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Terror and the Surveillance State on Film

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the Israeli documentary ‘The Gatekeepers’ are up for Academy Awards. Only one should win.

Judith Miller
February 11, 2013
Photo Avner Shahaf/Irit Harel, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Left to Right: Avraham Shalom, Ami Ayalon, Yaakov Peri, Yuval Diskin, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gillon, in The Gatekeepers.Photo Avner Shahaf/Irit Harel, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Photo Avner Shahaf/Irit Harel, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Left to Right: Avraham Shalom, Ami Ayalon, Yaakov Peri, Yuval Diskin, Avi Dichter, Carmi Gillon, in The Gatekeepers.Photo Avner Shahaf/Irit Harel, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

As the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist Winter, Western filmmakers have been exploring how free societies can best combat terrorism. Can liberal societies bound by the rule of law defeat fanatics who claim obedience to a higher authority? Can democrats adhere to liberal values while vanquishing desperate or fanatical people who are willing to die for their cause?

Two films purport to explore these all-too-topical issues. Zero Dark Thirty, a fictional film that is said to have been inspired by the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and to have benefited from ultra-secret Hollywood CIA briefings, is a quintessentially American look at President George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror.” The Gatekeepers, an Israeli documentary about the views of six former chiefs of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, has an urgent message for Israelis. Both films are controversial and could only have been made in societies that welcome debate. Both have been nominated for Academy Awards. There, however, the similarities end.

Zero Dark Thirty does not seek to answer any of the darker, more troubling questions evoked by the 12-year war to prevent another, perhaps even deadlier Sept. 11 attack. It raises such issues tangentially, which is why the bitter debates about the film’s allegedly pro-torture stance—and the filmmakers’ supposed improper access to classified information—are mostly hogwash. Instead, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal studiously avoid questioning the broader strategic goals of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. “Depiction is not endorsement,” Bigelow has said repeatedly in interviews and op-eds, adding that as “a lifelong pacifist” she has long opposed torture.

But if such techniques constitute torture, as many legal scholars say the Geneva Conventions do conclude, does torture “work”? And did torture provide crucial information that led to Bin Laden? Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee and whose staffers conducted a lengthy inquiry into the question, concluded that such techniques did not produce essential clues. But Michael Hayden, the last CIA director under President Bush, said that “E.I.T.” did produce “crucial” clues that led to Bin Laden. Pentagon, CIA, and White House officials whom journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal interviewed prior to writing his script agreed.

The film itself, however, is ambiguous. The detainee who provides the name of the courier who is ultimately tracked to a compound in Abbottabad does not divulge the information while enduring the abuse depicted in the movie’s early frames—beatings, sleep deprivation, suspension by ropes, sexual humiliation, and being subjected to waterboarding, loud music, and being stuffed into a small box. Tricked into believing that he talked while he was delirious, the detainee casually reveals the courier’s name after interrogation during a relaxed meal with his captors. The clear inference drawn by many viewers is that the detainee would not have named the courier had such “techniques,” or torture, not been used. But Bigelow and Boal never say that. Torture was used. It provided results. Sometimes it didn’t, as their film also shows.

The same studied neutrality applies to President Barack Obama’s assertion in a 2008 interview with CBS that the United States doesn’t torture, because it’s not what Americans do or, as Obama has said in other interviews, “who we are.” Maya, Zero Dark Thirty’s young heroine, a Bin Laden-obsessed CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain, is said to be a “composite” character based on a real female agent whom Boal reportedly met while researching the film. She is impassive as she watches a clip of Obama’s above statement. But her fellow agent and friend, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), who is subsequently killed in a bombing, raises an eyebrow. For Hollywood, Jessica’s expression is daring, implying that the president is either ill-informed about what has happened to detainees at Guantanamo, Bagram, and “black sites” abroad, or that he prefers to dissemble and move on.

There are other subtle digs at Obama’s stewardship of the war on terror. One of the film’s intelligence officers casually asserts that information being sought by Maya and her peers is unlikely to be obtained given the president’s dismantling of his predecessor’s interrogation programs. Debating whether Bin Laden may be hiding in Abbottabad, a CIA official favorably compares the pre-Iraq war intelligence estimates of Saddam’s unconventional weapons with the information on Bin Laden’s whereabouts. There is a 60 percent to 80 percent chance that Bin Laden is at the Pakistani compound, the official asserts. The estimate that Iraq had WMD—utterly wrong, as it turned out—was rock solid compared to the chances that Bin Laden would be found in Abbottabad. When CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) tells Maya that he is returning home to Langley because he has seen too many men naked, he adds that the political climate in Washington is shifting on such methods and that politicians will begin hunting for scapegoats. His might as well be one of those heads that roll, he says indifferently.

Bigelow and Boal return repeatedly to the context of the hunt. Their film not only opens with recorded voices of those killed in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, it highlights the jihadi-inflicted carnage of the London bus and subway bombings in July 2005 (53 dead and over 700 injured) and the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, (54 dead and over 260 injured). For such politically incorrect thinking, Zero Dark Thirty is unlikely to win best picture or capture many Academy Awards.

Nor is it likely to clarify anyone’s thinking about how liberal democracies should defend themselves against terrorists. The film’s climax—the raid on the Abbottabad compound and the killing of Bin Laden, brilliantly shot in real-time through the night-vision cameras worn by the U.S. Navy Seals—is a scene from a Dirty Harry movie, while the first two-thirds of the film follows the even hoarier Hollywood storyline of the determined young heroine who is underestimated by her male superiors yet overcomes obstacles to accomplish her goal. The film does not even attempt to answer the questions indirectly raised about the wisdom of Washington’s counter-terrorism strategy and whether Bin Laden’s death has made us safer.


