3 Former CIA Officials Review “Zero Dark Thirty”

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2008-01-30bJan. 30: Members of Code Pink protest outside Capitol Hill in Washington as Attorney General Michael Mukasey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Melina Mara – The Washington Post

Yesterday morning, the American Enterprise Institute held an event titled “Watching ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ with the CIA: Separating fact from fiction.”

AEI’s Marc Thiessen (author of “Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack”) will host a panel discussion with three CIA veterans who were involved in the hunt for bin Laden.

General Michael Hayden (ret.), Former Director CIA
John A. Rizzo, Former Chief Legal Officer at CIA
Jose Rodriguez, Former Director National Clandestine Service


At an American Enterprise Institute forum to discuss the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, former CIA Director Michael Hayden added that the administration has made capturing terrorists for interrogation such a “third rail” that it’s better for soldiers and CIA operatives to kill their targets rather than face a “legally difficult and politically dangerous” climate.

The two, along with former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo, also lashed out at a secret, 6,000-page Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report that endorses the administration’s view that the interrogation program, noted for its waterboarding of terrorists, did not produce any intelligence.

“It’s a ridiculous assertion when a report says that enhanced interrogation program had no value or produced nothing. Frankly it’s disturbing. Because in my view it is an attempt to rewrite history. The narrative of this administration is that the enhanced interrogation program was torture and nothing came out of it, but in fact we were able to destroy al Qaeda because of it,” said Rodriguez, who added that the committee never interviewed any of the three ex-CIA officials about their program.

While they said the movie was not totally accurate, the three praised it for showing how long and difficult the hunt for bin Laden was and how intelligence gathering works. However, they said that the make-it-up-as-you-go interrogation style used in the movie didn’t happen as shown. They also said that no Italian sports cars were given in return for information.


In a revealing comment, Rodriguez recalled that in 2003, key detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed warned that interrogators would eventually be targeted by Washington for their methods. “You know,” said Mohammed, ” eventually your own government will come after you.” Rodriguez said he just laughed at the time.

He and others have since been the targets of lawsuits and investigations and he said that being targeted by critics, combined with Obama’s executive order killing the interrogation program, has had a “chilling effect” on top CIA officers in the field hunting down terrorists.

Rich Lowry:

In Zero Dark Thirty, CIA characters warn of congressmen coming after them for running the agency’s interrogation program. As it happens, they could have said the same thing about making a movie about the agency’s interrogation program.


Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin have panned the movie as inaccurate for suggesting that enhanced interrogation, or what its critics call “torture,” helped find Osama bin Laden. Fine. They can slam it all they want. They can give it zero stars on their websites. They can write harsh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. They can urge friends to go see Silver Linings Playbook instead.

Where they have shamefully — and pathetically — overstepped their bounds is in using their positions to badger the CIA over its cooperation with the filmmakers. In December, the trio wrote the acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, two heavy-breathing letters about the movie, demanding in one of them to learn everything the agency told Bigelow and her team. It’s as if Bigelow were an agent of a foreign power.

The casual viewer of Zero Dark Thirty will find it hard to see what Langley could have possibly revealed that is worth investigating. It is, at the end of the day, another Hollywood movie,


If Bigelow were targeted by high elected officials for anything other than making a movie supposedly sympathetic to torture, the Academy would be honoring her as a martyr to the First Amendment.

Bigelow upset the senators and other purveyors of polite opinion by trampling on Washington pieties about interrogation. Zero Dark Thirty depicts detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation as providing information — sometimes through their deceptions — that helped the CIA zero in on the man acting as bin Laden’s courier.

Boal told Time magazine: “If the general impression you get from this movie is that torture played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that’s because that’s true. That’s a fact. It doesn’t mean they had to torture people or that torture is necessary or torture is morally right.”

As his comment suggests, the movie is hardly an advertisement for harsh interrogation. It depicts the CIA program as more frankly violent and uncontrolled than it was, confusing it with the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Detainees weren’t beaten up. Interrogators didn’t waterboard them on the spot for unsatisfactory answers. Even if in reality the CIA program was more antiseptic and bureaucratic than depicted, the movie leaves no doubt that breaking a man is a brutal business.

That’s not enough for the amateur film critics of the world’s greatest deliberative body, though. They want to believe that we could have waged a shadowy war against terrorist operatives in the deadly urgent circumstances immediately after September 11 without ever making difficult moral choices. For whatever reason, they are fine with flying trained killers to a compound in Pakistan in the dead of night to shoot the place up and bring bin Laden back in a sack. But they can’t bear the thought that any of bin Laden’s associates suffered coercive interrogations.

