates of torture only ever justify it as a means of stopping an imminent attack and saving the lives of innocent people. However, in the real world ticking time bomb scenarios rarely if ever happen. The many attacks shown in the film provide an effective substitute. They are not presented as separate events, carried out by local operatives and each with its own particular circumstances, but rather as a steady continuous onslaught of strikes masterminded by the leadership of Al Qaeda. By making this choice the filmmakers turn the hunt for bin Laden into a race against time.

If one wants to legitimize enhanced interrogation, claiming that torture led to bin Laden by itself is not enough. The overwhelming focus of the debate on the role of torture in locating bin Laden neglects an important point. Even in the opinions of advocates of coercion and even in the case of in Laden, bringing a terrorist to justice for acts committed in the past does not justify its use. It is also necessary to make the case that bin Laden is still a danger. If he were an old man hiding out with little communication to the outside world and without much influence on the actions of a lose network of terrorists who increasingly act independent from Al Qaedas leadership, it would be hard to argue that torturing potential informants would be anything but revenge. However, if he is still the central figure continuously plotting attacks from the Middle East to Manhattan…

The point is made explicit in a little-noticed exchange between Maya and her superior. After the failed Times Square bombing Maya presses Joseph Bradley, the CIA station chief in Pakistan, for more ressources to find bin Laden. Bradley tells her that he doesn’t care about bin Laden and that Maya should be more concerned with protecting the homeland. Maya then lectures him about how bin Laden provides the inspiration for all these attacks. She stops just short of saying that if they get him, the attacks will end. Needless to say, in this scene Maya is the one the viewer identifies with. As usual Bradley is just one more obstacle to her doing her job. And the hunt for bin Laden is one great attempt to protect the homeland against further attacks and save the lives of innocent Americans.

This is not to say that the late bin Laden’s had no role whatsoever. He was not hiding in a cave completely cut off from civilization, but lived in a city and was able to communicate through his messenger. But it is questionable how much control he had over the operational activities that led to the diverse terrorist attacks so prominently emphasized throughout the plot. The point is this: There are different ways to tell the story, and, whether intentionally or not, the makers of Zero Dark Thirty consistently tell it in a way that makes the strongest possible case for torture.

There is an interesting divide between the response of people who have been studying the interrogation program critically and traditional film critics. The former point out that it is not possible to remain neutral and that what is left out is as important as what is shown. Not part of the narrative, for example, is the fact that the CIA and the military have detained hundreds if not thousands of innocents; that as many as 100 people or more have died in CIA and military custody; that CIA interrogation have led to false information that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq; and that even within the CIA the enhanced interrogation program was highly controversial. Regular film critics are much more likely to buy the filmmakers’ defense  that depiction of torture does not mean endorsement and that the film doesn’t judge, but lets the viewer fill in the blanks. Perhaps this positive response stems from the fact that by the standards of Hollywood the use of manipulative stylistic devices is restrained. The pathos in the dialogue is kept to a minimum, music is used sparingly. But as Matt Taibbi  vividly describes the film will hardly leave most spectators ambivalent about the events depicted. Maya, the protagonist, is no anti-hero. The viewer identifies with her throughout her struggles and setbacks until the final triumph. And Maya is not ambivalent about torture. Rather than using artistic gimmics, the films judgement is integrated in the plot itself, in the sequence events are presented, and indeed by what is included as well as what is left out.

Why is this so important? After all, Hollywood is known to take its liberties with dramatizations based on real events. As we know from the experience with the popular TV show “24”, depictions of the good guy torturing on screen can be quite influential. Among those who referred to “24” in discussions about enhanced interrogation techniques were Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and John Yoo who during his tenure in the Office of the Legal Council in George W. Bush’s Justice Department authored of some of the infamous “torture memos.” The show was so popular with members of the military that the Pentagon sent a representative to try to convince the producers of 24 to tone down the torture scenes. The military leadership feared that Jack Bauer could have negative consequence on the behavior of the troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“24” was quite obviously a work of fiction. Still its many instances of ticking time bombs proved irresistable to those who wanted to argue in favor of the use of coercive interrogation techiques. For many viewers, Zero Dark Thirty may appear to be an authoritative if unofficial record of how the US got bin Laden. Imagine how much ammunition that provides to those who want to justify the CIA interrogation program.


