“Zero Dark Thirty,” the critically acclaimed new film by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, depicts the “greatest manhunt in history”—a decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, from the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, to the SEAL Team Six raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. As the film brutally depicts, the long, frustrating search for bin Laden included the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, physical violence, and psychological pressure in the early years of the Bush administration to extract information from detainees. But as “Zero Dark Thirty” rightly implies, the systematic use of enhanced interrogation techniques came at a steep moral cost while producing little to no valuable information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
As the practice of enhanced interrogation techniques became publically known, Congress—led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Carl Levin (D-MI)—took swift action against the program and passed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. Frequently referred to as “the McCain amendment,” the act prohibited the use of any treatment or technique not specifically authorized by the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation and marked the beginning of the end for the role of enhanced interrogation in Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, tactics.
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama repeatedly denounced the use of torture and pledged to end the practice if elected. On his second full day in office, President Obama issued Executive Order 13491, which prohibited the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and mandated compliance with the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation for all detainees in U.S. custody. The McCain amendment and President Obama’s executive order reaffirmed America’s longstanding prohibition on torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment categorically and without exception, and effectively ended the CIA’s use of torture in the “War on Terror.”
An intensive three-year investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence produced a 6,000- page report this year that reportedly shows that enhanced interrogation techniques produced little to no valuable intelligence in the “War on Terror” and the hunt for bin Laden. Former CIA Director and head of CENTCOM Gen. David Petraeus said of torture, “Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary.” Glenn L. Carle, a CIA officer who witnessed enhanced interrogation techniques firsthand in 2002, added that coercive techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” It’s possible that the torture used on detainees in the attempt to find bin Laden may have produced some marginally useful information, but the high cost to America’s moral standing failed to produce any determinative information or actionable intelligence on the location of the Al Qaeda leader.
The long road that would eventually lead to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, would be built on years of painstaking intelligence and fact gathering by hundreds of intelligence professionals working for a decade. President Obama made the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden the top priority for the CIA at the onset of his presidency and instructed new CIA Director Leon Panetta to mobilize the resources necessary to find bin Laden, using all the tools of the American intelligence community.
The traditional, legal interrogation techniques detailed in the Army field manual and used in standard practice by the FBI—such as rapport building and detailed repetition—ultimately proved to be the most effective methods of obtaining useful, reliable intelligence from detainees. Note that in the film, Ammar, who was unsuccessfully tortured at the beginning of the movie, only reveals the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, once the CIA agents switch to more traditional methods of interrogation, offering him food and a cigarette to coax information from him.
Though unmentioned in the film, the most important step in the hunt for bin Laden may have been the end of the war in Iraq. The end of the war freed up critical human intelligence and technological resources that could be redeployed to Afghanistan and Pakistan to develop the actionable data and leads that were instrumental in directing American attention to the Abbottabad compound—critical resources that were diverted from their post-9/11 mission by the war in Iraq.
The removal of Osama bin Laden as a threat provides a measure of justice for the families of the victims of 9/11 and the countless other terror attacks he was behind. The CIA hunt for bin Laden profiled in “Zero Dark Thirty” and the SEAL Team Six mission at the Abbottabad compound not only removed the leader of Al Qaeda from the battlefield—it also produced a treasure trove of hard data on the terrorist group’s operations, inner thinking, and organizational structure.
The United States and the world are safer because our intelligence community and the military had the capable personnel, the resources, and the leadership from the top to succeed in their mission, not because of the immoral, illegal, and ineffective use of torture displayed at the beginning of the film.
Ken Sofer is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.