Their logic has become, forgive the word, tortured. The key interrogation that focused the CIA's attention on "Ahmed" concerned Mohammed al-Qhatani, whose relentless months-long ordeal was detailed in a particularly gruesome Wikileaks disclosure and prompted the Defense Department to rewrite its guidelines for interrogation—part of that overall course correction in 2004. Qhatani said that "Ahmed" was a key al-Qaeda player and one of bin Laden's prime couriers, a fact that elevated him to high importance in the search. Those who now say that torture played no role in Qhatani's revelations argue that he offered the information before the rough stuff started. I don't know if that's true, but I'll accept it for argument's sake. It hardly removes torture from the mix. The essential ingredient in any coercive interrogation is not the actual infliction of pain or discomfort, but fear. There can be little doubt that far before Qhatani was actually tortured, he knew damn well that he was in trouble. In Zero Dark Thirty, "Ammar," who is a fictional amalgam, gives up the name after, not during, his torture sessions. Does this mean that the prior pain and discomfort played no role? In either case, real or fictional, torture creates a context. It creates fear. The only way to know if Qhatani would have been cooperative without being pressured is to have conducted a torture-free interrogation, which did not happen.
Fear was a part of the climate of American interrogations in those years. In a May 2007 Atlantic story entitled "The Ploy," I detailed the clever and essentially nonviolent interrogation of a detainee in Iraq that led to the successful targeting of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The story was later told in even greater detail in a book, How to Break a Terrorist, by the interrogator himself, who wrote under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander and offered the story as proof that an artful interrogator need not employ coercion. Yet the detainee in his own story voluntarily submitted to questioning in part to avoid being sent to Abu Ghraib, which by then had a fearful reputation.
The most prominent among those who now insist torture played no part in the bin Laden hunt are Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain. All three serve on congressional committees with access to classified material and are in a position to know what they are talking about. Indeed, in a letter protesting Zero Dark Thirty to Sony Chairman Michael Lynton last month, they claim to have reviewed "six million pages" of intelligence records, which may help explain why Congress has such a hard time getting anything done.
But there is lawyerly subtlety here. In the letter, they raise the rather fine point about the timing of Qhatani's mention of "Ahmed" as proof that torture was not involved, and write that the CIA "did not first learn" of the courier's existence "from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques." True. They first heard the name from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested in 2001 at the behest of American authorities and questioned in that country and in Jordan. He says he was tortured. I believe him. Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, another critic of the film's veracity, has been more careful. He does not deny that torture is part of the story, although he uses different words to describe it:
"Some [information leading to bin Laden] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well," he wrote. "And, importantly, 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."
Torture is part of the story, but not a key part of it. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture.
I'm with Morrell on this. Torture is part of the story, but not a key part of it, just as the film depicts. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture. It makes a poor case for torture because neither of the original sources, Slahi nor Qhatani, necessarily realized they were giving up something terribly important by naming "Ahmed from Kuwait." It's doubtful they even knew who he really was. Neither they nor their questioners could have imagined that "Ahmed" would end up sheltering bin Laden in Abbottabad. Khalid Sheik Mohammed could not have known this either, but he certainly realized the man's importance. Despite repeated waterboarding, he lied about "Ahmed." So much for torture producing a breakthrough. Ironically, Mohammed's mendacity—his claim contradicted everyone else's—further piqued the agency's interest. Under torture he lied, but his lies helped.
We don't know much about the key breakthrough that led to bin Laden. That came years later, when the CIA was finally able to connect the pseudonym "Ahmed from Kuwait" with a real person, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In the film this moment is handled perfunctorily. A young CIA officer simply hands the information to Maya and says, "It's him," explaining that she happened across the nugget while "painstakingly" reviewing "old files." My sources at CIA refused to say how the connection was actually made, saying only that it involved sources from "a third country." One high level agency official told me, "You could write a book about how we [did it]." The agency says torture was not involved, and there's no evidence to suggest it was.