Lying About Torture, Hollywood Style

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UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman provides some additional context about the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty and says, “Bigelow is being presented as a torture apologist, and it’s a bum rap.” After I wrote this post, several people warned me not to jump to conclusions until I’d seen the movie. It sounds like I probably should have listened.


Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, has gotten almost unanimously rave reviews. However, it turns out that the movie claims, in gruesomely dramatic fashion, that CIA-approved torture of captured al-Qaeda operatives provided the information that allowed us to find bin Laden in the first place. Glenn Greenwald is properly appalled:

The claim that waterboarding and other torture techniques were necessary in finding bin Laden was first made earlier this year by Jose Rodriguez, the CIA agent who illegally destroyed the agency’s torture tapes, got protected from prosecution by the DOJ, and then profited off this behavior by writing a book. He made the same claim as “Zero Dark Thirty” regarding the role played by torture in finding bin Laden.

That caused two Senators who are steadfast loyalists of the CIA — Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin — to issue statements definitively debunking this assertion. Even the CIA’s then-Director, Leon Panetta, made clear that those techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. An FBI agent central to the bin Laden hunt said the same.

What this film does, then, is uncritically present as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false, claims by the CIA that its torture techniques were crucial in finding bin Laden. Put another way, it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.

….If Bigelow had merely depicted episodes that actually happened, then her defense that she is not judging and has no responsibility to do so would be more debatable. But the fact that she’s presenting lies as fact on an issue as vital as these war crimes, all while patting herself on the back for her “journalistic approach” to the topic, makes the behavior indefensible, even reprehensible. Is it really possible to say: this is a great film despite the fact that it glorifies torture using patent falsehoods?

Unfortunately, yes, it probably is possible to say this. Just ask Richard III. But that doesn’t make it any less disgusting. Adam Serwer runs down the actual truth here.

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