In this case — in perhaps a first — it is Hollywood that has the greater appreciation for complexity and moral realism.

Elizabeth Flock:

Throughout the first hour of the movie, a CIA officer named “Dan” appears to be able to ask a detainee any question that comes to mind, and perform any interrogation technique at his disposal if the detainee fails to give a satisfactory answer. Among the techniques shown is putting the detainee inside a box barely big enough for him to fit when it was closed.

Rizzo said those scenes weren’t quite right.

“Those interrogators were not allowed to ad lib… There was a meticulous procedure to undertake,” he said.

The former CIA lawyer also took issue with the portrayal of “the box.” While he acknowledged that the technique was “not pleasant,” Rizzo noted that the CIA often used a much larger box in which detainees could stand, and that the smaller box the agency employed was not the same size as the one portrayed in the film.

Rodriguez also said that the interrogation shown in the film lasted much longer than it had in real life. Enhanced interrogation of detainees post-9/11, he said, mostly lasted just a few days, or in the case of more high profile terrorists, a few weeks.

“But it was a finite amount of time,” he said.

Rodriguez said evidence of this fact is that detainees often figured out how long their torture would last. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for example, named “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” by the 9/11 Commission Report, realized that agents were allowed to waterboard him for up to 10 seconds, according to Rodriguez.

“After a while [KSM] figured it out and he started to count with his fingers up to 10 to let us know that the time was up,” said Rodriguez.


Rodriguez also argued that the film failed to note why torture was effective.

One high-profile detainee, according to Rodriguez, had recommended to the CIA that it use these tactics on all al-Qaeda members because “they would not be expected by Allah to go beyond their capabilities.”

“Once they felt they were [tortured long enough] they would become compliant” and share the information they had with the agency, he said.

“And they’d do so without sin,” added Hayden.


“I was not trying to prove the point that what we were doing was universally applicable for all detainees and circumstances,” said Hayden. “It was particularly well-suited to this group.”

Another part of the film Hayden seemed genuinely pained by was the portrayal of CIA agent Jennifer Matthews (“Jessica” in the film), who died in 2009 after a suicide bombing along at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan killed her and six other CIA operatives. In the movie, Matthews’ eagerness to land a source appears to lead to the operatives’ deaths. Hayden said he was “disturbed” by that portrayal.

“Jennifer was a wonderful officer… She was in this before hunting bin Laden was cool,” he said. “I understand artistically they wanted to create some sort of juxtaposition between her and [the main character CIA officer] Maya. But it was very unfortunate and very unfair that she was portrayed that way.”

Rizzo agreed, saying that Matthews was “a far more complex and interesting character in real life” (and “far more attractive,” he also noted). Rizzo related that after 9/11, Matthews had been put on a list of CIA agents held partially accountable for failing to stop the attacks. Her inclusion on that list had “haunted her” for years afterwards, he said.

What was accurate about the inclusion of Matthews, according to Hayden, was that bin Laden was brought down by women.

“It was an incredible band of sisters that really spearheaded the UBL [Osama bin Laden] cell,” he said, noting that most of CIA operatives who briefed him on the al-Qaeda leader over the years were female.

WaPo‘s Richard Cohen:

I am implacably opposed to torture . . . unless it can save lives.

This foggy position of confusion and ambiguity has been largely missing from the debate over the film. Everyone seems so sure of everything. The rush for certainty started, I think, with the basso profundo statements from the filmmakers that the movie is — as the credits state — “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” I have no idea what this means since the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, concede that they used composite characters and have necessarily compressed the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into a 2½-hour movie. Some things get left out, like truth.

Almost instantly, three members of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain, protested the film’s depiction of torture as instrumental in locating and ultimately killing bin Laden. They insisted instead that it was dogged intelligence work, the piecemeal accumulation of information that, say whatever else you will about it, is not inherently dramatic. No one will ever make an action movie about an accountant.


Perhaps the most unequivocal statement comes from Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. Coll is a former managing editor of The Post and the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001” for which, appropriately, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He is, in other words, a highly serious and thoughtful person who says the following: “Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral.”

Really? Is it immoral to waterboard someone who knows of an imminent Sept. 11-type attack? Wouldn’t it instead be immoral not to do everything in your power to avoid the loss of thousands of lives? Torture in that case might be hideous, repugnant and in some rarefied way still immoral, but I could certainly justify it. This is far different than waterboarding an al-Qaeda member who knows something about bin Laden’s whereabouts. After all, if it took a decade to get him, a bit more time would not have mattered. Morality and the clock are, inescapably, connected.

