copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: a case study on mythmaking and making history

by Robert Alpert

“You get your story and you hold onto it, and every time you tell it, you forget it more.”
—Laurie Anderson in Heart of a Dog (2015)

The mythology of Zero Dark Thirty

John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is among the most quoted movies in U.S. cinema for the generation of U.S. filmmakers who grew up in the aftermath of World War II, such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. Its celebrated story tells of the pursuit by the obsessive and racist Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, of a group of Comanches who have destroyed the homestead of Edwards’ brother, Aaron (Walter Coy). Pursuing these Comanches both in order to wreak revenge for the rape and murder of his brother’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), with whom Ethan has secretly been in love, and to rescue Martha’s abducted daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan is relentless. “We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth,” he tells Debbie’s adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who alone accompanies Ethan where others have given up. Martin knows that, in fact, Ethan intends to kill Debbie, now an adolescent living as the wife of “Scar” (Henry Brandon), the leader of the Comanches. Eventually finding Scar after a search of many years, Ethan scalps Scar whom Martin has already killed, and then sweeps the terrified Debbie into his arms, unexpectedly, telling her simply, “Let's go home, Debbie.” The film closes with the iconic image of Ethan reuniting Debbie with the Jorgensens, another American pioneering family, and the door closing on Ethan who remains outside their frontier home. While making possible American civilization in the wilderness that is the American West, Ethan Edwards condemns himself to continue to wander in that wilderness.  

Kathryn Bigelow is a U.S. filmmaker of genre movies, including movies about bikers (The Loveless), vampires (Near Dark), cops (Blue Steel), surfers (Point Break), submarines (K-19: The Widowmaker) and most recently war movies (The Hurt Locker). Like John Ford, who famously announced that he “makes Westerns,[1] [open notes in new window] she directs action movies in which she repeats generic plots and characters and in the process has acted as a cultural critic of the United States. Moreover, like many classic directors of Hollywood’s studio system, she has consistently worked with certain screenwriters, each of whom has influenced her movies. Thus, following her initial movie, The Loveless (1982), a slow moving biker movie that she co-directed with fellow Columbia Film School graduate Monty Montgomery, she worked with Eric Red on Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1990), her earliest and cleanest genre movies; with James Cameron on Point Break (1991)(with Cameron as producer) and Strange Days (1995), in which she developed further her theme of doppelgangers; and with Christopher Kyle on The Weight of Water (2000) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), more traditional, plot-driven movies that followed the commercial failure of the large-budgeted Strange Days.

Bigelow has worked with screenwriter Mark Boal on her two latest efforts, The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Both are war movies that focus upon the U.S. engagement in the Middle East in response to 9/11. Both place the audience “in the middle of events” and “on the ground.”[2] Moreover, the mainstream media and the public have praised both movies, with The Hurt Locker receiving several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and with Zero Dark Thirty nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Zero Dark Thirty received an Academy Award, however, only for Best Achievement in Sound Editing —with the awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay going to another Middle East war drama, Argo (2012).[3] This slight is surely the result of the political controversy that surrounded the film’s release—its depiction of torture, the cooperation that Bigelow and Boal received from the U.S. government, namely the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Department of Defense (DOD) and the White House (WH), and the movie’s initial release date that would have coincided with the U.S. presidential election between incumbent President Barack Obama and the former governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

In depicting the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty reenacts Ford’s The Searchers.[4] Like the opening massacre of the Edwards homestead, Bigelow’s film begins with the depiction of 9/11 through a black screen over which we hear the recorded voices of those killed that day. The remainder of the movie follows the obsessive efforts over many years of a CIA intelligence analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), to find and kill bin Laden, the person responsible for 9/11, notwithstanding the skepticism and repeated refusal of most others at the CIA to support her efforts at finding him. Like Ford’s relentless Ethan, Maya is cold-blooded in her pursuit. Following the death of her friend Jessica (Jessica Ehle), a senior CIA analyst, from a suicide car bombing, she vows revenge, “I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill Osama bin Laden.” Recruited out of high school, she’s not just “fuckin’ smart”—“We’re all smart,” as the CIA Director (James Gandolfini)[5] casually says—but as her station chief in Pakistan Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) observes, “Washington says she's a killer.” Ironically, when Bradley later refuses to support her efforts, she publicly exposes his identity as her station chief, resulting his dismissal. Like Ethan Edwards, she’s implacable, insisting to the CIA Director and others that the chances are 100% that the person whom she’s identified and who is under surveillance at a compound in Abbottabad is, in fact, bin Laden.

The ending of Zero Dark Thirty especially evokes The Searchers. Like the killing of Scar in The Searchers during the raid of the Comanche camp by the Texas Rangers, the killing of bin Laden by the U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 seems almost incidental.[6] Just as Martin kills Scar off-screen, the killing of bin Laden by one of the members of the Navy Seal Team can easily be missed. Bin Laden appears fleetingly in the confusion of the raid, and the shooting of him is sudden and barely noticeable in that confusion. The leader of the Navy Seals then announces to Maya the success of the raid by one word, “Geronimo,” and the movie’s focus remains upon Maya. Triumphantly identifying the dead body of bin Laden at a U.S. military camp as “agency expert” as well as implicit next of kin,[7] Maya is alone in the next scene, a small figure lost in the large cargo bay of a military transport plane. The plane’s pilot speaks the film’s last lines, observing,

“You must be pretty important. You gotta whole plane to yourself. Where you wanna go?”

Maya remains silent. Where the real Maya supposedly cried upon her identification of bin Laden’s body,[8] Maya in the movie only now cries. Her story a paean to individualism, she implicitly acknowledges that she, like Ethan Edwards, has no home but instead, having her wreaked vengeance, will continue to wander.[9]

Zero Dark Thirty, of course, reverses the hero’s gender. The iconic John Wayne who played Ethan Edwards in The Searchers becomes in Zero Dark Thirty the semi-fictional character Maya played by Jessica Chastain. Bigelow, in fact, was clearly pleased in learning from the CIA during the production of Zero Dark Thirty that the CIA intelligence analyst primarily responsible for finding bin Laden was a woman. “Bigelow, the driven director who tells the story of the driven operative, says she felt as if she’d been dealt ‘a royal flush’ when they discovered a young woman at the center of the Osama hunt.”[10] Viewing Maya’s obsessiveness as evocative of the heroine of The Silence of the Lambs (1991),[11] Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty underscores how Maya is a woman in a world dominated by men and in the process reverses Hollywood’s gender clichés. She introduces Maya as a hooded figure in an interrogation scene in which a CIA intelligence officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), tortures (through “enhanced interrogation techniques”) a “detainee.” Only outside the cell does Maya remove her hood, revealing—unexpectedly for most audience members—that she is a woman. Dan later mocks the prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb), with Maya’s presence and her gender. “You don't mind if my female colleague checks out your junk?” he asks, and then leaves Maya alone with him in the hopes that her gender will sway him to talk. “Please help me,” Ammar pleads. The consummate professional, she coolly replies, “You can help yourself by being truthful.”

Undoubtedly like Bigelow in Hollywood, Maya is well aware of the isolation resulting from her sex. Thus, at a high-level meeting at the CIA’s headquarters, she demonstrates that she can out macho these men, introducing herself to the CIA Director in the following exchange:

CIA Director: “And how close is it to the house?”
George (Mark Strong), a senior CIA Supervisor: “About a mile.”
Maya:Four thousand, two hundred, twenty-one feet. It's closer to eight-tenths of a mile.”
CIA Director: “Who are you?”
Maya: “I'm the motherfucker that found this place. Sir.”

Likewise, when the CIA must assess the chances of successfully finding bin Laden at the Abbottabad compound, she openly mocks this all-male group in the room:

“100% he's there. OK, 95%, 'cause I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it's 100.”

