I recently took my favorite retired screenwriter (my husband) to see Zero Dark Thirty. For years, we have been sparring over creative license and historical accuracy in national security films. Usually our movie dates go something like this: he talks about plot development, character arcs, cinematography, and the power of silences. I complain about what isn't true and suggest a reading list of peer reviewed journal articles on the subject. When I told him the movie Deterrence should really be called Compellence (a better reflection of Thomas Schelling's Nobel prizewinning work on the subject), he started seeing more movies without me.
I fully expected him to walk out of ZD30 issuing a ringing defense of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, hailing the importance of artful storytelling, and underscoring the prevailing Hollywood view that movies are not real life and everyone knows the difference.
Boy was I wrong. For the first time in more than a decade of Screenwriter vs. Professor, we agreed. Mr. Creative License felt as strongly as I did that Zero Dark Thirty deceptively posed as objective and journalistic when it was nowhere close.
Most policy wonks have focused on two aspects of the film: its depiction of torture and its claims to reportage. Senators, terrorism experts, journalists, and even the CIA's acting director have criticized the film's misleading torture scenes, in which "Ammar" (a composite fictional character) is broken by torture and ultimately gives up the nom de guerre of bin Laden's trusted courier. The movie is unambiguous on two points: (1) the courier's pseudonym is portrayed as the key break that led to bin Laden, and (2) the name was first elicited from a CIA detainee who opened up only after being softened up by torture. But no government official with access to the classified record has corroborated these claims, and plenty have flatly contradicted them.
To be clear, much of the historical record remains classified. The only public record is what some people say they know, which may not be the same as what they actually know or what is known by others. Several senior CIA officials have vigorously defended the agency's "enhanced interrogation program" as a vital source of information in the hunt for bin Laden. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden wrote in a June 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed that it is "nearly impossible" for him "to imagine any operation like the May 2 assault on bin Laden's compound ... that would not have made substantial use of the trove of information derived from CIA detainees, including those on whom enhanced techniques had been used." Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. who oversaw the CIA's counterterrorism operations and later led its clandestine service, wrote in the Washington Post last April that "the trail to bin Laden ... stemmed from information obtained from hardened terrorists who agreed to tell us some (but not all) of what they knew after undergoing harsh but legal interrogation methods." He describes a 2004 interrogation of a terrorist detainee who, after enhanced techniques were applied, "told us many things -- including that bin Laden had given up communicating via telephone, radio or Internet, and depended solely on a single courier who went by ‘Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.'" Sounds convincing.
But look closely. These guys have spent their entire professional careers being oh-so-careful with words. Neither Hayden nor Rodriguez claims the torture program was the key to finding bin Laden. Neither claims that enhanced interrogation methods were how the agency first unearthed the courier's nom de guerre, identified his true name, or his whereabouts. (In fact, Hayden concedes that "the first mention of the courier's name came from a detainee not in CIA custody.") And several other officials with access to the classified record, including former CIA Director Leon Panetta, come down on the other side. In May of 2011, Panetta wrote in a letter to Senator John McCain, which said, "we first learned about the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002," and went on to say, "no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier's full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means."