They say a police is only as good as informants, which means we ain’t about shit. -- The Wire
Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial movie depicting the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, is one of the frontrunners for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. The critics loved it, but many commentators have criticized the movie for its numerous torture scenes and the links it draws between “enhanced interrogation techniques” and finding Bin Laden. However, a closer viewing reveals a far more ambiguous portrayal of the effectiveness of torture as well as the manhunt itself. Zero Dark Thirty should have been a detective story, instead it felt more like a chaotic prelude to a 30-minute Call of Duty mission.
The movie opens with audio from 9/11, before putting us into the field with Maya, a CIA operative taking part in her first interrogation. Through the first half of the movie, Maya and her colleagues jet-set around the world beating on captured Al-Qaeda operatives, tying them with ropes and forcing them to lie in filth. In the world of Zero Dark Thirty, this is one of the key parts of their job. But, interestingly enough, they get the name of Bin Laden’s courier not from a torture session, but from a bit of psychological gamesmanship afterwards.
Over the course of the next decade, the movie follows an investigation that proceeds in fits and starts. In one scene, the Islamabad section chief berates Maya and her team for failing, reminding them that no one else will find Bin Laden. But what exactly qualifies them to be the lead investigators for a Saudi Arabian fugitive hiding out in Pakistan? Wouldn’t someone with a lifetime of experience in that part of the world be better than people who looked like they caught the last flight from Washington, D.C.? I don’t want someone who had done “nothing else” leading the search for Bin Laden; I want someone who can have coffee in an Islamabad cafe without people trying to kill her.
In a conventional manhunt, police exhaustively search through the family, friends, and associates of the fugitive, trying to find patterns in terms of where they could be hiding. The CIA, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a good grasp of who Bin Laden’s associates are. In the movie, their entire plan revolves around rounding up any Al-Qaeda operative they can find and beating Bin Laden’s location out of them like candy from a piñata. That may explain why it took them 10 years to find someone who had been hiding in plain sight the whole time.
As it turns out, Bin Laden was holed up in a compound in Abbottabad, 1 mile away from Pakistan’s version of West Point. Abbottabad is a resort city, that, according to Wikipedia, “is known throughout Pakistan for its pleasant weather, high-standard educational institutions and military establishments.” The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, received billions of dollars from the U.S. government to aid in the fight against Al-Qaeda all while bin Laden was hiding, literally, in their backyard. That’s why the U.S. attacked the compound under the veil of absolute secrecy, risking a serious international incident. They suspected someone on the inside knew.
After all, someone must have. Someone with a lifetime of connections within the Pakistani government, maybe someone with kids who went to school with Bin Laden’s or had connections in a mosque with Taliban sympathizers. They would have heard something. At the very least, they would have known where to look. We didn’t need to re-write the Geneva Convention to find Bin Laden; we needed an informant in the ISI.
In one memorable scene, one of Maya’s CIA friends is killed while trying to set up a meeting with a doctor that had been planted in Al-Qaeda by a Middle Eastern government. Unfortunately, the whole thing turned out to be an Al-Qaeda counter-intelligence operation, resulting in a number of dead Americans. The CIA should have been running its own moles in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, not depending on intermediaries. That’s what spy agencies are supposed to be doing.
Perhaps the most frustrating scene occurs when Bin Laden’s courier is finally tracked to the compound. The White House wants more intelligence before they launch an attack, but the CIA can’t give it to them. Sorry, they say, everyone in Guantanamo has a lawyer. Maya, meanwhile, maintains a silent vigil outside her boss’s office, counting the number of days without an attack.
Strangely enough, at no point in those 100+ days does it occur to anyone to do some actual police work. Who owns the compound? When did they buy it? Who did they buy it from? Do any of these people have Al-Qaeda connections? None of these questions are ever asked. Of course, it is just a movie. It’s hard to imagine the CIA didn’t have those answers. The real question is why the producers, and their sources in the Pentagon, chose to highlight some parts of the investigation over others.
The great irony of the climax is that capturing a fugitive is the least interesting part of an investigation. The Navy SEALs who stormed Bin Laden’s compound are true heroes, but Al-Qaeda has never, and will never, be able to defeat American troops on the field of battle. In exalting Zero Dark Thirty, we’re making the same mistakes we’ve made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and countless other places in the last decade. We’ve shown the world that we’re pretty good at killing people, but what exactly has it gotten us in the last decade?