Notwithstanding, this symbolically progressive gender role-reversal, Maya retains the mythic role of the male John Wayne. That Maya, a woman, takes on the cultural identification of the male transposes our expectations. Nevertheless, the role retains the cultural characteristics of the iconic Wayne so that we adjust our expectations of gender accordingly. Maya’s success as a woman becomes subsumed within the political victory by the U.S. over its adversary, a culture no less barbaric than the Comanches whom Ethan Edwards defeated. Maya barely escapes the al-Qaeda gunmen who unexpectedly attack her while she is driving out of her residence early one morning in the same way that Ethan Edwards and the Texas Rangers barely escape the Comanches who ambush them on an open plain. Maya in Zero Dark Thirty simply assumes the mantle of the Western hero in America’s triumph over the events of 9/11. 

Making the mythology

Zero Dark Thirty updates The Searchers with the American West now coinciding with the U.S.’s global reach extending beyond its geographical borders. In the context of that global reach, it is not surprising that the U.S. government has a formal policy of assisting Hollywood filmmakers. Thus, the CIA maintains an “Entertainment Industry Liaison” whose goal is the “accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, and the skill, innovation, daring, and commitment to public service that defines them.“ The CIA affirmatively encourages filmmakers, such as Bigelow, to work with it:

“If you are part of the entertainment industry, and are working on a project that deals with the CIA, the Agency may be able to help you. We are in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development. That can mean answering questions, debunking myths, or arranging visits to the CIA to meet the people who know intelligence…”[12]

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty Mark Boal approached the CIA by emphasizing a desire for “accuracy and authenticity.”[13] The filmmakers would take an approach similar to that of their prior movie, the commercially and critically successful The Hurt Locker, where Boal had been embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, and his screenplay had resulted from that experience. In that instance, the U.S. government had embedded journalists, including Boal, with U.S. troops in an effort to control the media portrayal of that war. In this instance, the U.S. government’s interest in Boal and Bigelow and its decision to grant them access to information, including access to the participants in the May 2, 2011 raid on bin Laden's compound, reflected its view of Bigelow as a director who would not only accurately document events but who would also—more importantly—authentically promote them through a uniquely American mythology.[14]

During the process of approving Boal and Bigelow, the DOD’s public relations officer in an email to the DOD’s Undersecretary[15] quoted an article in its entirety that had appeared in the Boston Review

“[T]he first account of Osama Bin Laden’s death was like the screenplay for a John Wayne movie… Old-fashioned justice was served, not the law on the books, but the law of the Western frontier that has long been cinema’s stock and trade. The villain dies with a gun in his hand, and the hero in the white hat, honest and honorable, overcomes impossible odds.”

While the writer of the article, Alan Stone, notes that later disclosures undermined that portrayal of the raid as “flawless,” his article nevertheless goes on to speculate:

“Which version of the story will take its place in popular history? No doubt Hollywood will have something to say about that.”  

The article finds unequivocal support in The Hurt Locker for the view that Bigelow would be uniquely positioned to portray the raid:   

The Hurt Locker thus begins as a story of ineptitude and futility. These are not invincible soldiers like John Wayne…. Sergeant James [however] leads these two men—one shaken and one broken. He is an existential antihero who believes in nothing but his project, like the doctor in Camus’s The Plague. ….

“He is one of those rare workmen who enjoys his craft above all else. …. And he is, as the anonymous critic would have it, heartbreakingly human.

“With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow shows a quality that many directors lack: compassion enough to make all her characters human. If any filmmaker is to tell the story of Bin Laden’s pursuit and killing, we would be fortunate that it be she. She might not vindicate your political sensibilities, but she will make it real.”[16]

Bigelow could portray the CIA’s search for bin Laden and the SEAL raid on his Abbottabad compound in the character of a John Wayne as the consummate professional, in other words, John Wayne as depicted not in a John Ford movie but John Wayne as the Howard Hawks hero in such movies as Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959).[17] The government’s working with Bigelow could result in the recreation of a John Wayne movie—updated so as to be “real” but in the process “political.”

Wanting to “‘put out [their] story’ to shape public and Congressional opinion,”[18] the CIA cooperated with and assisted Bigelow and Boal in making their movie.

“The Central Intelligence Agency arranged for the filmmakers to meet with four of its officers who played a role in planning the raid. A Department of Defense official offered to introduce them to a U.S. Navy SEAL who was also involved in the planning. The filmmakers were told the full name of the Navy SEAL, and the first names of the CIA officers.”[19]

The filmmakers also met with the highest levels of government at the DOD[20] as well as with officials at the WH.[21] In return, the filmmakers not only undertook to honor the government’s claims of confidentiality[22] but also acceded to change the movie as requested by the government.[23] In one instance in particular, the government acceded to the filmmakers’ request not to delete a scene—the scene in which Maya derives her intelligence from watching videotapes of CIA torture. Here the filmmakers convinced the government that including that scene would make the movie more cinematic. Ironically, the CIA told the filmmakers that there had been no such videotapes yet later admitted its destroying those videotapes, resulting in a bitter political controversy with the U.S. Congress. On the other hand, by granting the filmmakers’ access, the CIA facilitated a portrayal in Zero Dark Thirty of how the CIA had supposedly learned of bin Laden’s compound through “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a story later documented as false.[24] 

Following the movie’s release in December 2012, the CIA seemingly disassociated itself from the completed movie, commenting that the movie had falsely conveyed the impression that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” had played a “key” element in finding bin Laden.[25]  Nevertheless, the government found in the filmmakers an effective means for selectively leaking information about past events and conveying those events in a fictional retelling of history consistent with American heroics.[26] Thus, while identifying three aspects in which the film “departs from reality,” the CIA’s “Statement to Employees” at the time of the film’s release iterates the government’s mythology, namely

“that the Bin Ladin operation was a landmark achievement by our country, by our military, by our Intelligence Community, and by our Agency.”[27]

Maya’s triumph through her obsessive gathering of intelligence, combined with the Seal team’s professional raid, reiterates that achievement on the screen complete with a Hollywood ending.

The filmmakers touted the U.S. government’s cooperation and the resulting supposed accuracy in the film’s opening credit:

“The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.”

While Boal has argued, in response to criticism about the movie’s accuracy, that the movie is a fictional portrayal, not a documentary,[28] Boal based his fictional characters on real people,[29] set out to produce “an accurate recreation of a historical event”[30] and has spoken at length about the accuracy of the film’s depiction of the compound and the raid on that compound.[31] Bigelow has likewise expressed her belief in the essential accuracy and authenticity of the movie, stating that the movie is a “first draft of history.”[32]  If, as she has noted,[33] 9/11 is the current generation’s JFK assassination, then she is new Oliver Stone, creating in Zero Dark Thirty a seeming equivalent of Platoon (1986), the depiction of an earlier U.S. generation’s trauma resulting from the war in Viet Nam.[34]

Enforcing the mythology

If “the past is just a story we tell ourselves,”[35] then to create a story that defines that past also means to control both our present and future, particularly in the case of movies where the power of photographic reproduction collapses the distance between object and symbol, events and their representation. Significantly, while promoting a global mythology through its assistance to Boal and Bigelow, the U.S. government simultaneously denied access to others who might challenge the story told in Zero Dark Thirty.

