The movie Zero Dark Thirty, which depicts the hunt for Osama bin Laden, wrongly suggests that torture was an ugly but useful tactic in the fight against terrorism. It also falsely implies that information obtained through torture was critical to finding bin Laden. As the film-makers note, it is a fictionalized account, not a documentary. The use of torture violates US law and the country’s international legal obligations – even when “authorized” by the US government. Its use damaged the reputation of the United States and its ability to promote human rights while giving cover to abusers worldwide who use such techniques against political opponents and activists. Torture was counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, producing false and misleading information that may in fact have slowed the search for bin Laden and diverted attention from genuine security threats.
The full scope and nature of US government torture remains hidden, in part because the US has kept many details of the program secret. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in December adopted a 6,000-page classified report detailing the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, a program under which much of the torture and other ill-treatment occurred. The committee should seek – and the Obama administration should support – declassification and release of the report, both to counter misinformation about the supposed value of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to provide the public with a full accounting of past US government policy and practice.