17 Responses to “3 Former CIA Officials Review “Zero Dark Thirty””

  1. 1



    I appreciate Thiessen’s referencing Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and the episode (pg 52) about Zawahiri’s giving up the name of his friend Qamari (yes, actual torture can work), Qamari’s forgiveness and how Zawahiri passed this philosophy along to the jihadis he trained in counterinterrogation techniques, allowing them to give up information without guilt once they have reached their breaking point threshold of resistance.

  2. 2



    Are you sure you meant al Zawahiri? He has never been captured or killed. Perhaps you meant al Zarqawi who was captured and waterboarded at which time he gave up valuable intel?

  3. 3


    very interesting to know,
    I read quite a while ago there was an OBAMA INSIDER PLANTED IN THE CIA,

  4. 4


    Steve Coll: “Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral.”

    It really kills me with these people, especially when there is an left wing propaganda agenda to be served up…

    Our liberal inspired [no] ‘morals’ in this country have been pretty much in the crapper for more than a decade and are only getting worse…

    …so exactly what [high an mighty] “Morals” is this guy Coll speaking of…. all of a sudden?

    You cannot turn Morals on and off like a water faucet…or a sprinkler..

  5. 5


    Would it be immoral to have used enhanced interrogation techniques to save the children at Sandy Hook or Columbine?

    Anyone who says, “Yes” is a damned liar.

  6. 6




    Are you sure you meant al Zawahiri? He has never been captured or killed.

    Did you watch the video at all? Forward to 21 minutes in when Thiessen starts referencing The Looming Tower. He talks about Zawahiri’s torture (around pg 51 in the book) at the hands of the Egyptian authorities. Which is why I said actual torture- something our CIA is not authorized to partake in, beyond what is laid out in the OLC memos.

    Perhaps you meant al Zarqawi who was captured and waterboarded at which time he gave up valuable intel?

    Zarqawi was never waterboarded. We killed him in 2006.

    I think you meant Zubaydah?

    No. I did not mean either Z. I meant Zawahiri. 🙂



    Thanks, bees. I’ve become quite proficient at block quoting original content from others. 😉

  7. 8


    Apparently, water boarding is so politically taboo that it is more desirable to simply kill the combatant via a drone strike than to make the effort to take them alive. It is amazing to contemplate that the value of a human life is somehow more if can be sanitarily terminated from the air than being water boarded and imprisoned for the duration of the conflict, i.e. life. If only liberals would accept that same standard of measure for the death penalty in the US. But then moral cowardice increases the closer it gets in proximity to Washington DC.

  8. 9



    Via, Thomas Ricks:

    KARACHI: Pakistani movie distributors and television stations are boycotting an Oscar-nominated film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and popular US dramas to avoid offending sensibilities or sparking a violent backlash.

    Pakistan may have a starring role in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, which dramatises the 10-year CIA hunt for the 9/11 mastermind, but local cinemas are steering clear of a film they say could make people feel humiliated.

    Similarly, a local cable distributor is blocking transmission of the smash hit dramas “Homeland”, starring Claire Danes, and “Last Resort” on the grounds they are against national interest.

    The boycotts are the latest form of unofficial censorship in Pakistan, where YouTube has been blocked for four months over a trailer for the anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims”.

    “Zero Dark Thirty” has topped the box office charts in the US and earned five Oscar nods. But in Pakistan, the raid to kill bin Laden is considered one of the blacker incidents in the country’s history.

    A US Navy SEAL team killed the Al Qaeda chief in his hideout less than a mile from Pakistan’s premier military academy on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad.

    “We have not and neither has anyone else bought Zero Dark Thirty,” said Mohsin Yaseen, a representative for film distribution company Cinepax.

    He described the film as “pro-American”, despite controversy in the US over its depictions of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” widely seen as torture.

    “It has several scenes which could make us feel humiliated. It is against the interests of the Pakistani nation,” said Yaseen.

    The chairman of the Film Censors Board told AFP it had not reviewed “Zero Dark Thirty” because there had been no request to do so.

    In 2010 censors banned Indian Bollywood comedy “Tere bin Laden”, which poked fun at the Al Qaeda leader, on the grounds that it could incite violent backlash and terrorist attacks.

    Max Media, which has the rights in Pakistan to cable channel Star World, is refusing to transmit “Homeland” and military drama “Last Resort”.

    While “Last Resort” features US nuclear strikes on Pakistan, the country is referred to only briefly in “Homeland”, which stars Damian Lewis as a US Marine who is also a suspected Al Qaeda agent.