U.S. courts have historically given deference to the U.S. government’s claim of “national security” under the doctrine known as “states secrets.”[36] Thus, while the U.S. Congress enacted the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in order to promote open government through the public disclosure of government documents, the Act includes an exemption for “national security.” Thus courts will often refuse to compel the disclosure of information under that exemption even when the government has seemingly waived the exemption. Where courts have found, for example, there was a waiver of the confidentiality of the attorney-client privilege because an unrelated third party was present, courts have upheld the national security exemption even when the government has disclosed that same information to those outside of government. In effect, the FOIA disclosure must be redundant before a court will compel its disclosure.[37]

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the U.S. government successfully resisted efforts by third parties to obtain documents that would have identified the access given to Boal and Bigelow, namely “the names of the SEAL and the CIA officers” with whom the filmmakers had spoken.[38] Moreover, nearly all of the documents produced in response to a FOIA request were redacted, such as emails between the government and the filmmakers, internal government emails, and memos of meetings between the government and the filmmakers. This was especially the case for documents originating with the CIA, where in some instances the documents are so heavily redacted as to be barely readable.[39]  Thus, the government disclosed to the filmmakers the information that it wanted leaked while simultaneously barring access to others who sought to learn what had been disclosed and then reported on the screen. Indeed, in its effort to restrict public disclosure beyond what it deemed appropriate, the government threatened sanctions even against members of the SEAL team who had participated in the raid. Some of them had sought to take commercial advantage of their participation, whether through writing and publishing a first-hand account of the raid or acting as consultants to a video game about the Navy SEALS. In the case of the first-hand account, its author, a former member of the Navy SEALS team, forfeited $6.8 million in royalties and speaking fees in return effectively for his avoiding a criminal prosecution. [40]

Moreover, the courts also upheld on the grounds of “national security” the government’s refusal to produce other documents that might have enabled others to test the accuracy and authenticity of filmmakers’ depiction, namely, 52 photographs showing post-mortem images of bin Laden, supposedly including both photographs taken at the Abbottabad compound as well as at bin Laden’s burial at sea.[41] The government’s representatives testified that they had seen these photographs and asserted that their disclosure would violate national security. The trial court’s deference to the government’s claim of “national security” was unequivocal: 

“The Court declines Plaintiff’s invitation to substitute its own judgment about the national-security risks inherent in releasing these records for that of the executive-branch officials who determined that they should be classified.”[42]

Leaving aside those photographs that included evidence of facial recognition analysis (and could reasonably be expected to reveal classified intelligence methods) or that identified members of the Navy SEAL team (and might, therefore, be expected to endanger these persons, notwithstanding that they may have already met with Bigelow and Boal), the government argued that the other photographs, wholly “innocuous” and not “graphic” or “gruesome”, were a national security risk in that their release would incite violence outside the United States.[43] The government analogized the potential social harm to the publication of the Danish cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. That had led to hundreds of injuries and deaths as well as to an attack on a U.S. airbase in Afghanistan; it also led to an erroneous article in Newsweek, alleging that U.S. soldiers had desecrated the Koran, that had led to deaths and injuries during protests against the United States in Afghanistan and Egypt. [44] The appellate court was no less deferential, if somewhat more careful, than the trial court in articulating the reason here for upholding the government’s claim of “national security”[45]:

“First, it is important to remember that this case does not involve a First Amendment challenge to an effort by the government to suppress images in the hands of private parties, a challenge that would come out quite differently…. [I]t is a statutory challenge, in which the sole question is whether the CIA has properly invoked FOIA Exemption 1 to authorize withholding images in its own possession…. Second, this is not a case in which the declarants are making predictions about the consequences of releasing just any images. Rather, they are predicting the consequences of releasing an extraordinary set of images, ones that depict American military personnel burying the founder and leader of al Qaeda. Third, the declarants support those predictions not with generalized claims, but with specific, reasonably analogous examples.”

In short, the court’s decision indicates that U.S. government may withhold information from the public by speculating on possible harm to national security based wholly upon an analogy to past events.

While the appellate court summarily observes that it was “undisputed” that the government was not withholding the images “to shield wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment,” there’s an element of “catch-22” to this observation. How can one dispute the significance of documents that have not been disclosed? Such a problem arose a few years earlier when the U.S. Supreme Court denied “standing” to parties bringing a lawsuit in which they sought to test the constitutionality of the U.S. Patriot Act’s surveillance authorization. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the parties—lawyers, human rights researchers, and journalists—could not demonstrate that the government had obtained warrants for eavesdropping on their communications. It was only later, when Edward Snowden made public his unauthorized disclosures about the U.S. National Security Agency, that these “speculative” claims were effectively vindicated. The U.S. government has, in fact, engaged in wholesale surveillance, both domestic and foreign, under the guise of needing foreign intelligence against terrorism—though it remains unclear to what extent U.S. Courts will acknowledge this vindication.[46] Moreover, left unsaid in the appellate court’s decision denying access to the government’s photographs of bin Laden is whether there is any expiration date for this classified material, some of which the court, in denying access, acknowledges is qualitatively different from that made public.[47]

This presumption in favor of the government’s claim of “national security” in the case of Zero Dark Thirty effectively forecloses disclosure to the public and advances a governmental interest that may be wholly political and not coincide with public interest.[48] Would the government have barred the now iconic photographs at Abu Ghraib prison, released by Amnesty International and the Associated Press, because of “national security”? Isn’t the need for the disclosure of the bin Laden photographs all the more compelling, because they constitute what the court described as an “extraordinary set of images”? Boal and Bigelow reaped the benefit of the government’s self-serving largesse to just them. Given their filmmaking skills, the resulting movie has fostered a narrative in which the government’s perspective becomes the equivalent of historical events, a goal that coincides with Bigelow’s stated purpose in directing the movie, namely to create a “first draft of history.”

Moreover, the irony of that largesse is that the government’s assistance results in a movie in which the killing and post-mortem images of bin Laden are shown, including scenes in which a Navy SEAL takes photographs of bin Laden immediately after he has been shot and killed at his compound and in which Maya identifies bin Laden’s dead body in a military camp. The government simultaneously denies access to the actual images and recreates those same images in a manner consistent with its mythology. Arguing successfully that the release of the actual photographs will harm national security, the government simultaneously facilitates a fictional portrayal that could equally incite violence, such as resulted from the publication of the Danish cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (as the government cited in its brief) or from the satirical cartoons drawn of the Prophet Muhammad by those killed in the attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. However, no violence resulted from the film’s release.[49]

Moreover, the power of a fictional portrayal, such as Zero Dark Thirty, to define history is implicitly best evidenced by the collective yawn that seems to have resulted from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s release in early December 2014 of its unclassified, over-500-page report on the CIA’s interrogation program. That report found not only that the CIA had engaged in far more extensive torture than was previously revealed but also that such torture had been ineffective.[50] Thus, the Chair of the Committee, together with the Chair and a Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in mid-December 2014 to the movie’s producer, Sony Corporation, protesting Zero Dark Thirty as

“grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.”[51]

The senators said,

“The CIA coordinated the release of classified information to the media, including inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques.”[52]

Their letter to Sony also seem to plead for their helplessness in dispelling the misinformation conveyed in Zero Dark Thirty.

Under the guise of “national security” the executive branch of the U.S. government successfully shapes the mythology of the raid. Even if there is an expiration date on this “national security” material, it is not likely that anyone will care by the time that it is released. Does anyone care, for example, about the detailed accounts of CIA torture at Guantanamo Bay now that the CIA is belatedly beginning to allow its victims to speak about their memories of those details without violating classified “state secrets”?[53]

The mythology triumphant?

U.S. culture favors pragmatism and commercial business values, and as such movies are considered primarily entertainment, not real and inconsequential. Nevertheless, movie mythmaking inevitably begets efforts at counter-mythmaking. The power of a movie fiction, such as Zero Dark Thirty, to create a mythology and hence an historical record resulted in the release about 2 ½ years later of a PBS documentary in which the narrative of the raid is retold. In contrast to Zero Dark Thirty, where torture plays a role in finding bin Laden, PBS through its Frontline series on May 19, 2015, broadcast a documentary nearly one hour long titled “Secrets, Politics and Torture” that focused on the raid and recast the role of torture in that raid.[54] Thus, for example, the documentary addressed the following:

The broadcast specifically mentions Zero Dark Thirty as a presentation of the CIA’s view of torture, commenting that such a movie has a “huge impact” on the public perception of past events.

