'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.

Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc./AP/File
This image provided by Columbia Pictures shows Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty,' which has been nominated for five Academy Awards. Ahead of the Oscars, former Asst. Sec. of Defense Graham Allison writes ‘that this movie will shape more Americans’ understanding of the war against Al Qaeda than scores of books and major articles.’ And he sees ‘glaring holes in the [film's] story.'

The movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is unquestionably a gripping drama and credible contender in this year’s Oscar competition (nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay). If director Kathryn Bigelow’s film presented itself principally as fiction, it could be judged exclusively on its technical or dramatic merits, which are considerable. But because it advertises itself as a factually grounded “journalistic filming” of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it cannot duck a further question about what it owes to truth. 

Of necessity, condensing years into minutes and crafting story lines that engage the viewer require simplification. But it is still fair to ask whether the central lessons viewers will take away from the film are consistent with what really happened.

As a teacher, I am aware that this movie will shape more Americans’ understanding of the war against Al Qaeda than scores of books and major articles. As citizens, we know that cinematic historical fiction has left many Americans believing remarkable falsehoods. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” left a generation of students asking why the CIA conspired to assassinate an American president.

My account of the decisionmaking process that led to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was a lead article in TIME magazine’s May 7, 2012 issue, a year after bin Laden’s death. And from my study of what really happened, I see glaring holes in the story as portrayed by “Zero Dark Thirty.”

In assessing the essential veracity of the film, we could ask ordinary viewers three questions:

  • Was information extracted by “enhanced interrogation” the key in finding the terrorist mastermind who killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001?
  • Would “the system” (CIA as an organization with its counter-terrorism professionals and practices) have failed had it not been for the tenacious risk taking of one young female CIA agent? 
  • Was the White House, and specifically President Obama, essentially irrelevant or even a drag, delaying what should have been an easy, quick, early action to eliminate bin Laden?

Most viewers I have spoken to believe, based on the film, that the answer to each of these questions is yes. In fact, in each case, the answer is no.

The first question – whether “enhanced interrogation” or torture provided information key to getting bin Laden – has been debated exhaustively. The verdict is that the film exaggerates the pervasiveness and effectiveness of torture.

On the second question, as to whether the CIA would have failed were it not for the grit of a female CIA officer, the truth is thousands of intelligence officers – literally thousands – devoted a decade of extraordinary work collecting information from sources of all kinds, analyzing it for minute clues, connecting dots, and then subjecting conclusions to competing analyses that connected other dots to contrary conclusions. A number of these analysts were outstanding young women. But the film’s hype of a fictional heroine who succeeded by defying “the system” is fundamentally misleading.

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.

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.

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