    “We strongly believe that programmes such as ‘Homeland’ and ‘Last Resort’ are against our national interest, cultural values and ideology,” said an official at Max Media who did not want to be named.

    He said the programmes were suspended in keeping with a code of conduct from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (Pemra) and warned that even “a vague reference about Islam can ignite violence in Pakistan”.

    But a thriving trade in pirated DVDs allows Pakistanis to watch whatever they want in the privacy of their homes and “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Homeland” and “Last Resort” are big sellers.

    “We do not have any threats or concerns, nor has any one stopped us from selling these DVDs,” said a salesman at one popular DVD shop in Islamabad.

  9. 10

    Hard Right


    Torture does work. Ask the nazis of WWII who used it. Ask the north vietnamese. Hell ask McCain. Just don’t ask him to identify what torture is. He’s been so psychologically damaged by it he thinks waterboarding the way we do it is torture.

  10. 11


    at this point no talk are possible, no DEMOCRACY IS POSSIBLE WITH THEIR MENTALITY,

  11. 12



    Might as well link up some other stuff here.

    Ali Soufan’s interview and take on the movie.

    William Saletan’s summary of the AEI event.


    Great piece by Heather Mac Donald, btw, from 2005 (focused on military interrogators). Excerpt:

    But the Kandahar prisoners were not playing by the army rule book. They divulged nothing. “Prisoners overcame the [traditional] model almost effortlessly,” writes Chris Mackey in The Interrogators, his gripping account of his interrogation service in Afghanistan. The prisoners confounded their captors “not with clever cover stories but with simple refusal to cooperate. They offered lame stories, pretended not to remember even the most basic of details, and then waited for consequences that never really came.”

    Some of the al-Qaida fighters had received resistance training, which taught that Americans were strictly limited in how they could question prisoners. Failure to cooperate, the al-Qaida manuals revealed, carried no penalties and certainly no risk of torture—a sign, gloated the manuals, of American weakness.

    Even if a prisoner had not previously studied American detention policies before arriving at Kandahar, he soon figured them out. “It became very clear very early on to the detainees that the Americans were just going to have them sit there,” recalls interrogator Joe Martin (a pseudonym). “They realized: ‘The Americans will give us our Holy Book, they’ll draw lines on the floor showing us where to pray, we’ll get three meals a day with fresh fruit, do Jazzercise with the guards, . . . we can wait them out.’ ”

    Even more challenging was that these detainees bore little resemblance to traditional prisoners of war. The army’s interrogation manual presumed adversaries who were essentially the mirror image of their captors, motivated by emotions that all soldiers share. A senior intelligence official who debriefed prisoners in the 1989 U.S. operation in Panama contrasts the battlefield then and now: “There were no martyrs down there, believe me,” he chuckles. “The Panamanian forces were more understandable people for us. Interrogation was pretty straightforward: ‘Love of Family’ [an army-manual approach, promising, say, contact with wife or children in exchange for cooperation] or, ‘Here’s how you get out of here as fast as you can.’ ”

    “Love of family” often had little purchase among the terrorists, however—as did love of life. “The jihadists would tell you, ‘I’ve divorced this life, I don’t care about my family,’ ” recalls an interrogator at Guantánamo. “You couldn’t shame them.” The fierce hatred that the captives bore their captors heightened their resistance. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan reported in January 2002 that prisoners in Kandahar would “shout epithets at their captors, including threats against the female relatives of the soldiers guarding them, knee marines in the groin, and say that they will escape and kill ‘more Americans and Jews.’ ” Such animosity continued in Guantánamo.

    Battlefield commanders in Afghanistan and intelligence officials in Washington kept pressing for information, however. The frustrated interrogators constantly discussed how to get it. The best hope, they agreed, was to re-create the “shock of capture”—that vulnerable mental state when a prisoner is most frightened, most uncertain, and most likely to respond to questioning. Uncertainty is an interrogator’s most powerful ally; exploited wisely, it can lead the detainee to believe that the interrogator is in total control and holds the key to his future. The Kandahar detainees, however, learned almost immediately what their future held, no matter how egregious their behavior: nothing untoward.

    Many of the interrogators argued for a calibrated use of “stress techniques”—long interrogations that would cut into the detainees’ sleep schedules, for example, or making a prisoner kneel or stand, or aggressive questioning that would put a detainee on edge.