Not surprisingly, much of the U.S. media praised the broadcast for setting the record straight on the role of torture in finding bin Laden.[55] Such praise coincides with the adverse publicity that had initially greeted Zero Dark Thirty when the media learned of the government’s assistance to the filmmakers. Nevertheless, the broadcast introduces no new information and instead recasts that which had already been disclosed. Moreover, if the broadcast represents an effort to remake the mythology that Zero Dark Thirty has created, how successful is a PBS documentary relative to a large-budgeted, Hollywood action movie? A more effective counter to Zero Dark Thirty was surely the comic riff on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in which Dame Helen Mirren reads without inflection the horrifying details on torture from the Senate Committee’s report and Oliver openly mocks the fictional portrayal of torture in the hyped-up TV series 24.[56]  Entertainment and especially the Hollywood ending, as exemplified by Zero Dark Thirty, create our mythology and define our perceptions—and not a U.S. Senate Committee’s 500-page, redacted findings detailing the ineffectiveness of the CIA torture program or a one-hour PBS documentary broadcast years later.  

Moreover, at about the same time as the PBS broadcast, Seymour Hersh published in an early May 2015 issue of London Review of Books, a 10,000-word article entitled “The Killing of bin Laden.”[57] In contrast to the PBS broadcast, Hersh’s article introduces wholly new information that directly contradicts the depiction of events in Zero Dark Thirty. A celebrated journalist, who, among other things, had disclosed the My Lai massacre and its cover up during the U.S. war in Viet Nam and had more recently reported on the torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Hersh disputed through his sources—primarily “a retired senior intelligence official”—the portrayal in Zero Dark Thirty that the CIA was solely responsible for finding and killing bin Laden. To the contrary, as Hersh wrote:

Hersh’s account clearly contradicts the portrayal of events in Zero Dark Thirty. It also contradicts the sworn testimony given on behalf of the CIA in its successful argument against the disclosure of the photographs showing bin Laden after his death, including his supposed burial at sea.[60] Moreover, Hersh attributes the official version of the details of the raid that were released publicly (and depicted in the movie) as a result of the need to reconstruct events following a lack of coordination within the U.S. government, or what Hersh describes as a “poorly constructed cover story.”[61]

Both the White House and the CIA, not surprisingly, immediately denied Hersh’s retelling of what led to and happened during the raid. The White House issued a flat denial of Hersh’s article as “utter nonsense.”[62] The CIA indirectly denied Hersh’s account through its former Deputy Director and Acting Director Mike Morell. Morell had met with the filmmakers in 2011 and ironically later had issued the CIA’s release describing the movie’s inaccuracies. Appearing on the Charlie Rose Show, Morell now summarily dismissed as inaccurate Hersh’s account, claiming that the Pakistani government had not known of bin Laden’s location. It had instead willfully remained ignorant. Not incidentally, Morell took the opportunity of Rose’s show to describe his briefing in Dallas of former President George Bush on the bin Laden killing (with Bush reacting “like a kid in a candy store”) and to characterize the U.S. Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture, that few have presumably read and is to some extent now forgotten, as “deeply flawed.”[63]

With exceptions,[64] the press also attacked Hersh’s account, including Hersh’s use of an anonymous source.[65] Indeed, that attack continues unabated. Thus, for example, several months following Hersh’s account, Mark Bowden, the author of one of the first books on the raid on bin Laden’s compound, The Finish,[66] has sharply criticized in Vanity Fair an effort at rehabilitating Hersh’s account, namely author Jonathan Mahler’s cover article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?”[67] Bowden notes how his book-length account was based on many interviews, including a lengthy interview with President Obama. He says that Hersh’s theory, if accepted, would improbably require that all his sources had consistently and repeatedly lied. In the absence of Mahler’s offering any reliable evidence disputing the narrative resulting from his [Bowden’s] interviews, Bowden views Mahler’s failure to dismiss Hersh as simply promoting a narrative that will delight “conspiracy theorists” everywhere. For his part Mahler observes that reporters typically shape historical events in order to create an interesting narrative, such as Bowden’s earlier book (and the later movie) Black Hawk Down. Mahler then speculates how Bowden came to shape his particular official narrative, noting, for example, how Bowden had available to him virtually no unclassified paper trail and didn’t personally view the supposed photos of bin Laden’s dead body, let alone the burial at sea.

Mahler further observes that Zero Dark Thirty, in enacting the government’s narrative, favors the CIA’s agenda to promote the myth that the raid somehow “transformed American politics.” Moreover, he openly speculates on how improbable a number of these narrative events are. He found unlikely that the Pakistani government was unaware of bin Laden’s nearby presence to the Pakistani military college or that it could fail to detect the CIA’s intrusion, considering both the Pakistani air defense and the explosions on the ground during the raid itself. Mahler admittedly raises questions that he is unable to answer, but he offers historical precedent. These include the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that justified U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and the more recent claim about Sadaam Hussain’s “weapons of mass destruction” that resulted in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Of course, as striking as Hersh’s account may be in contradicting the government’s official report on the finding and killing of bin Laden, his account is surely no less striking than the Senate Committee’s findings (based on its examination of more than six million CIA-originating documents) of the CIA’s pattern of deliberate obstruction and deceit. Thus, the Senate Committee’s Report includes findings that the CIA misrepresented in hearings and in other contexts the brutality of its interrogations and confinements, provided inaccurate information to the U.S. Justice Department, and impeded Congressional and White House oversight.[68] Contrast the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty—whose filmmakers emphasized how the government fully cooperated with them and whose film portrays how torture resulted in the finding of bin Laden—with the Senate Committee’s express finding that CIA torture was wholly ineffective.

Indeed, perjuryoften seems part of the intelligence community’s tradecraft. Thus, in March 2013 while Zero Dark Thirty was still in release, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, famously testified before U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the NSA does not collect “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”[69] When, however, in early June 2013 Edward Snowden—one amongst many, many persons knowledgeable about this program but all of whom had kept silent—began releasing classified documents that demonstrated that the NSA was, in fact, engaged in massive surveillance of Americans, Clapper wrote the Senate Committee’s Chair and admitted that his sworn testimony had been false.  

“…I realized later that Senator Wyden was asking about Section 215 metadata collection rather than content collection [sic]. This was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize….I can now openly correct it because the existence of the metadata program has been declassified [sic]….Mistakes will happen, and  when I make one, I correct it.”[70]

Hersh’s account underscores the issue of whether it is ever appropriate to recreate on the large screen (or on any platform that receives wide distribution) a movie that depicts a recent, historically important event and to rely upon, for that depiction, those who participated in and have much to gain (or lose) from how that event is depicted. The rights of free speech and of a free press, whereby U.S. journalists routinely check and confirm the accuracy of their sources in order to avoid liability, surely do not exhaust the moral obligations of filmmakers who would effectively document historical events—and are motivated by the commercial demands of the marketplace and influenced by their own aesthetic vision.

The authenticity of mythology in Zero Dark Thirty

Bigelow and her screenwriter Boal’s reliance upon the U.S. government’s version of events, as told to them through interviews with those involved in planning and executing the raid, has resulted in a movie that seemingly documents and thereby fixes our collective memory of how the U.S. government found and killed bin Laden. In doing so, Bigelow, as the director of Zero Dark Thirty, has created the mythology that will define bin Laden’s death long after articles about those events, including this essay, will have been forgotten. Correcting the public perception, as in the case of Hersh’s article, is extraordinarily difficult given the power of the entertainment media. If movies have an unprecedented ability to conjure up and recreate our memories, then filmmakers surely have a far greater moral obligation to themselves and their audience in creating history in the name of artistic license. History is hardly neutral. Rather it is what we create in an effort to make sense of and understand our past and thereby who and what we are and will become.

Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is singularly lacking in self-awareness. In portraying the events leading to the death of bin Laden as a reenactment of The Searchers, Bigelow ironically plays the role of reporter Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a movie which John Ford, the director of The Searchers, made a few years later. Interviewing Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), who was elected to the U.S. Congress because he was known as the “man who shot [the outlaw] Liberty Valance,” Scott learns that, in fact, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), not Stoddard, had killed Valance. Rather than print that story, Scott deliberately tears up his notes to the interview and famously declares,

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty prints the legend as fact. In contrast, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with its theatricality of actors too old to play their parts[71] and outdoor scenes so clearly Hollywood sets, represents Ford’s acknowledgement of how Hollywood movies lie through constructing a mythology. In twice depicting the gunfight in which Valance is killed, Ford unequivocally exposes how the editing and framing of shots deceive audiences in the process of creating that mythology. A conservative filmmaker who believes in tradition, the innate corruption of human civilization and the inevitability of historical fact, Ford accepts the legend even as he acknowledges, documents and extols the deceptiveness necessary to its creation.

