If Zero Dark Thirty isn't the best film of the year, it's certainly the most controversial. The cinematic portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's follow-up to The Hurt Locker, has already been decried as an Obama puff piece, prompted a Pentagon investigation into possible intelligence leaks, and dumped a cloud of controversy on Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, a man rumored to be on the shortlist to replace David Petraeus at the CIA.
But as the bin Laden blockbuster hits the big screen in New York and Los Angeles Wednesday night, partisans are buzzing about something else entirely: the film's portrayal of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs for short). Bigelow and Boal go for the throat with a series of grisly interrogation scenes -- featuring waterboarding and sexual humiliation -- that indirectly yield the intelligence that leads to the al Qaeda leader. The film was supposedly based on extensive field research and has been billed as a faithful reconstruction of the facts. As Bigelow told New York magazine earlier this month, "The goal was to be as accurate as we possibly could without, obviously, having been there."
But for all its journalistic conceits, Zero Dark Thirty runs afoul of a mounting body of evidence -- compiled by the FBI, CIA inspector general, Department of Justice, and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, among others -- that EITs simply don't work. Foreign Policy spoke with Ali Soufan, the lead FBI investigator into the USS Cole bombing and the man who first discovered the identities of the 9/11 hijackers, about this discrepancy and about a wide range of issues related to the war on terror, including drone warfare and Guantánamo Bay.
"The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture," said Soufan, who is the author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. "Of all the people that are talking about this, I was the only one that was in the room," he said. "Enhanced interrogation techniques did not work."
FP: What do you make of the way enhanced interrogation techniques are portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow's new film, Zero Dark Thirty? Is it wrong or misleading?
AS: It's fiction. Based on all the information that I know, based on the 6,000-page report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and based on what many of the experts that follow these things have said -- at least one of whom actually served as an advisor on the film -- this is not fact. This is Hollywood. The information that was used to get bin Laden did not come as a result of waterboarding or torture. And the Senate report that has been voted on in the committee -- which included at least one Republican -- made it very clear that enhanced interrogation techniques and waterboarding did not work. And that just confirms what the CIA inspector general said about that program, and what the Department of Justice said about it. The facts are there. I came to my opinion based on experience. I opposed enhanced interrogation techniques not really because of the moral issues. I opposed it from the efficacy perspective.