By contrast, The Gatekeepers tackles such issues head-on. It not only describes the tactics Israel has employed in its counter-terrorism efforts but also challenges their underlying strategy—or as director Dror Moreh claims, the absence of any coherent strategy behind the country’s anti-terror campaigns.

Moreh’s film opens where ZD30 ends: with an incipient drone strike at a target. The black, white, and mostly gray footage homes in on an Arab block, presumably in Gaza, then on a neighborhood, then on a street, and a single white vehicle. Precisely who is being targeted and why is not immediately clear. The film’s focus on the tracking of a target highlights the awesome technology used to identify and destroy such targets. Politicians prefer “binary” choices—shoot, don’t shoot, says Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet between 2005 and 2011. The first of the film’s six former Shin Bet leaders to speak, Diskin is also the most critical of Israel’s current political leadership. Often not shooting requires more guts than a strike, he asserts.

Moreh’s account of Israel’s counter-terrorism history begins with Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which brought a million Palestinians under occupation. Avraham Shalom, the eldest of the six former chiefs interviewed, recounts how Israeli intelligence officers learned to fight a new kind of warfare on what was now Israeli land. They learned Arabic; studied Palestinian history and culture; mapped out the casbahs of Nablus; identified family and clan structures to spot potential recruits among the people of the West Bank and Gaza.

But despite such meticulous effort, the Shin Bet would fail to predict the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, the mass uprising in the occupied territories, just as the CIA would fail to warn of the Arab Spring revolutions decades later. And through it all—the protests, the chaos, bombings, arrests, and interrogations of hundreds and thousands of men—settlement building continued, while Israeli leaders across the political spectrum ignore the fate of the Palestinians. Improbably, it fell to Yitzhak Rabin—described by a former Shin Bet chief as a “security man to his bone”—to break the cycle of “no strategy, just tactics” by authorizing secret talks with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo.

Intelligence is no gentleman’s sport, as Moreh’s tough-minded documentary shows. The Shin Bet chiefs discuss Israel’s version of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—sleep deprivation, hooding, being stretched in painful positions, and violent shaking. The death of a Palestinian detainee because of this last technique prompts the ouster of yet another Shin Bet leader. An earlier political casualty of security excesses is Shalom, who was part of the intelligence team that tracked and kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him back to Israel to stand trial for his role in planning and carrying out the Holocaust. Shalom is forced out after two Palestinian hijackers of Bus 300 traveling from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon are captured alive but subsequently beaten to death in Israeli custody. “Forget about morality,” Shalom says, still visibly anxious about the murders almost 30 years later. His obvious distress amplifies the power of his appeal for Israelis to speak to their enemies—Hamas, Islamic Jihad, even Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—however, whenever, and wherever they can. Intelligence professionals welcome interaction, he calmly explains. “I see you don’t eat glass. He sees I don’t drink petrol.”

Halfway through his tightly drawn narrative, Moreh, 51, focuses on perhaps the Shin Bet’s greatest intelligence failure—Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995. Carmi Gillon, then the Shin Bet chief, poignantly recounts his unsuccessful attempt to persuade Rabin to wear a bulletproof vest. Although the Shin Bet disrupts a right-wing Jewish plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock—which Gillon notes would have brought down the fury of the entire Muslim world, not just of Arab Muslims, upon Israel—it cannot decouple the dangerous Jewish fanatics from the radical rabbis and cowardly politicians who make excuses for their fellow Jews.

Rabin is killed by Yigal Amir, whom Gillon calls a “punk” nonentity who never crossed the Shin Bet’s radar. Rabin’s murder changed history “big time,” Gillon admits. But the Shin Bet still keeps the West Bank quiet, working with the very Palestinians it once occupied. The Palestinian Authority’s former security chief Jibril Rajoub, for instance, spent over 15 years in Israeli jails.

These Shin Bet veterans are no spineless dreamers. So, their warnings that, as Avi Dichter says, “you can’t make peace with military means” have added emotional clout. Fateh’s leaders are soon replaced by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the other militant Islamists who hold sway in Gaza, threatening Fateh’s legitimacy on the West Bank. Such religious foes have proven to be a far more disciplined enemy. Quoting Clausewitz, who he jokingly insists must have been at least part Jewish, Ami Ayalon defines victory as “the creation of a better political reality.” Though intelligence has helped keep Israelis safe, it cannot make them secure. Only a political settlement can do that, the veterans agree. Relying on brutality to fight terror—which Shalom compares, shockingly, to “Nazi methods”—has made Israelis “cruel.”

Perhaps as astonishing as what the intelligence elite have said is their having sat down with a documentary filmmaker. In an interview, Moreh told me he used only 2 percent of some 50 hours of interviews he taped with the former heads of the Shin Bet. He is working on a five-hour series for Israeli TV; a book is in process. He hopes to screen the film on the West Bank, where it hasn’t yet been shown; Arabs who have attended film festivals in Europe and America have told him they were deeply moved by it, he told me, when I sat down with him recently in New York. They know such a film could never have been made in any of their own countries.

Moreh’s question about whether Israel is becoming a “Shin Bet” state has prompted some Israeli extremists to threaten him. “You should see my Facebook page,” he told me. “One blogger said I should get cancer.” But Moreh has few illusions about the Palestinians. His overhead shot of the bombing of bus Number 5 is hard to watch. He would never forget, he told me, seeing a young girl blown to pieces in a suicide bus bombing. “Those horrific images are embedded in my memory,” he said. At the same time, he argues that refusing to criticize Israeli policy is a form of betrayal. “A real friend does not encourage the Titanic’s captain to keep heading straight for the iceberg,” he said. “He doesn’t yell—full steam ahead!”

Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.