Therein lies Ford’s authenticity, however, and the emotional response of many, including young, radical filmmaker Jean Luc Godard’s supposed reaction to Ethan Edward’s sweeping gesture in which he lifts Debbie into his arms. How could he hate John Wayne and his politics and yet be moved by the warmth of that gesture?[72] For all of its seductiveness, Ford’s American mythology evidences a Brechtian distancing from the enacted epic drama, and it arouses in us a partial disbelief in that mythology. The iconic shot of the homestead door closing on a now weary John Wayne in The Searchers is both anticipated and objectified in the film’s opening shot in which Aaron and his family open the door of their soon-to-be-destroyed home to the approaching figure of Aaron’s brother Ethan in the distance. The Searchers announces from the outset that it is mythmaking. For all of his fascination with the United States, Godard in his early movies also enacted the pleasures of Hollywood genres as well as exposed those genres for their sad, sometimes tragic role in historical mythmaking.

Bigelow early in her career as a painter and film student associated with such conceptual and radical artists as Vito Acconci, Philip Glass, Richard Serra, and Susan Sontag.[73] Each of these artists understood the distance necessary to engage and give meaning to their art. Bigelow has increasingly forgotten the emotional disengagement that underlies Ford’s movies and the resulting authenticity of his politics in depicting American culture on the movie screen, howsoever conservative those politics may have been. It is not simply a question of the “social and moral obligation to get the facts right,” as the U.S. Senators wrote to Sony in protesting the depiction of how the U.S. found and killed Bin Laden.[74] As a result of the absence of a reflective distance from the mythology enacted on the screen, Bigelow lacks an authenticity in her filmmaking and becomes simply another commercially successful technician, a celebrated filmmaker unspooling the Company line and the mythology that serves to benefit that Company.


FOIA requests continue to disclose the nature and extent of the cooperation between the US government and the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty. Thus, after the writing of this essay, it was reported that:

Undoubtedly there will be additional disclosures with the passage of time.   Nevertheless, on the fifth anniversary of the death of bin Laden the CIA tweeted in celebration the Navy SEAL’s raid, “remembering the Raid in Abbottabd” as “one of the greatest intelligence operations of all times,” thereby echoing the triumphant portrayal of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Evoking both the larger-than-life, heroic vision of John Wayne in The Alamo (1960) and Slyvester Stallone’s rewriting of history in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Zero Dark Thirty enables the United States to win this time. [80]

Our understanding of the past, our collective history and its mythology, is not a neutral accumulation of facts. Rather, it consists of a selection and arrangement, no different in that respect from the creative process of filmmaking. In both we define our imaginative and moral worth as individuals. Such is the possible authenticity and thereby the value of movies as an art form. Lacking that authenticity, movies merely entertain, seamlessly create for us as paying - but largely passive - consumers the story of our past, and seek to define both our present and future cultural history.


1. The full statement attributed to John Ford is: “My name is John Ford. I make Westerns.” There is a dispute over the exact quote as well as the context in which John Ford made this statement. See, for example, Gaylyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein, Editors, John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press 2001), Introduction, n. 1, and Brian Spittles, John Ford (New York: Rutledge 2014), 41. 

2. Kathryn Bigelow’s commentary to the Special Feature “No Small Feat” of the Columbia Pictures DVD of Zero Dark Thirty.

3. Ben Affleck directed the movie Argo. In an article in The Washington Post largely focused upon Zero Dark Thirty the writer claims that the CIA assisted Affleck, too, in the production of his movie. Assuming that such was the case, it is unclear, however, from the article as to the nature of that assistance. Thus, the article describes in full that assistance as follows: 

“The government cooperated as much, if not more, on "Argo," the film about the 1979-81 hostage crisis in Iran that won the best picture Oscar. Actor-director Ben Affleck and his team were allowed to film scenes in the lobby of the CIA building in Langley, Virginia; the "Zero Dark Thirty" crew did no such filming.”

Mark Hosenball, “Senate Intelligence Committee Drops bin Laden Film Probe,” The Washington Post, February 25, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015,

4. A few reviewers at the time of the film’s initial release briefly mentioned the connection to The Searchers. See David Stratton, “Zero Dark Thirty tackles an unsettling obsession with Osama Bin Laden,” The Australian, January 26, 2013 (“As it unfolded I was reminded of a classic Hollywood film on a similar subject, John Ford's The Searchers…”), accessed on September 7, 2015,
and Jeff Simon, “Brilliant ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ a high point in American film,” The Buffalo News, January 11, 2013, (“The classic American movie I couldn’t forget while watching it is John Ford’s “The Searchers”), accessed on September 7, 2015,
. Simon concludes his review by wondering if the racism depicted in The Searchers is only now beginning in the contemporary world of Zero Dark Thirty. And in The Washington Post, July 4, 2013, Gene Frankel in “‘The Searchers’ was influential film in its day and still resonates today” comments,

“Ethan represents the macho, war-without-end, take-no-prisoners solution to ethnic conflict and terrorism. His modern heir is Maya, the do-whatever-it-takes heroine of “Zero Dark Thirty” — like Ethan a loner who alienates potential allies and co-workers in a single-minded pursuit of justice and retribution against the enemy.”

Accessed on September 7, 2015,
http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the -searchers-was-

5. James Gandolfini was, of course, best known for his role as the mafia boss Tony Soprano in the TV series The Sopranos.

6. For a detailed discussion of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6, see Mark Mazzetti, Nicholas Kulish, Christopher Drew, Serge F. Kovaleski, Sean D. Naylor and John Ismay,  “SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines,” The New York Times, accessed on September 7, 2015,

7. Bin Laden acts, in effect, as Maya’s doppelganger.  Bigelow’s movies consistently focus upon such figures for its central characters.  See Robert Alpert, “Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker: a jack-in-the-box story,” Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010,

8. In the retelling of the Seal Team 6 raid, “Mark Owen” (the pseudonym for Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette) describes how Jen, the basis for the Maya character, cried during the identification of bin Laden’s body:

“Back in the hangar, Jen stayed on the perimeter of the crowd. She didn’t say anything, but I knew from her reaction she could see Bin Laden’s body on the floor. With tears rolling down her cheeks, I could tell it was taking a while for Jen to process. She’d spent half a decade tracking this man. And now there he was at her feet.”

Mark Owen and Kevin Maurer, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden (New York: New American Library 2014), 267.

9. Bigelow has commented that we watch Maya grow up during the movie to the point that she doesn’t know who she is. Kathryn Bigelow’s commentary to the Special Feature “Targeting Jessica Chastain” of the Columbia Pictures DVD of Zero Dark Thirty.

10. Maureen Dowd, “A Tale of Two Women,” The New York Times, December 11, 2012, accessed on September 7, 2015,

11. Kathryn Bigelow’s commentary to the Special Feature “Targeting Jessica Chastain” of the Columbia Pictures DVD of Zero Dark Thirty.

12. Offices of CIA, Public Affairs, Entertainment Industry Liaison, accessed on September 7, 2015,

13. Letter from Mark Boal to George Little, CIA Office of Public Affairs, dated May 10, 2011, accessed on September 18, 2016, accessed on September 18, 2016, https://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Judicial-Watch-Bin-Laden-Movie-CIA-Full-Production.pdf

14. On the other hand, the U.S. government’s facilitating of the movie’s production resulted in widespread, adverse publicity. Thus, for example, Peter Maass’ article in The Atlantic, December 12, 2013, criticized the movie not only for its inaccurate portrayal of the effectiveness of torture but also, and more importantly, for how “Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism.“ Peter Maass, “Don't Trust 'Zero Dark Thirty,'”

15. Email of Robert Mehal to Michael Vickers, dated July 8, 2011, accessed on September 7, 2015,

16. Alan A. Stone, “Bin Laden: The Movie”, Boston Review, July-August 2011, accessed on September 7, 2015, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.4/

17. Ford and Hawks represent the two directors who best defined Wayne’s persona. Ford made Wayne a star through his portrayal of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939), and Hawks introduced a complexity of character to Wayne in his portrayal of Thomas Dunson in Red River (1948).

