As a historian, it is hard to go watch historical films. We know how they are going to end. Such was the case this past Saturday. My wife, also a historian, and I went and saw Zero Dark Thirty. We were both stunned at how much we liked it. It was fast paced, tense, sad, inconceivable at times, and there were some holes in the story (historically speaking). But, actress Jessica Chastain was mesmerizing as the lead. She is worth the price of admission and the popcorn. All in all, it was one of the best movies of the last year.
It is also hard to write historically about recent events. One reason being, there is not enough information or reflection to see the true impact of the event. The National Security Agency usually doesn’t release documents for long periods of time. The NSA still has not released all the information about the Cuban Missile Crisis and that has been 50 years ago. After coming home from the movie, I began to do some more research on the film and the operation. I knew some information based on the Discovery Channel Program, “Osama Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill” and some reports on the news and information networks.
I was surprised to find a plethora of documents were released on January 17, 2013 by the NSA through their site at George Washington University. Referred to as “The Zero Dark Thirty” file, the web page contains over 20 documents relating to the hunting and killing of Bin Laden and the role the government had in the film’s story line.
There are many interesting documents including “Letters from Abbottabad,” a collection of letters to and from Bin Laden about the lack of control over where the movement had gone. Collectively, the documents detail the information given to the screenwriter of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Boal, and Director Kathryn Bigelow. There is nothing Earth shattering in these documents that would be considered a breach of national security.
The film centers around a young CIA agent placed in the field in 2003. All we know about is her name – Maya. No last name, nothing else about her family, friends, or life. For the next two and half hours, the film follows her trying to find Bin Laden, but mostly she is trying to find Bin Laden through a courier named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a fake name.
It was assumed that Bin Laden was most likely hiding in either the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border or in the northern tribal lands of Pakistan. The movie turns into following dead-end lead after dead-end lead. It is frustrating for the character and everyone at the CIA. After a car bomb takes out several CIA agents at an American base in Afghanistan, Maya is given a file with the possible real name of “the Kuwaiti” as he was nicknamed in the real world.
The film becomes very tense from that point on as the CIA tapes the phone conversations to Abu Ahmed’s mother and begins to close in on Ahmed. A link is established to a phone roaming around Pakistan. However, Ahmed’s role has still not been defined by Maya and by the CIA. Left out of the film is a phrase uttered by Ahmed that he was still with who he was before (meaning Bin Laden) is the key that the CIA has found who they have been looking for these many years. Back in the film, when the CIA does pinpoint the location of Ahmed in Abbottabad, the CIA is still unsure if Bin Laden is in the house. Some estimates and other government agencies went as high as 80% that Bin Laden was not in the house while other agencies put it only a 30% chance.
In the actual world, despite the CIA staking out the house for several months, it was not certain if Bin Laden was in the house. There was no trash to go through as all trash was burned inside. No phone lines came in or out. Only electricity went in. The occasional neighborhood ball would go over the wall and the inhabitants would pay the children rather than give the ball back. Seven foot tall walls on the top floor blocked the ability to see in that floor. A satellite dish can be seen in this photograph from the day after the raid.
When the raid on Bin Laden’s compound took place on May 1, 2011, Seal Team Six (DEVGRU) called it Operation Neptune Spear and the target (Bin Laden) was given the code name Geronimo. They had practiced for several weeks on a mock up of the facility. The force flew two stealth Black Hawk helicopters to Abbottabad and a Chinook helicopter transport some 3o miles away for back up (not explained in the film). The 20+ Seals flew in from Afghanistan under a sky with no moon so as not to reflect light off the helicopters which had muffled motors and other stealth technology. One of the Black Hawks crashed in the compound but no one was hurt. It brought back images of an abysmal attempt to rescue Iranian Hostages and images of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down).
All the while, back in Washington, D.C., the President listened and watched live reports from the situation room. Obama knew the operation was a huge risk on foreign soil and wasn’t sure himself if Bin Laden was in the building or if it was just another high value Al-Qaida operative.
There were high moments of tension as the Seals made their way slowly and assuredly from floor to floor in the compound. Once in the building, the operation took a half an hour. In addition to Bin Laden, his courier, Abu Ahmed (later revealed as Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed), Ahmed’s brother and sister-in-law were killed along with one of Bin Laden’s sons. Once the Seals reached the top floor, the movie portrays one Seal first wounding Bin Laden in the head and then shooting him in the chest. Missing from the film is the relay of the message “E.K.I.A.” (enemy killed in action). At this point in the real world, the President, and all involved were pretty sure they had gotten their man. It was unclear in the film if Bin Laden was armed. This has been the bone of some contention. In real life, reports have Bin Laden armed and using his wife as a human shield.
Bin Laden’s body was bagged (his was the only body removed from the compound) and DNA samples were taken to confirm his identity based on family member DNA. His body was first flown to Afghanistan along with several documents and computers. This is where the movie ends. However, the story continues. Bin Laden’s body was prepared according to Muslim customs aboard the USS Carl Vincent and buried at sea. Initially, this decision was controversial because some people wanted proof of Bin Laden’s death. Photographs were taken after the raid and even Al-Qaida confirmed Bin Laden’s death a few months later. But the decision to not bury Bin Laden and create a martyr’s grave was at first misunderstood. In addition, the US never released photograph’s of Bin Laden’s body so as not to inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Some news organizations have sued the US to gain a release of the photographs. It has been to no avail.
The movie brings into question the methods used (torture) during the Bush era to interrogate subjects in the War on Terror. In addition, it also brings into question the role of the US in the region now that Bin Laden is dead. As well, both political parties in the US politicized the event. Shortly after President Obama announced that Bin Laden was dead, the infighting at home began over who should get the credit. Republicans argued for the Seals, while Democratic faithful argued for the President. The CIA has not been given plaudits for finding the compound.
As a teacher, it is hard to objectify this event because of the emotion of September 11, 2001 and its loss of life. But when I look at how I might teach this event in coming years, it will be hard, but the lessons must be flexible. By hard, the actual mission was a huge risk. There was no certainty that Bin Laden was there. I like to use scenarios where students must make a choice and then identify the consequences of not only making a choice, but also of not making a choice (Which is what I think drove Obama to green light this operation). Scenario lessons about this event could involve the same possible choices the CIA had to make along the way and whether or not to continue a course of action. In addition, scenarios about how to handle the press, the Bin Laden photographs, and his burial would make for great discussions.
By hard, the mission showed the US going it alone in another country with the threat of retaliation from a country (Pakistan) who was supposed to be our ally. I would be remiss if I did not discuss the ramifications in the region. Over time, it will be easier and easier to see how Bin Laden’s death will impact both sides. However, the flexibility comes into play by being able to incorporate new evidence, new documents, and new writings about the operation. This brings us back to the Zero Dark Thirty file. Should the government have cooperated with the director and writer so closely and so early? For example, the Canadian Caper supposedly took place in 1979 when the Canadian Embassy helped get Americans out of Iran. Turns out, the CIA was behind the whole thing and was the basis for the movie Argo. That information was not released to the public until the late 1990s.
As for hunting and killing Bin Laden, it may be another 20 years before we really know what happened and by whom. After all, it took over ten and a half years to find and kill Bin Laden. While the event is still fresh, the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” does raise some interesting questions about a dark period of American history. Hopefully, they will be answered sooner than later.
For more information: Go to the NSA document release page