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'Zero Dark Thirty': Did torture really net bin Laden?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
December 11, 2012 -- Updated 2347 GMT (0747 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Major new film depicts torture as a key to the hunt for Osama bin Laden
  • He says "Zero Dark Thirty" may distort debate because of its heavy focus on torture
  • Whether torture is appropriate in interrogations continues to be debated, he says
  • Bergen: A three-year Senate investigation may yield some answers

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst and author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad" and "The Longest War: America's Enduring Conflict with al-Qaeda," books that this story draws upon.

(CNN) -- "Zero Dark Thirty" is a likely shoo-in, deservedly, for Oscar nominations for best director (Kathryn Bigelow) and best screenplay (Mark Boal) and perhaps a slew of other categories.

Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, a CIA analyst who in the film is the key player in finding Osama bin Laden, is reminiscent of Cate Blanchett in both looks and talent. The movie is beautifully filmed, and the propulsive score moves the action forward effectively.

Leaving aside its obvious merits as a film, how well does Zero Dark Thirty tell the complex tale of the decade-long hunt for bin Laden after 9/11? It's a valid question to ask since, after all, Bigelow told The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, "What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film," and Boal told the Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to approach the story as a screenwriter but do the homework as a reporter."

Read more: Critics' prizes confirm 'Zero Dark Thirty' as Oscar favorite

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

The compelling story told in the film captures a lot that is true about the search for al Qaeda's leader but also distorts the story in ways that could give its likely audience of millions of Americans the misleading picture that coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees -- such as waterboarding, physical abuse and sleep deprivation -- were essential to finding bin Laden.

This week, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee plans to vote on whether to approve the as-yet unreleased findings of a 6,000-page report about its three-year investigation into the secret CIA interrogation program that is depicted in "Zero Dark Thirty."

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This report promises to be the definitive assessment of the intelligence value of the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques. After the examination of millions of pages of evidence, the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee have publicly stated that coercive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding did not provide the information that led to bin Laden.

Endorsing the view that waterboarding was key to finding bin Laden does not seem to have been the intention of "Zero Dark Thirty's" filmmakers. Boal said that, in reality, a "whole array of tools" were used to find bin Laden and that the film "tried to be balanced." And certainly, "Zero Dark Thirty" shows some of the Agatha Christie-like sleuthing at the CIA and high-tech surveillance techniques that were instrumental in tracking down al Qaeda's leader.

Screenwriter Mark Boal, left, and director Kathryn Bigelow, center, pose with cast members of \
Screenwriter Mark Boal, left, and director Kathryn Bigelow, center, pose with cast members of "Zero Dark Thirty."

But the fact is that about half an hour of the beginning of "Zero Dark Thirty" consists of scenes of an exhausted, bloodied al Qaeda detainee named Ammar who is strung to the ceiling with ropes; beaten; forced to wear a dog collar while crawling around attached to a leash; stripped naked in the presence of Maya, the female CIA analyst; blasted with heavy metal music so he is deprived of sleep; forced to endure crude waterboardings; and locked into a coffin-like wooden crate.

These visceral scenes are, of course, far more dramatic than the scene where a CIA analyst says she has dug up some information in an old file that will prove to be a key to finding bin Laden.

(Full disclosure: Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of "Zero Dark Thirty." We advised that the torture scenes were overwrought. Al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Boal said that as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were "toned down" in the final cut of the film. I also saw this final version of the film. Finally, HBO is making a theatrical release documentary which will be out in 2013 based on my book about the hunt for bin Laden entitled "Manhunt.")

Tricked into talking

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After the detainee Ammar is systematically abused by his CIA captors in "Zero Dark Thirty," he is tricked into believing that he has already inadvertently given up key information about al Qaeda as a result of all the abuse and sleep deprivation that he has undergone. At this point, Ammar starts cooperating with his CIA interrogators and tells them about a man known as "Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti" who played some kind of important role in al Qaeda.

It is Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti -- which in Arabic means "the father of Ahmed from Kuwait" -- who ultimately proves to be bin Laden's courier and whose trail leads CIA officials to the compound in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan where they eventually come to believe that bin Laden himself is hiding.

How much does this correspond to what is now known about how the Kuwaiti was, in fact, found? In real life, the character known as Ammar in the film is quite similar to Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi whom al Qaeda was grooming to be the 20th hijacker in the months before the 9/11 attacks. It was al-Qahtani who supplied the CIA with what may have been the first clue that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti had some importance inside al Qaeda.