18. See “Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report on Torture” (redacted), 402, which may be found at the following site, which may be found at the following site, accessed through browser pasting on September 18, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CRPT-113srpt288/pdf/CRPT-113srpt288.pdf 

19. Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Defense (D.D.C. 2013), accessed on September 7, 2015

20. The extent of the assistance to the filmmakers by the DOD is suggested by the DOD’s memorialization of a meeting between the filmmakers and the DOD’s Undersecretary Michael Vickers in a minimally redacted memorandum titled  “Transcript from background interview with Marl Boal and Katherine Bigelow (15 Ju12011),” accessed on September 7. 2015,

21. Boal met twice with White House as evidenced by the White House’s Visitor Records, accessed on September 7, 2015,

22. In return for the government’s assistance in helping him achieve an accurate recreation of an historical event, Boal seemingly undertook to maintain the government’s confidentiality to the same extent that he had successfully done on The Hurt Locker. Email from Robert Mehal to Michael Vickers dated June 9, 2011, accessed on September 7, 2015,
Apparently, however, neither Bigelow nor Boal signed a non-disclosure agreement, since no such document was disclosed in response to the FOIA request seeking documents relating to the U.S. government’s assistance to the filmmakers.

23. The changes consisted of a reworking the early torture scenes so that Maya does not participate in the torture itself and the deleting of a party scene in which a military officer is both drinking and fires a weapon. Adrian Chen, “Newly Declassified Memo Shows CIA Shaped Zero Dark Thirty's Narrative,” Gawker, May 6, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015,

24. See, for example, “Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report on Torture” (redacted), 455 (“CIA Destruction of Interrogation Videotapes Leads to Committee Investigation”) and ix (“The CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.”), which may be found at the following site, accessed through browser pasting on September 18, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CRPT-113srpt288/pdf/CRPT-113srpt288.pdf 

26. In contrast to the executive branch, the U.S. Congress took a more openly hostile attitude toward the filmmakers, considering that it undoubtedly viewed the CIA’s assistance to the filmmakers as more cooperative than the CIA’s disclosures to the Congressional oversight committees. Thus, the U.S. Senate launched an investigative probe into the filmmakers’ contacts with the CIA, though it dropped that probe only days following the movie’s failure to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture or Best Original Screenplay. Mark Hosenball, “Senate Intelligence Committee drops bin Laden film probe,” Reuters, February 25, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015, 

27. “Statement to Employees from Acting Director Michael Morell: "Zero Dark Thirty," December 21, 2012, accessed on September 7, 2015, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/press-releases

28. “As Boal, the screenwriter, has protested in recent interviews, ‘It’s a movie, not a documentary.’” Jane Mayer, “Zero Conscience in ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” The New Yorker, December 14, 2012, accessed on September 7, 2015,

29. David Haglund, Aisha Harris, and Forrest Wickman, “Who Are the People in Zero Dark Thirty?” Slate’s Cultural Blog, January 14, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015, 

30. Boal expressed his desire to make “an accurate recreation of a historical event.” See email from Robert Mehal to Michael Vickers dated June 9, 2011, accessed on September 7, 2015,

31. Mark Boal’s commentary to the Special Feature “The Compound” of the Columbia Pictures DVD of Zero Dark Thirty.

32. Kathryn Bigelow interviewed on The Colbert Report, January 22, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015, http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/u2sxvp/

33. Kathryn Bigelow’s commentary to the Special Feature “Targeting Jessica Chastain” of the Columbia Pictures DVD.

34. Of course, Oliver Stone throughout his career has routinely directed movies in which the events of contemporary history are made personal and dramatized, e.g. The Doors (1991), JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), World Trade Center (2006) and most recently Snowden.

35. Samantha, the AI operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), makes this observation to Theodore, the person who purchases and forms a romantic relationship with this operating system. Director Sarah Polley applies this same observation to her own life in her purported documentary titled Stories We Tell (2012) in which she mixes investigative documentary techniques with a fictional recreation of the past.

36. See, for example, Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan (9th Cir. 2010), accessed on September 7, 2015,

37. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where many FOIA lawsuits against the U.S. government are heard, has made clear that a waiver will not easily be found. See, for example, Students Against Genocide v. Department of State (D.C. Cir. 2001) (public disclosure requires disclosure in the form of a permanent, pubic record; no waiver where the photographs released to third parties were shown only to members of the UN Security Council), accessed on September 7, 2015,
Cottone v. Reno (D.C. Cir. 1999)(tapes introduced at trial and not under seal must be disclosed; however, neither constitutionally required disclosure to defense counsel nor tapes withdrawn from the public record fall within a waiver exception), accessed on September 7, 2015, 
But see for a contrary view, Watkins v. U.S. Bureau of Customs (9th Cir. 2011)(holding that the D.C. Circuit test is not the only way in which
waiver may be found and finding a waiver of the trade secret exemption under FOIA where no strings were attached to information disclosed by U.S. Customs to trademark owners), accessed on September 7, 2015,

Of course, the ninth circuit was not addressing the national security exemption but instead the disclosure of information relating to an intellectual property case and the trade secrets exemption.

38.   Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency (D.D.C. 2013), accessed on September 7, 2015,

39. The documents disclosed can be found on the website of Judicial Watch, which brought suit under FOIA,

with the documents available on a separate page,
The full disclosure by the CIA, in particular, may be found at
All of these pages were accessed on September 7, 2015, with the last accessed through browser pasting on September 18, 2016.

40. Nate Jones and Lauren Harper, Editors, with Documents from Jeffrey T. Richelson and Barbara Elias, “The Zero Dark Thirty File: Lifting The Government's Shroud Over the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden,” The National Security Archive, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 410, posted on January 17, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015,
This archive includes links to about 20 documents or websites relating to the Abbottabad raid an d the killing of bin Laden.

For a description of the U.S. government’s civil settlement reached with former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, see Christopher, Drewaug, “Ex-SEAL Member Who Wrote Book on Bin Laden Raid Forfeits $6.8 Million, The New York Times, August 19, 2016, accessed on August 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/20/us/bin-laden-book-seal-team-6.html?ref=todayspaper. Not surprisingly, Bissonnette’s lawyer commented on the arguable inequity of the settlement imposed on Bissonnette:  “Mr. Luskin also noted that a number of high-level officials have assisted other authors writing about the Bin Laden raid as well as the creators of the movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ But, he said, only Mr. Bissonnette has paid any penalties for the disclosures.”

41. Judial Watch Watch v. U.S. Dept. of Defense, 857 F. Supp. 2d 44 (D.D.C. 2012), aff’d., 715 F.3d 937 (D.C. Cir. 2013). The trial court’s decision may be found at

and the appellate court’s decision may be found at
both accessed on September 7, 2015.

42. Judicial Watch v. U.S. Dept. of Defense (D.D.C. 2012), at 2, accessed on September 7, 2015, at

43. For an excellent article discussing the distinction between traditionally classified documents, such as face recognition software, and classified material based on the speculative to harm to national security, see Matthew Birkhold, “Unclassified Fictions: The CIA, Secrecy Law, and the Dangerous Rhetoric of Authenticity,” Berkeley Journal of Entertainment and Sports Law, Vol. 3, No. 1 (May 2014), accessed on September 7, 2015,

44. Judial Watch v. U.S. Dept. of Defense (D.C. Cir. 2013), 3 – 4 and 9, accessed on September 7, 2015,

45. Judicial Watch v. U.S. Dept. of Defense (D.C. Cir. 2013), 10- 11, accessed on September 7, 2015,
The two key affidavits submitted in support of the government’s claim that national security was at risk consisted of the
Declaration of John Bennett, Director, National Clandestine Service, CIA,  
and the Declaration of Robert B. Neller. Lieutenant General, U.S. Marine Corps,
both accessed on September 7, 2015.

