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Beyond 'Zero Dark Thirty' Oscars fail: Torture is an ineffective interrogation approach

Academy-Award nominated film 'Zero Dark Thirty' has more issues than its disappointing Oscar showing. Based on my interviews with military interrogators, the movie's portrayal of torture as effective – even vital to getting Osama bin Laden – couldn't be further from the truth.

By Matthew D. Semel / February 25, 2013

Best Actress Nominee Jessica Chastain for 'Zero Dark Thirty' arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 24. Op-ed contributor Matthew D. Semel writes: 'The interrogators I spoke with present a very different picture from the one portrayed in the film....The majority of them emphasized that human connections, not physical abuse, insured the greatest likelihood of success during an interrogation.'

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


Sparkill, N.Y.

The film “Zero Dark Thirty,” a fictionalized account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, has refueled the debate about the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques. After facing harsh criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, the film, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, had a poor showing at the Oscars last night as well, winning only the award for Best Sound Editing in a rare tie with the James Bond film “Skyfall.”

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Director Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Zero Dark Thirty” presents torture as a necessary and effective method of extracting information from prisoners and an essential tool used by the Central Intelligence Agency to find bin Laden. Though many in the intelligence community said the film portrayal of torture yielding the information key to getting bin Laden is inaccurate, most viewers come away with the impression that “enhanced interrogation” not only works – but that it can be vital.

For the military interrogators I interviewed who have questioned hundreds of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, nothing could be further from the truth.

As part of a recent study about military interrogations techniques, I spoke to many human intelligence (HUMINT) collectors. Through an online survey, 143 active-duty reserve, and retired military interrogators were asked them how they performed their jobs. These men and women, who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan, were also asked to rate the effectiveness of a variety of interrogation techniques.

With the exception of one member of the sample, these interrogators uniformly agreed that torture and other harsh methods were worth little when trying to gather accurate human intelligence. The majority of study participants stated a strong dislike of violence in interrogations and asserted time and again that if the direct questioning of a detainee failed, building rapport was the most effective way to collect information from a human subject. As one study participant wrote, “Torture is for amateurs.”

Official Army policy supports this view as well. The US military’s interrogation bible, the Army Human Intelligence Collector Operations Field Manual, advises human intelligence collectors that the direct approach – asking a subject a direct question – has been historically shown to work with 90 percent or more of interrogation subjects.


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