11 thoughts on “The Ticking Time Bomb in Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Thanks for highlighting that the movie deliberately showed terrorist attacks at regular intervals to reinforce the “ticking time bomb” scenario. Haven’t watched the movie; not really keen to add to the box-office records that the movie is setting…

    FYI, even CIA is now distancing itself from the movie; it issued a message to explain that Zero Dark Thirty is not a realistic portrayal of the facts

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  3. Pericles says:

    If I were in the CIA I would be appalled by the film. There’s a scene where the head of the CIA (Tony Soprano) asks John Barrowman, in a lift, what he thinks of Maya. Barrowman replies that ‘she’s really smart’ and Tony Soprano wearily replies ‘we’re all smart.’

    In fact, the problem here is that the film makes the CIA look really stupid. Maya is not a model of a good intelligence officer-she’s obsessive, over the top, and unbalanced. She is the worst advert imaginable for a modern intelligence agent. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the scriptwriter, appear to have confused somebody who is very shouty, insubordinate, and who has no outside interests or inner world with someone who has conviction. Maya abuses her superiors at every turn and takes what are, in intelligence terms, potentially highly dangerous leaps of reasoning-most notably, that what somebody doesn’t admit or talk about is always telling. Her colleagues in the film point out these cognitive leaps, but we are left clear, from the way that the film is shot and framed, that we are meant to believe that Maya is simply blessed by God with insight others lack. I’m sure Beria’s boys probably took a similar mental approach when beating the crap out their victims back in the 1930s, but that’s not how a good intelligence service works.

    Finally, the issue of torture here is not that simply that Maya and her colleagues use torture regularly, and roll their eyes when President Obama turns up on TV condemning it (I’m not making this up, that’s how out there this film is). The issue is that the film implies-when Maya is watching countless tapes of interrogations-that EVERY SINGLE PIECE of valuable intell in the bin Laden manhunt came from torture or coercive circumstances. The film in this regard skates close to becoming torture porn. Ali Soufan’s memoir alone make crystal clear that the EXACT OPPOSITE is the case-that much of the most valuable intell came from traditional skilled interrogation tradecraft, from long, long conversations with suspects. And personally I’d like to see a film one day that did justice to this skill-I think it would make riveting cinema.

    This film however is a quite well acted, beautifully shot, but morally hollow and grossly inaccurate joke, saved only by a riveting final re-enactment of the bin Laden raid. It tells us disappointingly little about the modern art of intelligence, and grossly misrepresents the highly skilled work the vast majority of most modern intelligence services perform. Bring back George Smiley please.

  4. Mark Hoffman says:

    Good article with one flaw. You write that, “In the real world ticking time bomb scenarios rarely if ever happen.” Actually, they NEVER happen. The reason is obvious to anyone who does a thought experiment about the ticking time bomb (TTB) scenario. It’s always presented like this: “You have a suspect who knows where a TTB is planted that’ll go off in one hour and kill thousands of people. Would you torture this suspect to find out where the TTB is?”

    The problem is that in the real world, there’s no omniscient narrator, but the TTB scenario has one built into it: “You have a suspect who knows where a TTB is planted…” How do you or anyone else know that? You don’t. In the real world, that’s precisely what you’d be trying to establish. If you were absolutely 100% sure that the suspect had planted a TTB, you would also know where the TTB is because to be sure that you had the right suspect, you must’ve seen him or her plant that TTB. Otherwise, how do you know? Did someone tell you the suspect planted it? How do they know that and why do you trust what they say? If they absolutely know that this suspect planted the TTB, they would have had to have seen the suspect plant it, so why won’t they tell you where the TTB is?