46. For example, one appellate court reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against the U.S. National Security Agency (or NSA), held that the NSA had exceeded its statutory authority under the U.S.A Patriot Act in engaging in the collection of “bulk telephone metadata,” but nevertheless remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether a preliminary injunction was the appropriate remedy. ACLU v. Clapper (2nd Cir. 2015), accessed on September 7, 2015,

On the other hand, another court in a per curiam opinion vacated a trial court’s preliminary injunction against the NSA’s collection of bulk telephone metadata, finding that the individual challenging the collection likely lacked “standing” and remanding to permit discovery on that issue, though with one judge questioning the merits of the claim and other judge dissenting on the remand. Klayman v. Obama (D.C. Cir. 2015), accessed on September 18, 2016, https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/clapper-ca2-opinion.pdf

47. “A picture may be worth a thousand words. And perhaps moving pictures bear an even higher value. Yet, in this case, verbal descriptions of the death and burial of Osama Bin Laden will have to suffice, for this Court will not order the release of anything more.” Judicial Watch v. U.S. Dept. of Defense (D.D.C. 2012), at 1, accessed on September 7, 2015,

48. Maureen Down was among the first journalists who reported on the assistance provided to Bigelow and Boal, focusing upon the political benefit to White House incumbent President Obama:

“The White House is also counting on the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal big-screen version of the killing of Bin Laden to counter Obama’s growing reputation as ineffectual. The Sony film by the Oscar-winning pair who made “The Hurt Locker” will no doubt reflect the president’s cool, gutsy decision against shaky odds. Just as Obamaland was hoping, the movie is scheduled to open on Oct. 12, 2012 — perfectly timed to give a home-stretch boost to a campaign that has grown tougher.”

Maureen Dowd, “Downgrade Blues,” The New York Times, August 6, 2011, accessed on September 7, 2015,
In fact, the film was not released until after the election presumably in response to the adverse publicity generated by its initial contemplated release date.

49. There is sometimes a darker, more pernicious aspect to this cloaking of information under the rubric of “national security” while simultaneously releasing that information, albeit in a different format. As Glenn Greenwald has observed, the U.S. may facilitate “leaks” to promote its own view of events while simultaneously criminally prosecuting those such as Edward Snowden who “leak” information that is inconsistent with the U.S. Government’s view. Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), 229.

50. A copy of the redacted version of the “Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report on Torture” may be found at the following site, accessed on September 18, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CRPT-113srpt288/pdf/CRPT-113srpt288.pdf.

51. “Feinstein Releases Statement on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” December 19, 2012, accessed on September 7, 2015,

52. See Finding and Conclusion 10 to the Report of the Senate Select Committee.

53. Jessica Schulberg and Ryan J. Reilly, “U.S. Government Starting To Allow CIA Torture Victims To Discuss Their Own Memories,” The Huffington Post, June 11, 2015, accessed on September 7, 2015,

54. Frontline’s “Secrets, Politics and Torture: the secret history of the CIA’s controversial ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods”, May 19, 2015, accessed on September 7, 2015,

55. See, for example, Shane Harris, “’Zero Dark Thirty’ Was Filled With CIA Lies,” The Daily Beast, May 19, 2015 (summarizing Frontline’s documentary “Secrets, Politics and Torture,” including its interview of U.S. Senator Feinstein, the Chair of the Senate Committee), accessed on September 7, 2015,
The media expressed this same dismay with Zero Dark Thirty when the U.S. Senate Committee released its report in December 2014 on torture. See, for example, Jake Coyle, “CIA report casts new pall over 'Zero Dark Thirty'” Yahoo! Movies, December 10, 2014, accessed on September 7, 2015,

56. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Torture, June 14, 2015, accessed on September 7, 2015,
During the show Oliver also notes the results of the poll finding that the majority of Americans believe that torture works and humorously places that belief on the plot demands of the TV series 24 that requires that Jack Bauer’s visually graphic uses of torture be effective. Oliver timed the broadcast of his show to coincide with the imminent U.S. Senate vote on a law that would ban torture and thereby render more permanent President Obama’s ban as set forth in an executive order. Emmarie Huetteman, “Senate Votes to Turn Presidential Ban on Torture Into Law,” The New York Times, June 16, 2015, accessed on September 7, 2015,

57. Seymour M. Hersh, “The Killing of bin Laden,” London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 10, accessed on September 7, 2015,

58. Hersh claims that the informant was relocated to Washington, DC, and now works as a consultant for the CIA. The Pakistani press has since identified this “walk-in” as a former official or spy with Pakistani intelligence who has been granted U.S. citizenship. Amir Mir, “Brig Usman Khalid informed CIA of Osama’s presence in Abbottabad,” The International News, May 12, 2015, accessed on September 7, 2015,

59. The Pakistani doctor who obtained the DNA sample apparently shared in the $25 million reward, according to Hersh.

60. The Declaration of John Bennett, Director, National Clandestine Service, CIA, sworn to on September 26, 2011, paragraph 11, characterizes the images as “quite graphic” and  “gruesome” as well as notes that “many of the images were taken… as his corpse was being transported… to the location where he was ultimately buried at sea” and that “[s]everal of the images depict the preparation of his body for burial as well as the burial itself.”
which was accessed on September 7, 2015

61. Hersh devotes much of his article to how the poorly the announcement of the raid was orchestrated so that stories had to be revised in order to be consistent with President Obama’s initial press announcement. For example, Obama’s announcement suggests possible cooperation from the Pakistani government, notwithstanding that the CIA had promised Pakistani officials not to make public that cooperation, and that there was a firefight during the raid, when none had occurred. Moreover, since Obama announced that the SEALs took custody of bin Laden’s body, the government, according to Hersh, had to create a cover story about an Islamic burial at sea of the body, thereby avoiding the need to produce a body.

62. Dan Lamothe, “‘Utter nonsense': CIA and White House blast Seymour Hersh’s explosive Osama bin Laden raid story,” The Washington Post, May 11, 2015, accessed on September 7, 2015,

63. The May 11, 2015, appearance of Mike Morell on the Charlie Rose show may be found at the following site, accessed on September 18, 2016: https://charlierose.com/videos/21256
Morell stated, in particular, “I believe they [the Pakistanis] didn’t want to know.” (38.22) He also observed as to the U.S. Senate report:

“35:58 Mike Morell: …As we talked about at this table, and I actually give examples, very specific examples in the book where it's wrong, right. It's a deeply flawed document. I wish there was—there were a document that lays out the history and then let’s have a conversation about it, particularly about the morality question.”

And as to his briefing at the request of U.S. President Obama of former U.S. President Bush, he recounted:

“43:32 Mike Morell: In Dallas after the bin Laden raid, a briefing for President Bush on everything on the intelligence side and everything on the operational side. And he was like a kid in a candy store.
43:43 Charlie Rose: He wanted to know everything.
43:45 Mike Morell: Wanted to know everything. And…
43:49 Charlie Rose: Because he lived with it.
43:45 Mike Morell: Wanted to know everything. And…"

64. David Walsh, “CIA-embedded Hollywood liars and their lies,” World Socialist Website, May 15, 2015 (“Now we know, thanks to Seymour Hersh and his article in the London Review of Books, that, along with everything else, the Bigelow-Boal film was a pack of lies from beginning to end.”), accessed on September 7, 2015,

65. See, for example, Peter Bergen, “Was there a cover-up in bin Laden killing?” CNN, May 20, 2015 (“Hersh's account of the bin Laden raid is a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense.”), accessed on September 7, 2015,
For both a summary and a commentary on these attacks by the media on Hersh’s article, see Trevor Timm,“The media’s reaction to Seymour Hersh’s bin Laden scoop has been disgraceful,” Columbia Journalism Review, May 15, 2015 (“…instead of trying to build off the details of his story, or to disprove his assertions with additional reporting, journalists have largely attempted to tear down the messenger.”), accessed on September 7, 2015,

66. Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Press 2012).

