Transcript: Glenn Greenwald, Mark Bowden Debate 'Zero Dark Thirty' Depiction of Torture

A protester says 'Zero Dark Thirty' gives a wrong impression of torture. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

The film Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But the movie has also drawn a substantial amount of criticism, including from senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain, for promoting what they say is the idea that torture played a role in locating bin Laden.

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian in the UK, and Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, debated the issue on KQED Public Radio's Forum program this week.

Edited transcript

GLENN GREENWALD: The film begins with a harrowing audiotape of people trapped inside buildings on 9/11, and that obviously makes the viewer very emotionally distraught—-rightfully so—-and then immediately leads to 45 minutes or so of the film overwhelmingly dominated by the CIA torturing helpless victims. So right away it’s manipulative in the sense that it begins its history with 9/11, making you very angry about what happened, and then immediately showing CIA agents torturing people, making clear that that’s the emotional and intellectual justification.

But the real problem is that the film shows that the key piece of information that led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden was extracted from a detainee who, for the first 45 minutes of the film, was brutally tortured. He then gave off the key bit of information, which was the identity of Osama bin Laden’s courier, which led the CIA to be able to find bin Laden when he was sitting at a table eating with two CIA agents who had spent the first 45 minutes of the film torturing him, and they then threatened to return him to torture.


The line right before he gives up the key piece of information is “you can tell me what I want to know, or I can hang you back up to the ceiling.” And he then immediately coughs up the name of the courier that led them to bin Laden. So the key message that huge numbers of people—writers, journalists, politicians—who’ve seen this film received, and was intended to be conveyed, is that torture played a critical role in enabling the finding of bin Laden. That would be bothersome even if it were true; the fact that it’s a complete fabrication is what makes this film so reckless and disturbing.

FORUM HOST MICHAEL KRASNY: What about the connection to the Central Intelligence Agency? In many respects, your article seems to point out that there was, if not complicity, the CIA essentially creating a jingoistic potential script that simply enhances their narrative.

GREENWALD: I think this is the critical point. The film has received a lot of controversial attention because of the issue of how it falsely shows torture as valuable. To me, the even more disturbing part is that the film was made by having the filmmakers meet continuously with the CIA at a time that the Obama administration was saying to courts and to media outlets and activist groups we cannot release anymore information about the bin Laden raid because it’s classified.The CIA was then passing non-public information—possibly classified information—to the filmmakers, and the entire film is told from the CIA’s perspective; the CIA agents are heroes, everyone in the film, with almost no exception, who’s Arab or Muslim are shown as being evil, menacing, threatening, terrorists. There’s no ambiguity or moral debate about torture, about what the United States’s role in the world is doing.Mr. Bowden’s colleague at The Atlantic, Peter Maass, said that the most disturbing part of the film is that it's essentially government-embedded moviemaking; it’s the CIA using the power of Hollywood to propagandize the citizenry to see the world as the CIA wants them to see it.

KRASNY: Mark Bowden had a different perspective He says this is Hollywood, that a lot of movies about the CIA in the post-Nixon era have been about evil and diabolical figures. That the fact of the matter is the CIA trips over a lot of things and doesn’t get the job done as far as getting to Abbottabad or getting on the trail of bin Laden for quite some time.

MARK BOWDEN: I think the film does accurately reflect a lot of the early failures of this process, and I think it makes a very clear point that, up until fairly late in the game, their efforts to find bin Laden were bearing no fruit whatsoever. In fact there’s a very strong scene right in the middle of the film where they get a visit to the embassy in Islamabad from a high-ranking CIA officer who upbraids the whole room full of people for failing, for not being able to get the job done. I’ve described some of the criticisms of this film as a willful misreading of it, and I think that would describe the version that Glenn has just given.

KRASNY: What about Glenn’s argument here that there is a kind of cartoon-like portrayal not only of Muslims, and the idea that a lot of the story came down from the CIA, because there were clearly -- and Sen. Feinstein and others have asked for this to be investigated -- there were things that were drawn in the movie that showed the CIA’s point of view, that they were really responsible for what happened in Abbottabad?

BOWDEN: Well I think that’s true, and I think what they set out to do was to tell the story of how the CIA found Osama bin Laden, and if there are heroes and bad guys in a film—I think it’s true of almost any Hollywood film—the heroes in this case are imperfect CIA agents who nevertheless succeed in the end, and the bad guys are Islamist terrorists who are depicted primarily in that role.

So I think Glenn’s right; I mean, there’s not a lot of room in that piece of storytelling for presenting a broader picture of the Muslim world, but that’s the story that they told and I think they got it pretty right.

KRASNY: And what about, Glenn Greenwald, the fact that the story does include torture? To make a script, to Hollywoodize it and put it in a certain timeframe and so forth, you have to compress things, you have to create characters sometimes that are one-dimensional and all that, but also you have to pretty much include torture in this because torture is part of the story...

GREENWALD: Sure. Nobody is bothered by the fact that torture was shown in the film. Torture did happen, it should have been shown in the film.

Where the problem is is that the way in which it was shown is a false history. This is what Jane Mayer in The New Yorker said, who is probably the foremost journalistic expert on the Bush torture program. She said what is so unsettling about Dark Thirty is not that it tells this difficult history, but rather that it distorts it. And then she goes on to document in detail all the ways in which the claims this movie advances about the torture program are historically and demonstrably false.

This has been the criticism from people like filmmaker Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his documentary about the torture program; national security reporters from around the country; the Senators you mentioned who have access to the top secret information about the program. Nobody contests that torture should not have been included in this film—it was part of the history, there were people like Mr. Bowden and others who advocated and supported that program…it’s a part of history, it should be shown.

The problem is that it is completely fictitious in convincing huge numbers of people that torture was a key ingredient in enabling an event that huge numbers of Americans consider to be one of the greatest events in American history, which is the killing of Osama bin Laden, that will convince people to accept Mr. Bowden’s view that torture is sometimes productive and that it’s necessary and morally justifiable.

KRASNY: What about the 6,000 page report that came out of the CIA's detention and interrogation program that confirms that the Bush/Cheney administration's program post-9/11 that embraced torture did not yield critical intelligence.

GREENWALD: Yeah the letter is incredibly clear – I encourage everyone to read it, it’s an extraordinary letter to Sony – making clear that Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate,  and we believe you have an obligation to state  that the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden is not based on the facts but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.

I think the problem here -- and the senators cite this -- is that the director of the film, Kathryn Bigelow, and the screenwriter Mark Boal have been running around the country praising themselves for making not only a film but an act of journalism. Mark Boal said as a reporter I wanted to approach this topic as a journalist. The very first screen of the iflm after the audiotapes of 9/11 says this is based on first-hand accounts of actual events. So the film makes all kinds of journalistc claims to historical accuracy, but it’s actually a pile of falsehoods.

KRASNY: How do you respond to that Mark Bowden?

BOWDEN: As I wrote in the Atlantic, the film does fictionalize the whole  process of the hunt for bin Laden and like many Hollywood stories based on a true story it departs in a lot of particular instances from the record.

But I do think that the allegations that torture played no role in finding Osama bin Laden are wrong. I think the record shows – and I wrote a book on the subject – that the earliest mentions of Ahmed from Kuwait, the courier who eventually led us to bin Laden, came from some of the most notorious instances of coercive interrogation that we know about.The letter that Glenn refers to from Dianne Feinstein and others plays a kind of subtle, lawyerly game with the facts, but I don’t’ think there is much dispute over the facts at this point.


I think there is a narrative that principled opponents of torture prefer but I don’t think that’s accurate.