    You can see what the problem is: the TTB scenario so popularized in 24 Hours is fiction, and in fiction you can have an omniscient narrator who tells you the most important fact before you search for truth. In real life, there is nothing like that and you’re always unsure whether you have the right suspect.

    That doesn’t even get into the fact that if a suspect is fanatical enough to plant a TTB and you do, in fact, have the right suspect, that suspect will be impervious to torture. He or she only has to wait out the torture for one hour to achieve their goal. Almost anyone can do that. Why? Because if you torture that suspect, they’ll tell you what you want to know and you’ll waste time over and over until the TTB goes off, and then they’ve achieved their goal. This happens on small and large time scales.

    That’s why torture is for losers: the Nazis in World War II, the Soviets in the Cold War, the French in Algeria, the U.S. in Vietnam, etc. Torture makes you lose wars, not win them.

    • Mark Stout says:

      Actually, I am aware of one reported incident of a ticking time bomb. It appears in Alistair Horne’s SAVAGE WAR OF PEACE about the Algeria War. Ironically, as I recall it–and I don’t have the book in front of me–the intelligence officer in question declines to torture the suspect to get the info about the bomb’s location and then get’s lucky because the bomb doesn’t go if. There’s a problem with the detonator or some such.

      That said, I don’t claim that my one counterexample undercuts your argument. I’m merely being pedantic!

    • Mark Hoffman says:

      Mark, it’s important to get your facts right when you engage in pedantry. The case you cite is bogus, as this page shows:

      “Fernand Yveton was captured in the act of planting a bomb in the Hamma gasworks (1956). In his account, Horne quotes the agony of the officer choosing not to torture Yveton, while dreading every moment that his scruples would kill thousands. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different from Horne’s (and Prefect Secretary-General Paul Teitgen’s) version. Yveton was tortured, and his bombs had been designed to go off after the facility was vacant; this was sabotage, not terrorism. The torture achieved nothing because Yveton did not know where other bombs were planted.”

      To read more about this, see Jean-Paul Sartre, “Colonialism and Neocolonialism,” (1964) “We are all murderers,” p.62:

      “In November 1956, Fernand Yveton, a member of the Conthatranis de la Liberation (Freedom Fighters), planted a bomb at the Hamma power station, an attempted sabotage, which can in no way equate with a terrorist action. Analysis proved that it was a time bomb precisely set so that the explosion could riot occur before the personnel had left. To no avail: Yveton was arrested, sentenced to death. a reprieve was refused, he was executed. Not the slightest hesitation: this man declared and proved that he did not wish to kill anyone, but we wanted to kill him, and we did so without wavering. We had to look intimidating, didn’t we? And, as one idiot said the other day, ‘show the terrible face of an angry France’.”

  5. Nikhil says:

    Thank you for your excellent insight. It is interesting that you point out the many instances of ticking time bomb scenarios that the movie depicts. When I watched the film I thought this was the subtle way that it showed that torture doesn’t work.

    In fact before they put Amman in the box they are specifically asking about the impending Saudi attack. Hoping that the threat of torture will have him reveal the date of the attack. Obviously it doesn’t work. Again when Maya interrogates the Al Queda Commander on the military base she is unable to stop any of the attacks, though there is no specific instance that I can recall where she asks him (unlike the scene with Amman).

    I guess when I watched it I thought that the contrast between these scenarios and the ongoing torture of detainees showed exactly how ineffective torture proved to be. Of course catching this requires an attentive viewer as opposed to spelling it out. I appreciate that Bigelow allowed for this level of attention to be rewarded in the viewer, though I think you are right that it could send the impression that torture is good and effective as well.

  6. Stefan says:

    This movie is unrealistic drivel. The problem is that many foreigners will believe that it is realistic, and that it reflects American attitudes and beliefs. As will many Americans. Even worse, functionaries in the “national security” industry learn how to behave from fictions like this, and so gradually we all slide into a mire of B.S.

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