67. Compare Mark Bowden, “There’s Just One Problem with Those Bin Laden Conspiracy Theories,” Vanity Fair, October 16, 2015,
with Jonathan Mahler, “What Do We Re ally Know About
Osama bin Laden’s Death?” New York Times Magazine, October 15, 2015,
, both accessed on October 21, 2015.

68. “Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report on Torture” (redacted), Findings 3 – 7, which may be found at the following site, accessed through browser pasting on September 7, 2015: CRPT-113srpt288%20(2).pdf.  The Senate Committee describes the CIA as a rogue agency. Thus, the Chair in her forward to the Report wrote, “….CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.”

69. Senator Ron Wyden’s questions and Director James Clapper’s responses during the Senate Committee’s hearing, March 12, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015, may be found at

70. James Clapper’s letter addressed to the Senate Committee Chair, June 21, 2013, accessed on September 7, 2015, may be found at
The metadata program’s declassification, to which Clapper refers, resulted from Snowden’s unauthorized disclosure of the program’s existence. Charlie Savage, “Surveillance Court Rules That N.S.A. Can Resume Bulk Data Collection, The NY Times, July 1, 2015 (“The program was declassified in June 2013 after its existence was disclosed by the former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden.”), accessed on September 7, 2015,

71. Film critic Andrew Sarris years ago commented upon this incongruity between the age of the actors and the age of the characters that they portrayed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Vera Miles best exemplifies this incongruity.  In The Searchers she portrays Laurie Jorgensen, the sweetheart of Wayne’s young nephew Martin; in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, made only 6 years later, she portrays Wayne’s love interest, Hallie.

72. Of course, John Ford and his vision of the West should not be confused with the Hollywood star John Wayne. Wayne created over many years and in many ways his persona, and even Ford found occasion to find repulsive the dissonance between persona and person. Thus, Ford and Wayne nearly came to blows during the filming of They Were Expendable (1945) when Ford became discomfited by the dissonance between Wayne as a popular Hollywood war hero and what Ford viewed as Wayne’s cowardice during World War II. Mark Harris, Five Came Back (New York: The Penguin Press 2014), 356—61.

73. For a very brief discussion of Bigelow’s early years as a painter and film student, see Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond, Editors, The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor (London: Wildflower Press 2003), 6.

74. The senators’ statement to Sony on this point reads in full as follows: “[W]ith the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.” “Feinstein Releases Statement on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” December 19, 2012, accessed on September 7, 2015,

75. See the unclassified document disclosed in response to a FOIA by VICE News and reproduced in Jason Leopold and Ky Henderson, “Tequila, Painted Pearls, and Prada — How the CIA Helped Produce 'Zero Dark Thirty,'” September 9, 2015, VICE News, accessed July 20, 2016, https://news.vice.com/article/tequila-painted-pearls-and-prada-how-the-cia-helped-produce-zero-dark-thirty (“April 2010 - D/CIA Panetta and Kathryn Bigelow meet at event where she discusses her film project; D/CIA offers Agency assistance.”)

76. See Nicholas Schou, “How the CIA Hoodwinked Hollywood,” The Atlantic, July 14, 2016, accessed July 20, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/07/operation-tinseltown-how-the-cia-manipulates-hollywood/491138/ in which he describes many of the “embarrassing details about the CIA’s cozy relationship with Boal and Bigelow” that was set out in the September 2015 article in VICE News.

“As it turned out, the filmmakers had wined and dined agency officials in Hollywood and at a hotel near CIA headquarters, routinely racking up thousand-dollar restaurant bills. At one point, the Inspector General report stated a female CIA officer mentioned liking the fashion designer Prada. Boal responded by saying ‘he knew the designer personally and offered her tickets to a Prada fashion show.’

The same officer later dined with the filmmakers at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C.’s, upscale Georgetown neighborhood, where as a thank-you gift, Bigelow, who had just returned from filming a commercial in Tahiti, gave her a pair of ‘black Tahitian pearl earrings.’ (The officer gave the jewelry to Langley to be appraised, and thus learned they were fake.) A bottle of tequila that Boal gave another officer, which was supposedly worth ‘several hundred dollars,’ could be bought for $100. None of the officers kept the gifts and the report cleared them of any wrongdoing.”

Not surprisingly, Schou is highly critical of the filmmakers.

“In the end, the CIA’s energetic cooperation with Boal and Bigelow paid off enormously, with Zero Dark Thirty serving as the most effective piece of propaganda for the agency’s torture program since 24. The film made the case that bin Laden’s capture would not have been possible without information that was extracted under torture. The filmmakers might have taken great pains to portray the smallest details of bin Laden’s compound accurately. But on this fundamental issue, they blatantly violated the truth.”

77. Jason Leopold and Ky Henderson in their article “Tequila, Painted Pearls, and Prada — How the CIA Helped Produce 'Zero Dark Thirty,'” September 9, 2015, VICE News, report that:

“Included in the trove of redacted agency records [produced in response to VICE News’ FOIA request] is a March 2014 CIA Office of Inspector General report titled ‘Alleged Disclosure of Classified Information by Former D/CIA’ — D/CIA refers to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta — and a separate September 2013 report from the inspector general's office titled ‘Potential Ethics Violations Involving Film Producers.’”

See also Adam Zagorin and David Hilzenrath, “Unreleased: Probe Finds CIA Honcho Disclosed Top Secret Info to Hollywood,” POGO, Project on Government Oversight, June 4, 2013, accessed July 20, 2016, http://www.pogo.org/our-work/articles/2013/unreleased-probe-finds-cia-disclosed-secret-info.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/.

78. The disclosure of previously unreported events generally related to the raid on bin Laden’s compound has continued. For example, a select group of government lawyers had apparently drafted memoranda in advance of the government’s raid in which they set out the supporting legal grounds for the raid given, among other reasons, that the raid was on foreign territory and might result in the killing of bin Laden. See Charlie Savage, “How 4 Federal Lawyers Paved the Way to Kill Osama bin Laden,” The New York Times, October 28, 2015, accessed July 20, 2016,  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/us/politics/obama-legal-authorization-osama-bin-laden-raid.html.

(“The legal analysis offered the administration wide flexibility to send ground forces onto Pakistani soil without the country’s consent, to explicitly authorize a lethal mission, to delay telling Congress until afterward, and to bury a wartime enemy at sea.”)

79. Elle Hunt, “CIA 'live tweets' Osama bin Laden raid to mark five-year anniversary,” The Guardian, May 2, 2016, accessed July 20, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/02/cia-live-tweets-osama-bin-laden-raid-anniversary?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm

CIA director John Brennan’s posted message stated, in part:

“The raid was a masterpiece of planning and execution, and it was the culmination of years of painstaking work by CIA and our Intelligence Community partners. In the words of Admiral William McRaven, who directed the raid, it was ‘one of the greatest intelligence operations of all times.’ ......

Ridding the world of Usama Bin Ladin was an act of supreme justice. It sent a message to our adversaries that America will never let up in the pursuit of those who threaten us. And it underscored what every Agency officer knows instinctively: that intelligence is essential to our Nation’s security, every bit as important to the strength of our democracy as diplomacy, law enforcement, and military service.”

“Message from the Director: Remembering the Raid in Abbottabad,” April 29, 2016, accessed July 20, 2016, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/press-releases-statements/2016-press-releases-statements/message-from-the-director-remembering-the-raid-in-abbottabad.html.

80. Recruited by his former commander to return to Vietnam now that the war is over, commando John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in director George P. Cosmatos’ Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) famously asks: “Sir, do we get to win this time?”