David Ignatius
Opinion writer December 12, 2012

Mark Boal, screenwriter of the new movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” says he wanted to tell a story that conveyed the moral complexities of the hunt to kill Osama bin Laden. The debate already churning around the film shows that he and director Kathryn Bigelow succeeded in that, and much else.

The movie tells the story of the relentless pursuit of bin Laden, seen through a character called “Maya,” who is based on one of the real-life CIA targeters who tracked down the al-Qaeda leader. It was Maya’s good sense to focus on the courier “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti,” who finally led the targeters to their prey.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

But it’s a muted victory. In the haunting last scene of the film, Maya is seen sitting in a C-130 cargo plane at Bagram air base after she has identified bin Laden’s body. One of the crew asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t know what to answer, and this frames the uncertainty of America itself: What did we accomplish in killing bin Laden? At what cost? Where do we go next?

The debate about the film centers on what role torture played in pinpointing al-Kuwaiti and then bin Laden himself. The film suggests that without “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Orwellian euphemism), Maya might not have made the match. The movie doesn’t “advocate” torture — which it shows in horrifyingly believable detail — but it does demonstrate how evidence gleaned from it led to bin Laden’s door. Could Maya have gotten there some other way? The film doesn’t speculate.

Some critics contend that the film is wrong because, first, torture is ineffective and, second, bin Laden could have been found through other tactics. But I fear this argument softens the moral dilemma and overlooks part of the factual record. I asked intelligence officials to clarify some of the details, and they responded with information that may help audiences evaluate “Zero Dark Thirty” when it opens Dec. 19.

Let’s start with what Leon Panetta, then CIA director, said last year in a letter to Sen. John McCain, himself a victim of torture and one of its leading critics. Here’s an excerpt from the letter, written a week after the May 2, 2011, bin Laden raid:

“Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that bin Laden was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. . . . Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that the information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to bin Laden.”

So that’s a caution, at the outset: The role of harsh interrogation “cannot be established definitively.”

Let’s look specifically at information about the mysterious al-Kuwaiti. According to the intelligence officials, several dozen detainees provided information about him starting in 2002. Seven of the first eight detainees providing information were actually captives of foreign intelligence services, and the CIA can’t say whether they were tortured. (The eighth was held by the U.S. military.)

The first mention that al-Kuwaiti was a courier for bin Laden came in 2003 from a CIA detainee who was harshly interrogated. Opponents of torture counter that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, lied about al-Kuwaiti — which, in their view, shows that the practice doesn’t work. But counterterrorism experts argue that the fact Mohammed concealed the courier’s role, even under duress, was actually a red flag, convincing the analysts of the courier’s importance.

Even without the torture-based information, “we still would have focused on [al-Kuwaiti] like a laser,” insists one intelligence official.

“Zero Dark Thirty” describes the analysts’ triumph in persistently following leads about the courier. But intelligence officials say the real breakthrough was obtaining his true name, Ibrahim Said, which was discovered in Kuwait through “old fashioned spy work” — presumably meaning the recruitment of a source with access to al-Qaeda’s network. On that subject, senior officials are mum.

Here’s the bottom line, at least for me: We should oppose torture because it’s wrong, not because it doesn’t work. Perhaps the courier’s trail could have been found through other means; we’ll never know. President Obama was right to ban torture, but the public must understand that this decision carries a potential cost in lost information. That’s what makes it a moral choice.

davidignatius@washpost.com