When I was head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 2002 to 2004 and then director of the National Clandestine Service until late 2007, the campaign against al-Qaeda was my life and obsession.
I must say, I agree with both the film critics who love “Zero Dark Thirty” as entertainment and the administration officials and prominent senators who hate the movie for the message it sends — although my reasons are entirely opposite theirs.
Indeed, as I watched the story unfold on the screen, I found myself alternating between repulsion and delight.
First, my reasons for repulsion. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which will open for Washington audiences Friday, inaccurately links torture with intelligence success and mischaracterizes how America’s enemies have been treated in the fight against terrorism. Many others object to the film, however, because they think that the depiction of torture by the CIA is accurate but that the movie is wrong to imply that our interrogation techniques worked.
They are wrong on both counts. I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture.
One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways. In the publicity campaign for the movie, the director and the screenwriter have stressed that “Zero Dark Thirty” was carefully researched and is fact-based. When discussing the so-called torture scenes, director Kathryn Bigelow has said: “I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.” Yet when pressed about inaccuracies, screenwriter Mark Boal has been quick to remind everyone: “This is not a documentary.”
What I haven’t heard anyone acknowledge is that the interrogation scenes torture the truth. Despite popular fiction — and the fiction that often masquerades as unbiased reporting — the enhanced interrogation program was carefully monitored and conducted. It bore little resemblance to what is shown on the screen.
The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.
The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention. To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face, CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington. No one was hung from ceilings. The filmmakers stole the dog-collar scenes from the abuses committed by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. No such thing was ever done at CIA “black sites.”