'Zero Dark Thirty' has the facts wrong – and that's a problem, not just for the Oscars
The movie 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a gripping drama and credible contender in this year’s Oscar competition – nominated for five Academy Awards. But because it advertises itself as factually grounded, I have to point out: On each of its three major points, the film gets the story wrong.
(Page 2 of 2)
Third, far from the film’s portrayal of Mr. Obama as an obstacle to success in this case, in fact, he was a critical energizer who intensified the search for bin Laden in 2009. And he was the decider who chose the raid that killed America's most-wanted terrorist. Counterfactuals require difficult and debatable assessments. But in my judgment, if George W. Bush had remained president, there is no reason to expect that the search for bin Laden that his last CIA Director testified had by February 2009 “gone cold” would have heated up. And there is no question that if Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had been president, as each has said, he would not have ordered the raid.Skip to next paragraph
Gallery Monitor Political Cartoons
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
From the facts of what actually happened rather than the fiction, what should citizens take away from this dramatic event?
First, Obama and his national security team demonstrated that, contrary to what knowledgeable Washingtonians know, the US government can keep a secret. In this case, it kept the biggest secret the press never got to publish in advance of events. Contrary to Zero’s message that the White House dithered for five months for political advantage, Obama and leaders of the CIA took the time required to cross examine the evidence, explore options for action, and, in the end, make a hard call.
While the movie's heroine claimed “100 percent confidence” that bin Laden was in the compound months before the president made his decision, CIA Director George Tenet conveyed the same level of confidence in assuring President Bush that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be a “slam dunk.” And in fact, Mr. Tenet had more evidence for WMD in Iraq than the CIA had for bin Laden’s being at the compound the Navy SEALs raided the night of May 2, 2011.
Second, this mission could not have succeeded had Obama not been commander in chief of the US government in 2009 rather than the US government in 2000. Over that decade, the intelligence community and Defense department created advanced technologies and trained professional terrorist manhunters that gave Obama options not available to any previous American president or any other leader on earth.
Finally, contrary to a favorite Hollywood trope, the dominant storyline in the hunt for bin Laden is that the US government worked.
In the investigation of what was not done in the years before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the most memorable line came from White House counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke who said: “Your government failed you.” But the most important takeaway from the bin Laden operation is that American government performed. It not only succeeded in a supremely difficult assignment. It did so by achieving a level of performance across many agencies of government because of thousands of unsung heroines and heroes – not a singular maverick. That should make all Americans proud.
Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former assistant secretary of Defense.