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Zero Dark Thirty is writing our collective history for us – engraving it on the American psyche. The graphic images of who we are and the deeds we have done are intended to inspire confidence and to soothe qualms – now and in the future. We are a Resourceful people. We are a Righteous people. We are a Resolute people who not shrink from the necessary however hard it may be. We are a Moral people who bravely enter the shadowy precincts where Idealism collides with Realism – and come out enhanced.
In truth we are an Immature people – an immature people who demand the nourishment of myth and legend that exalt us. Actual reality intimidates and unsettles us; virtual reality is the comforting substitute. Zero Dark Thirty is fiction – most of it anyway. Yet critics and commentators have taken as given the story line, the highlight events, and the main character portraits as if the film were a documentary. The one big debate is on the question of whether torture works. The film’s paramount message is that it does, that it did lead inexorably to the killing of Osama bin-Laden, and that anyone who gives precedence to ethical considerations had better be prepared to accept the potentially awful consequences. The heroines and heroes make the right judgment after struggling with their consciences.
That is a dubious conclusion. Moreover, the question itself is wrongly framed. For the intelligence supposedly extracted was of no value in finding bin-Laden ten years later. Even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have testified to that. Simple logic should lead any thoughtful person to the same conclusion. After all, if so valuable, how is it possible that it took a full decade for the information to lead anywhere – the indefatigable fictional lady notwithstanding (the lady who does not exist in the real world)? The tale as told assumes a static world in which places, persons and politics don’t change. But they do. In ways that the film narrative cannot and does not take account of.
It all comes down to the fabled courier. Without him, the narrative collapses completely. We didn’t have a clue where OBL was between Tora Bora and Abbottabad five years later. His odyssey from one safe house to another in the Tribal Areas, and Northwest Frontier Province (Swat and Bajaur) escaped the CIA with all its ultra sophisticated high-tech gadgetry. We had next to no human intelligence assets anywhere in the region and did not until the very end. And at the end, it was the Pakistanis who provided us with the critical leads – as acknowledged by President Obama in his announcement of OBL’s killing. That was just a week or so before the White House and the CIA approached Hollywood with promises of cooperation if a film were made that properly hallowed those who brought OBL to “justice” and satisfied the national thirst for vengeance. Both sides kept their side of the bargain.
What of the courier al-Kuwaiti? The official cum Hollywood line is full of inconsistencies, anomalies and logical flaws. A systematic scrutiny of the evidence presented makes that abundantly clear to the unbiased mind. That task has been undertaken by the retired Pakistani Brigadier Shaukat Qadir. His account, and interpreted analysis, draws as well on extensive interviews with intelligence and military officials in Islamabad – and with principals in both Northwest Pakistan and across the Durand Line in Afghanistan. This was an independent investigation by a man with an established reputation for integrity. His appraisal and conclusions have been featured in front page stories in The New York Times, Le Monde and the Guardian yet never widely circulated – or refuted. (Operation Geronimo: the Betrayal and Execution of Osama bin Laden and its Aftermath by Shaukat Qadir (May 1, 2012) – Kindle eBook)
Here is a brief summary of a few key points regarding the official story’s self- contradictory elements.
· According to the CIA, Hassan Gul, was a courier for senior Al-Qaida operatives including OBL and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (KSM). Gul revealed to the CIA under interrogation the name Al-Kuwaiti, the fact that Al-Kuwaiti was still alive, that he was OBL’s most trusted courier. CIA further stated that it was Gul’s statement that provided detailed insight into his working routines which led (four years later) in 2009 to the feeling that al-Kuwaiti lived in Abbottabad! Assuming all this to be true, it seems a little surprising that it should take them almost four years to move.
· What is even more improbable is that, despite providing such a wealth of information for the CIA, Gul was released as early as 2006 by the CIA into ISI custody. If Gul had provided all the information on Kuwaiti to the CIA and the CIA did not wish to share this information with the ISI, as asserted, how can their releasing him to ISI custody make any kind of sense?
· Is it credible that it took the CIA so long from 2005 to discover Al-Kuwaiti’s identity since Al-Libi, his close collaborator, was also captured by the ISI and handed over to CIA in 2005! Yet, Al-Libi was not questioned regarding Al-Kuwaiti’s real identity—despite Gul’s revelations, despite “enhanced interrogation” techniques? In short, why did it take the CIA from 2004 till 2011 to find “actionable intelligence” to locate and execute OBL?
· Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, captured by the ISI in March 2003, was handed over to CIA soon thereafter. KSM not only knew Al-Kuwaiti by his real name, Ibrahim, according to OBL’s wife, Amal, he had also visited al-Kuwaiti’s house outside Kohat when OBL was resident there in 2002. Yet, he too never was questioned as to Kuwaiti’s identity.
There are two significant flaws in the official CIA (and Hollywood) account:
a) the CIA seems to have been unaware of the intimate relations between Al-Libi and Al-Kuwaiti despite all those Al-Qaida leaders in their custody (most of whom were arrested by ISI) who knew exactly who and where Al-Kuwaiti was – and, therefore, the CIA actually was unaware of the latter’s identity until early 2011; b) still, they insist that the ISI did not provide the lead that ultimately led them to OBL’s hideout, which looks to be equally untrue.
Therefore, the CIA in all probability began tracking OBL only in 2010/11, thanks to the lead provided by ISI.
Let us recall President Obama’s words when he announced that OBL had been killed. Even as he stated that the US acted unilaterally on actionable intelligence, he added, “It is important here to note that our counter terrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound he was hiding in.”
Against that backdrop, it was logical for the US and Pakistan to launch a joint operation in Abbottabad. Washington decided to jump the gun and to pre-empt it. Why? Not because we feared a “leak” which made absolutely no sense. But rather because we wanted to make sure that OBL was killed and denied a public legal forum. We also wanted the glory and flourish of a drama with Americans in all the starring roles – we wanted a Hollywood blockbuster.
John Brennan, the White House terrorism chief, gave the game away the next day in offering the world a vivid description of the assault featuring a concocted shootout between the Seals and a pistol wielding Osama bin-Laden who held his wife as a shield while firing off shots. Made for Hollywood indeed.
After a decade of impulsive vengeance, of brutality, of killing, of deceit, of hypocrisy, of blindness and incompetence – we have an encapsulated myth that expiates all that in a drama worthy of our greatness. We have Closure. The American pageant moves forward.
What in fact we have is a rough-spun yarn woven post-hoc to give a semblance of discipline and direction to a fitful, adrenaline driven manhunt that belatedly stumbled upon its objective – only thanks to the critical help of others. Unable to generate any human intelligence, we relied on technology and torture. It didn’t work
The claim that the official US version provides an honest, forthright accounting is unsustainable. The version offered by Zero Dark Thirty substitutes pulp fiction of the mythological kind for truth. It satisfies a gnawing appetite; it meets a powerfully felt need. It allows us to avoid coming to terms with how America went off the rails after 9/11. It fosters the adolescent in us.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.