Torturing the truth

The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Interview feature this past Saturday sent Journal editorial board member Matthew Kaminkski in the direction of the author of the screenplay of Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal. While he has teamed up with director Katheryn Bigelow, Boal is also a reporter who has written for such reliably left-wing outlets as The Village Voice, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. With his screenplay for the Zero Dark Thirty, however, Boal has strayed slightly off the reservation.

We’ve tried to separate fact from fiction in the film, in part with the help of the excellent Washington Post column by Jose Rodriguez. The film not only depicts waterboarding and harsh interrogation techniques on high-value detainees, it suggests that they had something to do with the success of the CIA’s long quest to locate bin Laden. It’s an issue that deserves the kind of serious discussion and analysis that Rodriguuez provides.

Kaminski’s column gives us Boal’s take on the subject in the context of the assault on the film by Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin in league with John McCain (Republican, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you). By contrast with Rodriguez, Feinstein and Levin are operating in bad faith like thugs intent on preserving the narrative on George Bush and “torture.” Feinstein has posted the trio’s joint letter to Sony here. (Bigelow and Boal have responded to the letter with this brief statement.) I find the Feinstein/Levin/McCain letter to Sony almost shocking, and we would have heard much more about it if, well, you know the rest.

Kaminski traces the evolution of the assault on the film:

After bin Laden’s killing in May 2011, the Bigelow-Boal team shelved a planned film about the failure to capture the al Qaeda leader at Afghanistan’s Tora Bora in late 2001 and jumped instead on the successful raid. Mr. Boal worked his sources at the CIA and elsewhere. Republican Rep. Peter King complained that a film made with CIA help might reveal confidential information and help President Obama’s re-election campaign. Originally scheduled for an October 2012 release, “Zero Dark Thirty” was pushed past Election Day to Christmas. But then, when the film came out, it was liberals’ turn to be outraged by the movie’s depiction of CIA “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

“In addition to providing false advertising for waterboarding, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ endorses torture in several other subtle ways,” wrote Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. In the Guardian, Naomi Wolf called Ms. Bigelow “an apologist for evil” and compared her to Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite documentarian. Actors Ed Asner and David Clennon started a campaign to deny any Academy Awards for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Washington politicians joined in. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin and Republican Sen. John McCain sent a letter in mid-December to the CEO of Sony 6758.TO +1.66% Pictures, which distributed and promoted the film. “Zero Dark Thirty” is “grossly inaccurate and misleading,” the senators wrote, urging Sony to “please consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Usama Bin Laden. It did not.” Democrats on Ms. Feinstein’s intelligence committee had just completed a classified investigation into CIA interrogation that reached the same conclusion.

In two separate letters to the acting head of the CIA, the Capitol Hill trio demanded to know if the filmmakers “could have been misled” by the agency about the efficacy of the interrogations. The lawmakers asked for “records of the meetings that occurred, notes, internal emails, Sametime [sic] communications and other documentation describing CIA interactions with the filmmakers.”

The Senate investigators haven’t contacted Mr. Boal or Ms. Bigelow, but last month Mr. Boal retained Jeffrey H. Smith, a prominent Washington lawyer. “They’re just investigating the origins of a work of art,” says Mr. Boal. Turning serious, he calls the letters “a mischaracterization” of the film “and intellectually dishonest.”

Kaminski returns to the letter to Sony further down in the column:

The senators’ letter to Sony revealed another motive. Democrats had won the policy debate on terrorist interrogation and detention. But the senators wrote that polls show “a narrow majority of Americans” believe torture can be justified as a legitimate way to gather intelligence. “Zero Dark Thirty,” they wrote, “has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.” They don’t want to reopen the debate.

Kaminski reminds us that Feinstein, Levin and McCain haven’t gotten to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has yet to fall into line:

One of the film’s supporters is none other than Leon Panetta, the former CIA director portrayed in the film by James Gandolfini. The Feinstein letters cited Mr. Panetta’s past statements about torture to criticize the film. “It’s a good movie,” Mr. Panetta told Agence France Presse in an interview this month. “There’s no question that some of the intelligence gathered was a result of those efforts,” he said, referring to the enhanced interrogations. “But I think it’s difficult to say that they were the critical element. I think they were part of the vast puzzle that you had to put together in order to ultimately locate where bin Laden was.”

Given that it’s a debate Democrats might lose, you can see why it’s especially important to shut it down.


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