Read more: "Zero Dark Thirty" take on bin Laden raid courted controversy from start

Between November 23, 2002, and January 11, 2003, al-Qahtani was interrogated for 48 days at Guantanamo more or less continuously, kept awake for much of that time by loud music being blasted when he was falling asleep, doused with water and subjected to cold temperatures, kept naked and forced to perform tricks as if he were a dog. However, he wasn't waterboarded or beaten.

From the secret summaries of al-Qahtani's Guantanamo interrogations made public by WikiLeaks, at some point, it's not exactly clear when, he told interrogators about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was part of the inner circle of al Qaeda's leaders.

Another al Qaeda member named Hassan Ghul who was also subjected to coercive interrogation techniques in a CIA secret prison told his interrogators at some point -- when, it is also not clear -- that the mysterious Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was one of bin Laden's couriers.

Balanced against this, harsh techniques including waterboarding were also used by the CIA on two of the most significant leaders of al Qaeda: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, as well as his successor as No. 3 in al Qaeda, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both these al Qaeda leaders gave up disinformation about the Kuwaiti to their interrogators. ("Zero Dark Thirty" shows al-Libi lying to his interrogators about the Kuwaiti.)

For the defenders of coercive interrogation techniques, the example of al-Qahtani and Ghul might seem to prove that these kinds of approaches actually worked, while for critics of such techniques, the cases of Mohammed and al-Libi show that coercion also produced false information.

The FBI's role

Of course, "Zero Dark Thirty" can't address in 2½ hours the whole complex tale of the CIA interrogation program, but an important strand of that tale is missing from the film.

FBI officials were adamantly opposed to the use of coercive techniques by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees because they deemed them both unethical and counterproductive. An FBI official noted that after his abusive interrogations by the CIA, al-Qahtani began "evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end.)"

And the story of Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner to be placed in a secret overseas CIA prison, is an instructive counterargument to the idea that coercive interrogations are the best way to get useful information out of terrorists and is a tale that does not appear in "Zero Dark Thirty."

Abu Zubaydah was first interrogated by Ali Soufan, one of the few Arabic-speaking FBI agents. Soufan softened up Abu Zubaydah by calling him "Hani," the childhood nickname his mother had used for him, a fact that the FBI agent had gathered from intelligence files. The approach started yielding quick results.

When Abu Zubaydah was shown a series of photos of al Qaeda members by Soufan, he identified one of them as the operational commander of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Abu Zubaydah's confirmation of Mohammed's role in 9/11 was the single most important piece of information uncovered about al Qaeda after the attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon, and it was discovered during the course of a standard interrogation, without recourse to any form of coercion. Soufan recalled that Abu Zubaydah gave up the information about a week or so into his interrogation.

Abu Zubaydah was later waterboarded 83 times by the CIA. This form of simulated drowning is generally considered torture, but none of it produced much in the way of useful information. In the end, the multiple waterboardings of Abu Zubaydah provided no specific leads on any plots, although clearly his role as an al Qaeda logistician did give him insights into the organization and its personnel.

Eight years more

And were interrogations of al Qaeda detainees anyway really the key to how bin Laden was ultimately found? After all, it still took another eight years after the interrogation of the 20th hijacker, al-Qahtani, to find bin Laden.

Indeed, there were a number of key breaks during those eight years that had nothing to do with the interrogations of al Qaeda detainees. A large break, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials, came in 2007, when a foreign intelligence service that they won't identify told the CIA that the Kuwaiti's real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed.

This lead seems very likely to have come from the Pakistanis given the fact that "the Kuwaiti" was, in fact, a Pakistani whose family had settled in Kuwait and who from 2002 onward was back living in Pakistan. (In "Zero Dark Thirty," the break about identifying the Kuwaiti's real name is explained as coming from Morocco's intelligence service.)

It would still take three more years for the CIA to find Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed in Pakistan, a country with a population of 180 million people. This involved painstaking work going through reams of phone conversations to try to locate him through his family and circle of associates.

In June 2010, the Kuwaiti and his brother both made changes in the way they communicated on cell phones that suddenly opened up the possibility of the "geolocation" of both their phones, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.

