Bin Laden and the False Charge That Won't Go Away

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I was listening to Tony Kornheiser’s show on my car radio last week, contemplating the nature of good and evil, as I always do when listening to his program. Just kidding. I was probably contemplating the glacial pace of Washington’s traffic, a recurring object of my attention, which was making me late for an appointment.

Something said on the show did catch my attention, however, and turned my mind to a policy debate, still ongoing, that I was once peripherally involved in—and which does concern matters of good and evil. I normally tune in to the show for lighter fare than this. Kornheiser is an entertaining guy, and he and his associates mostly stick to sports chatter. They don’t often talk about politics, a relief in a town that talks about little else.

They weren’t talking about politics that day either. They were talking about movies. Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post’s movie critic, was offering her opinion about this year’s Oscar nominees, when the conversation turned to the movie she thought deserved the best picture Oscar last year, “Zero Dark Thirty,” the film about the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

I hadn’t remembered that “Argo” won the best picture award last year. It’s a pro-American and pro-CIA film (and even more pro-Hollywood), but Ms. Hornaday is still vexed that it beat out “Zero Dark Thirty.” What got my attention, though, was whom she blamed for the film’s misfortune -- three U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain.

None of the culprits, as far as I know, is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But Hornaday claimed they waged an “unjustified smear campaign” against the movie (begging the question of whether there are there “justified” smear campaigns), which cost it the Oscar it so obviously deserved. According to her, it was the runaway frontrunner until the three malcontents started riding “their little hobby horse” and intimidated Motion Picture Academy voters into denying it the Oscar.

Hornaday didn’t bother to explain the nature of their objection. But since I worked for Senator McCain, and helped staff him on the “hobby horse” in question, I knew what she was referring to.

The “smear campaign” consisted of a letter to Sony Pictures, released to the press, in which the three senators objected to the movie’s assertion that the CIA’s torture of detainees played a critical role in locating bin Laden. “Zero Dark Thirty” director Katherine Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal responded by noting that they “depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt.”

That second sentence is disingenuous. Yes, the film portrays intelligence analysts and operatives engaged, often heroically, in activities other than torturing terrorists. But in their narrative the most important breakthrough was information gained from one particular detainee after he was subjected to the worst of what the CIA called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” That is a fiction.

Movies aren’t expected to be historical records. But prior to the controversy, both Bigelow and Boal, who consulted closely with CIA personnel, claimed their film took “a journalistic approach” to the events in question. Bigelow called it “a reported film.” They went further than the standard claim that the story was “based on actual events.” Their movie, they said right on screen, was “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” They didn’t “play fast and lose with history,” Boal insisted.

But that’s not true. They did. They distorted essential facts to make torture appear more efficacious than it is. While they insisted they weren’t making judgments about the morality of torture, they made a film that embraced the argument made by torture’s defenders, which is, essentially: “It might be repugnant but it’s indispensible to stopping the bad guys from killing any more of us.”

Shortly after bin Laden was killed, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former CIA Director Michael Hayden reiterated their claim, dishonestly in my opinion, that interrogation practices that some people, but not them, call torture were essential to locating bin Laden. It began, Mukasey implied, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave up, after he was waterboarded, the nom de guerre of the al-Qaeda courier who would eventually lead us to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. In fact, we learned the courier’s name well before then, from a detainee held in another country, who gave the information without being tortured. KSM acknowledged there was such a person but denied he was important or still in al-Qaeda’s service.

After an exhaustive investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that information from detainees subjected to torture played a minor role, if any, in finding bin Laden. A New York Times investigative report found the same. The search for bin Laden would have probably ended in the same way if the CIA had never tortured anyone.

We shouldn’t have to argue against the use of torture by disputing its efficacy, but those are the grounds on which its proponents make their stand. Sometimes torture will get you actionable intelligence. More often it produces false leads. It didn’t give us bin Laden. But it is always morally wrong, contrary and corrosive to the ideals that our nation was founded to protect. “Zero Dark Thirty” gave credence to those who would have us employ those practices again. That is much more objectionable than the complaints of three senators or the supposed injustice of losing an Oscar. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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