Now, with a copy of the film and the screenplay in hand, I have decided to break down the torture that is so much at issue.
I will put it all after the jump for the sake of anyone who wants to know nothing about the film before watching it.
The torture of “Ammar” by Daniel and other CIA agents takes place “two years” after 9/11. The CIA wants information about “the Saudi group” that is not given up.
The discussion, over a lunch, in which “Abu Ahmed” first comes up via “Ammar” is after May 29, 2004. This is about six months after the torture we’ve seen. It could be slightly less or more. It’s not clear from the screenplay. But it’s not the next day or the next week or even the next month. That is clear.
“Ammar” is told that he helped save lives for the CIA by giving up info after being kept awake for 96 hours. He is then given a fact about him going to Kabul with his uncle, Mukhtar. The interrogator admits he only knows that because of flight manifests.
Is the torture he went through still relevant, even months later? Yes. Of course. No one would dispute that. It is also relevant that facing the harshest of torture, he gave up no useful information at all.
The dialogue from there…
Ammar: After 9/11 I had to choose: fight or to protect our turf—or run.
Daniel: You chose to fight.
Ammar: I wanted to kill Americans. We tried to get into Tora Bora but the bombing was too high. We couldn’t cross.
Maya: Sorry, who is the “we” in that sentence?
Ammar: Me and some guys who were hanging around at that time.
Daniel: I can eat with some other guy and hook you back up to the ceiling.
Amar: Hamza Rabia, Khabab al-Masri, and Abu Ahmed.
Maya: Who’s Abu Ahmed? I’ve heard of the other guys.
Ammar: He was a computer guy with us at the time. After Tora Bora, I went back to the Pesh – as you know – and he went north, I think, to Kunar.
Maya: What’s his family name?
Ammar: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
Maya: Abu Ahmed means “father of Ahmed,” it’s a kunya. Ammar, I know the difference between a war name and an Arabic name.
Daniel: She got you there, dude.
Ammar: I swear to you both: I don’t know his family name. I owuld never have asked something like that. It’s not how my uncle worked. My uncle told me he worked for bin Laden. I did see him, once, about a year ago, in Karachi. He read us a letter from the Sheikh.
Maya: A letter?
Daniel: What did it say?
Ammar: It said “Continue the jihad. The work will go on for a hundred years.”
And scene. That’s the last we see of “Ammar,” now the focus of political rage amongst some on both the left and the right.
Maya goes on to try to get more info on who Abu Ahmed is, looking at video of prisoners from all over the world. Dozens of small pieces come together, most valuably from Turkey and Poland.
It is 2009—about 5 years later—when the next real break in identifying and finding the man still known as Abu Ahmed—a partial, unactionable name—takes place. That’s four or five years after we witness torture. The break—a source speaking about Abu Ahmed—happens in Poland and the source, who is handcuffed, shows no sign of being or having been tortured and never mentions torture. He is the one who clearly connects Abu Ahmed to Abu Faraj and bin Laden.
The CIA captures Abu Faraj and he becomes the second person we see tortured “live” (others are seen on video). He lies to them about Abu Ahmad and tries to lead them to another person… which Maya takes as an indicator of Abu Ahmed’s importance. She considers it effective, in that the denial is valuable. Her boss disagrees.
More time passes. There is a seeming break… a mole… that, again, does not lead to Abu Ahmad’s full name. Moreover, a report comes in that Abu Ahmad is dead.
More than a year later—at least 6 years since Maya started trying to find Abu Ahmad—a woman in the office brings Maya a watchlist from 2001/2002 that the Moroccan government had given the CIA and was lost a mid a ton of paperwork. This is the first time the name “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti” is uttered… more than a half decade after the torture that many are now referring to as “the critical step” in finding bin Laden. The family name is Sayeed… also new info in the film.
From this point on (page 50 in the 102-page screenplay), all the intel is through groundwork.
I will leave the subtext of this factual representation of the first half of the film—not my opinion, not my spin, not a posture—to your interpretation.
There are all kinds of political rhetoric and argument, as well as ennui about torture, through these sequences. But I didn’t lay this out to excuse the facts by claiming that regret or doubt is a balance for bravado or disconnectedness. I think that the film is about that in a big way. but that’s not the fight.
To my ear, the argument that “everyone will think that torture led to bin Laden” is a lot like the arguments against heavy metal or horror movies. There is a patronizing tone about what real people will think. Meanwhile, the smart people who claim to want to protect everyone else don’t seem very interested in the detail of the film, just this feeling. They are either forgetful about the facts of what is in the film—not interpretation—or intentionally mislead to make a stronger argument.
Personally, I see a story where there is torture… one small detail inspires an idea… and then 7 or 8 years are spent trying to follow up that lead with a lot of work by a lot of people via a lot of non-torture techniques all over the globe. The most critical leaps are not handed over by informants—tortured or not—but by hard, nose-to-the-grindstone detective work.
For me, this is not a movie about torture. It acknowledges that America did torture people. And though America got to bin Laden in the end, very little information comes from interrogations in this film. It is almost all futile. But I think it’s fair to say that some information is the fruit of interrogation, extreme or less so.
Perhaps 15 minutes of this 157-minute movie is the entire shooting match for some. Perhaps that is reasonable. Perhaps not.