“Zero Dark Thirty” : A Guide for Human Rights Advocates


Friday, January 11, 2013 is both the eleventh anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo prison and the day that "Zero Dark Thirty" premiers nationwide."Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie that provides a fictionalized account of the hunt for Usama Bin Laden and misleadingly suggests that the use of torture was critical to finding Bin Laden.

"I said that I knew nothing. Major Pozo then ordered his men to torture me until I signed a paper. It said that I had assassinated the American Advisor. I signed it because I could no longer endure this torture. Major Pozo said that they worked in shifts and they would continue to torture me until I would sign the confession. And that they were not going to kill me, but that probably the body would not withstand it and that I would simply die." — CJA client Daniel Alvarado

Sadly, recent public opinion polls show that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. CJA and our clients know this is false. The story of CJA client Daniel Alvarado is particularly poignant. Mr. Alvarado was an engineering student in San Salvador in the 1980’s and was abducted by the military while watching a soccer game. He was tortured repeatedly over many weeks until he falsely confessed to participating in the assassination of U.S. military advisor Albert Schaufelberger. Many months later, U.S. officials uncovered the identity of the true assassins and Daniel was exonerated. Daniel still suffers from the physical and mental effects of his torture.

Before making a decision about whether or not to see "Zero Dark Thirty," please consider the following:

  • While the film claims that it is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events," according to the Chairs of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committee, the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden. See, Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain’s letter to Sony.
  • The movie suggests that the CIA learned about the existence of the courier who led to the discovery of Usama Bin Laden’s compound as a result of torture and that the use of torture was the only way to get that information in a timely fashion. This is false. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, "The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Usama Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subject to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques… Instead the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program." See, Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain’s letter to Sony.
  • Last week, the Senate opened an investigation into whether the CIA provided misleading information to the "Zero Dark Thirty" film makers in an attempt to justify the use of torture. The CIA has long been criticized for selectively releasing information to the media when it serves a particular agenda or PR purposes. The CIA’s Acting Director recently issued a statement to his employees acknowledging inaccuracies in the film. See, Acting Director Morell’s e-mail to CIA employees.

In the words of Terry McDermott, "’Zero Dark Thirty’ justifies that what cannot be justified."

Since the Newtown shootings there has been much discussion about how desensitized we have become by the use of extreme violence by the media. I ask you to reflect on Hollywood’s fascination with the use of graphic and prolonged torture scenes despite overwhelming evidence that torture is illegal, immoral and NOT an effective intelligence gathering tool. For more on the film and the controversy please see the resources below:

»Key Documents: Including the letters by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain.

»Related Commentary: Including an editorial by Terry McDermott, co-author of The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

»A Call to Action: Call on your senators to release the Senate Select Committee on
Intelligence report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) detention
and interrogation program with as few redactions as possible.