ZERO DARK FEINSTEIN When a Hollywood Script is More Accurate Than Senate Intelligence.
‘Zero Dark Thirty,” the film from director Kathryn Bigelow that opened this month, is garnering rave reviews for its unblinking portrayal of what it took the United States to track and kill Osama bin Laden. But a trio of Beltway critics are all thumbs down.
They would be Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican Senator John McCain of John McCain. “We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie Zero Dark Thirty,” the three wrote in a recent letter to Sony6758.TO -0.11% Pictures. “We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.”
A still from Zero Dark Thirty.You know it’s a bad day in America when Hollywood seems to have a better grip on intelligence issues than the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the top two Members at Armed Services. The film depicts the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, used on the detainees held at the CIA’s so-called black sites, and hints that the interrogations provided at least some of the information that led to bin Laden’s killing.What Ms. Bigelow intended by depicting the EITs is not for us to explain: This is an action flick, not a Ken Burns documentary. Yet the mere suggestion that such techniques paid crucial intelligence dividends—as attested by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, among many others—has sent Mrs. Feinstein and her colleagues into paroxysms of indignation. They even have a 5,000-plus-page study that purports to prove her case.We say “purports” because, so far, hardly anyone outside the Senate Intelligence Committee has laid eyes on this white whale. The report began four years ago as a largely bipartisan effort to examine the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs.
But after Attorney General Eric Holder decided to re-open a separate investigation into allegations of rogue CIA practices, Republicans withdrew from the project on the sensible grounds that the committee would be unable to conduct interviews with CIA officers under investigation.
The Justice Department’s investigation concluded quietly in August without any charges being filed. But the Intelligence Committee’s Democratic staff plugged along, reviewing what they claim are six million pages of records. Earlier this month, the committee voted to approve the report on a mostly party-line vote (soon-to-retire Olympia Snowe of Maine provided the only Republican vote), and now it will go to the White House and the CIA for comment. Some or all of it is bound to leak sooner or later, and probably to someone willing to spin its contents to support the Senatorial conclusions.
In the meantime, what we have is a partisan report (or, rather, reports about a report), based purely on documentary records, whose prolixity is meant to impress but instead testifies to the manic zeal and mental indiscrimination of whichever Congressional gnomes put it together.
As for the report’s methods, we got a taste of them in April when Sens. Feinstein and Levin issued a statement denouncing claims by former senior officer Jose Rodriguez that coercive interrogation techniques were in fact effective.
“CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL courier [Ahmed al-Kuwaiti] from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques,” they write in one characteristically slippery passage. Yet there’s no small difference between knowing some piece of information and knowing why that piece may be significant.
“In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, waterboarding produced misinformation,” journalist Mark Bowden noted in an interview with the Daily Caller about the hunt for al-Kuwaiti, whose discovery ultimately led the CIA to bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideaway. But Mr. Bowden also notes that “in this case the lie, contrasting so sharply with other detainee statements, actually proved helpful.”
Mr. Bowden, by the way, is an opponent of coercive interrogations and a sympathetic observer of the Obama Administration who nonetheless can distinguish a moral objection from a practical one.
Note too that acting CIA director Michael Morrell, in a letter to CIA employees, criticized the movie as simplistic without denying that enhanced interrogation had yielded useful information. “Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved,” he wrote.
Such observations reflect the type of fine-grained details that Mrs. Feinstein’s committee might have gleaned from interviews with CIA case officers instead of the dry documentary record. Then again, maybe not: The whole inquiry was a conclusion in search of a report, not the other way around.
One day, perhaps, some of our liberal friends will acknowledge that the real world is stuffed with the kinds of hard moral choices that “Zero Dark Thirty” so effectively depicts. Until then, they can bask in the easy certitudes of a report that, whatever it contains, deserves never to be read.
A version of this article appeared December 27, 2012, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Zero Dark Feinstein.
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