Zero Dark Thirty: Did torture lead us to Osama bin Laden?

zero-dark-thirty-2012-img02See Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a terrific yarn about the search for Osama bin Laden and about the remarkable raid that killed him. Jessica Chastain is perfect as the real-life CIA agent assigned to the case as a rookie. She starts, sensibly enough, with little confidence, but steadily grows into a single-minded pain-in-the-ass who won’t let anybody, up to the director, get in the way of her search. When the CIA director is finally told that the Agency is “60 per cent confident” of bin Laden’s hiding place, Chastain shouts from the back row, “It’s 100 per cent certain.”

The movie starts with a CIA agent torturing a detainee, with Chastain looking on nervously. There is a strong implication that torture produced information that had an important role in finding UBL, as bin Laden is known in the film.

Now there is a firestorm swirling around the movie, with senators knowledgeable in intelligence arguing that torture played no part in finding UBL, and the neocons and the right arguing that of course it did.

So did it?

The film’s director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal issued this statement:

“This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a two-and-a-half-hour film. We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes. One thing is clear: the single greatest factor in finding the world’s most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort. We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it.”


For many years before Zero Dark Thirty, arguments raged about whether torture was acceptable, and the arguments turned largely on whether torture—euphemized into enhanced interrogation because torture is illegal—was effective. Arguing for torture was the CIA; opposing it was most of the FBI. FBI agents reported that detainees that were treated decently, even kindly, were founts of valuable intelligence until CIA interrogators took over and turned to torture, at which point the detainees clammed up.

Bigelow’s and Boal’s sources were largely CIA, so it figures that they were told that torture played an important role. Had their sources been FBI the movie’s depiction of the interrogations would have different.

So did torture lead us to UBL? I’m inclined to think that it was of little help, but I can’t really know. See the movie and keep an open mind.


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5 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty: Did torture lead us to Osama bin Laden?”

  1. Jack Marshall Says:

    Why should it matter? Torture is wrong, evil in fact, whether it works or not. Even asking the question muddies the water/.

  2. Ethics Bob Says:

    I agree that torture is evil. I think there could be an argument for torturing if it avoided a greater evil. Kant wouldn’t agree but Bentham would and I think Aristotle and Solomon (Robert, not King) might. Ethics, after all, is often choosing between two wrongs or two rights.

  3. Jack Marshall Says:

    I think that’s the worst of slippery slopes. If we accept torture, a core value breach based on American ideal, when it “works,” then nothing is ever off the table….rape, genocide. I don’t see how a nation that will allow torture based on a pure Bentham standard could ever accuse any regime of war crimes.

    Welcome back, by the way!

    • Ethics Bob Says:

      Well, I’m confused, as so often about ethics in practice. First, I don’t think it “works.” Second, if I’m wrong, and there is such a thing as the ticking bomb scenario, I think it can be justified as far the lesser of two evils–still evil, but the lesser. I think slippery slope arguments deny our ability to make judgments.

  4. Ethics Bob Asks: “Did Torture Lead Us To Bin Laden”? My Answer: “So What If It Did? It Was Still Wrong.” | Ethics Alarms Says:

    […] “Romney.” Now he’s back on the job, thank goodness, with a comeback post titled “Zero Dark Thirty: Did torture lead us to Osama bin Laden?”. And he’s ticking me […]

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