Finally, sometime in the late summer of 2010, the Kuwaiti received a call from an old friend in the Gulf, a man whom U.S. intelligence officials were monitoring. "We've missed you. Where have you been?" asked the friend. The Kuwaiti responded elliptically. "I'm back with the people I was with before." There was a tense pause in the conversation as the friend mulled over that response. Likely realizing that the Kuwaiti was back in bin Laden's inner circle, the caller replied after some hesitation, "May God facilitate."

The CIA took this call as a confirmation that the Kuwaiti was still working with al Qaeda, a matter that officials were still not entirely sure about.

The National Security Agency was listening to this exchange and through geolocation technologies was able to zero in on the Kuwaiti's cell phone in northwestern Pakistan. But the Kuwaiti practiced rigorous operational security and was always careful to insert the battery in his phone and turn it on only when he was at least an hour's drive away from the Abbottabad compound where he and bin Laden were living. To find out where the Kuwaiti lived by monitoring his cell phone would only go so far.

In August 2010, a Pakistani "asset" working for the CIA tracked the Kuwaiti to the crowded city of Peshawar, where bin Laden had founded al Qaeda more than two decades earlier. In the years when bin Laden was residing in the Abbottabad compound, the Kuwaiti would regularly transit though Peshawar, as it is the gateway to the Pakistani tribal regions where al Qaeda had regrouped in the years after 9/11.

Once the CIA asset had identified the Kuwaiti's distinctive white Suzuki SUV with a spare tire on its back in Peshawar, the CIA was able to follow him as he drove home to Abbottabad, more than two hours drive to the east.

The large compound where the Kuwaiti finally alighted immediately drew interest at the agency because it didn't have phone or Internet service, which implied its owners wanted to stay off the grid. Soon, some CIA officials would come to believe that bin Laden himself was living there.

Every form of intelligence-gathering

The sequence of events that led the CIA to bin Laden involved first interrogations that surfaced the alias of bin Laden's courier. That was then followed by key information coming from a "liaison" relationship with a foreign intelligence service that supplied the real name of the courier, which was then followed by U.S. signals intelligence (known as SIGINT) that tracked the courier's phone to a particular city in Pakistan and finally human intelligence ("HUMINT," CIA spies on the ground) who tracked the courier to Abbottabad.

In short, the hunt for bin Laden could not have been accomplished without every form of American intelligence-gathering. And certainly, "Zero Dark Thirty" tries to make that point clear with gripping scenes of CIA officers using direction-finding technology to zero in on the courier's cell phone in a crowded Pakistani city. But there is little doubt that the torture scenes in the movie will be the ones that linger with filmgoers.

...there is little doubt that the torture scenes in the movie will be the ones that linger with filmgoers.
Peter Bergen

"Zero Dark Thirty" will be released at a time when Americans are becoming more likely to embrace the idea that torturing prisoners suspected of terrorism is justified. In September, a YouGov poll indicated that 41% of Americans endorse this view. That is up 14% from a similar poll taken in 2007.

While "Zero Dark Thirty" was in production, some Republican politicians were harshly critical of the manner in which the Obama administration was granting access to its director and screenwriter. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, warned that the filmmakers had engaged in an "extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration with top officials at the CIA, DoD (the Pentagon), and the White House."

In fact, the film, which will be released on December 19, barely mentions Obama, even though he did, after all, make the politically perilous decision to send the Navy SEALs deep into Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden.

The one time the president does appear in "Zero Dark Thirty" is in a clip from a "60 Minutes" interview in which he criticizes the use of "torture." By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama's opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.

Ironically, one of the most vocal supporters of the CIA's use of coercive interrogation techniques is the same Republican politician who was the most critical of the way that the Obama administration granted access to the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty." King told Fox News shortly after bin Laden was killed, "for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden."

That is certainly not the considered view of the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, who have spent the past three years investigating the CIA interrogation program. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Carl Levin, D-Michigan, released a statement in April that is completely at odds with the claims of King:

"CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL (bin Laden) courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. ... Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program. ... The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques."

Let's hope that the Senate Intelligence Committee report is largely declassified and made public. The American public has a right to know whether the coercive techniques that were used in its name actually worked or not.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a great piece of filmmaking and does a valuable public service by raising difficult questions most Hollywood movies shy away from, but as of this writing, it seems that one of its central themes -- that torture was instrumental to tracking down bin Laden -- is not supported by the facts.

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