    Joe Martin—a crack interrogator who discovered that a top al-Qaida leader, whom Pakistan claimed to have in custody, was still at large and directing the Afghani resistance—explains the psychological effect of stress: “Let’s say a detainee comes into the interrogation booth and he’s had resistance training. He knows that I’m completely handcuffed and that I can’t do anything to him. If I throw a temper tantrum, lift him onto his knees, and walk out, you can feel his uncertainty level rise dramatically. He’s been told: ‘They won’t physically touch you,’ and now you have. The point is not to beat him up but to introduce the reality into his mind that he doesn’t know where your limit is.” Grabbing someone by the top of the collar has had a more profound effect on the outcome of questioning than any actual torture could have, Martin maintains. “The guy knows: You just broke your own rules, and that’s scary. He might demand to talk to my supervisor. I’ll respond: ‘There are no supervisors here,’ and give him a maniacal smile.”

    The question was: Was such treatment consistent with the Geneva conventions?

  12. 13


    they where dealing with dehumanize ” it ” those ” it ” look like human
    but where desensithyze to become ” it”,
    that is not even animals. it’s lower than insects,
    it is a form of virus,
    you must eliminate from the CREATION.

  13. 14



    I wonder if this would be the case had it won best picture? 😉

    U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee drops bin Laden film probe

    By Mark Hosenball

    Feb 25 (Reuters) – One day after “Zero Dark Thirty” failed to win major awards at the Oscars, a congressional aide said on Monday the Senate Intelligence Committee has closed its inquiry into the filmmakers’ contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency.

    The intelligence committee gathered more information from the CIA and will not take further action, according to the aide, who requested anonymity.

    Sony Pictures Entertainment, which distributed the film in the United States, had no immediate comment. But attacks by Washington politicians may have damaged its prospects at the Academy Awards. “Zero Dark Thirty” was nominated for a best picture award, which it did not win. Also, in what industry watchers considered a snub, director Kathryn Bigelow did not receive a best director nomination.

    The Senate committee launched its review of the film, a dramatization of how the U.S. government located and killed Osama bin Laden, after its chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, expressed outrage over scenes that implied that “enhanced interrogations” of CIA detainees produced an breakthrough that helped lead to the al Qaeda leader.

    In December, as “Zero Dark Thirty” was about to premiere nationwide, Feinstein joined fellow Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Republican Senator John McCain in condemning “particularly graphic scenes of CIA officers torturing detainees” in the film.

    A source familiar with contacts between the filmmakers and intelligence officials said the CIA did not tell the filmmakers “enhanced interrogations” led to bin Laden. Instead, the agency helped develop characters in the film, said the source.

    The political fallout prompted Bigelow to write in an op-ed piece: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

    The government cooperated as much, if not more, on “Argo,” the film about the 1979-81 hostage crisis in Iran that won the best picture Oscar. Actor-director Ben Affleck and his team were allowed to film scenes in the lobby of the CIA building in Langley, Virginia; the “Zero Dark Thirty” crew did no such filming. (Reporting By Mark Hosenball. Editing by Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu)

  14. 15

    Richard Wheeler

    Word A great movie,that like Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, probably deserved the Oscar.
    No knock on Lincoln, Life of Pi and the winner Argo—3 exceptional movies.
    Feinstein’s screed (it was a MOVIE Diane) plus Mac’s 2 cents created a backlash that put the Academy voters in a quandary and they unfortunately took the P.C. way out.

  15. 16



    Panetta disclosed top secret info to filmmaker:

    Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta revealed the name of the ground commander who carried out the Osama bin Laden raid at a 2011 CIA awards ceremony attended by “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmaker Mark Boal, according to a draft inspector general (IG) report.

    The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) published a leaked draft report from the Defense Department’s inspector general, which found that Panetta had revealed information labeled “top secret” at the awards ceremony.

    The report does not indicate whether Panetta knew that Boal was at the event, and Panetta was not interviewed by the inspector general.

    “’During this awards ceremony, Director Panetta specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,’” the draft report said. “’According to the DOD Office of Security Review, the individual’s name is protected from public release’ under federal law.”


    POGO reported that there was “consternation” among IG staffers that the report had not been released, as there was a push to make the findings public as early as a year ago.

    Inspector general spokeswoman Bridget Ann Serchak said in an email that the report was not yet completed.

    “While we do not have a projected date of completion for the referenced report, we are working diligently to complete the project as quickly as possible,” she said in an email. “Once it is released, if it is unclassified, it will be posted on our Listserv and in our newsletter as well as on our website.”

    The inspector general draft report says that the special operators believed the June 2011 awards event would be a small affair, but it wound up as a “huge enormous event,” said Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff to Panetta at both the CIA and Pentagon.

    The report quotes him as saying that it was “not a highly sensitive event.”

    King said he wanted to know why Boal was given special accommodations to attend the event.

    “Obviously, according to this report, a serious mistake was made,” he said.

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