New York Times' Shane Calls Waterboarding 'Torture' on Front Page While Chiding 'Zero Dark Thirty''s Portrayal

New York Times intelligence reporter Scott Shane made Thursday's front-page with a quasi-movie review of "Zero Dark Thirty," the critically acclaimed new release about the Bin Laden raid -- "Portrayal of C.I.A. Torture in Bin Laden Film Reopens a Debate." That headline shows the Times is comfortable using the loaded word "torture" to describe interrogation methods like water-boarding that inflicts temporary physical panic.

Previously Shane has fiercely resisted the idea that waterboarding contributed to finding Osama bin Laden, ignoring C.I.A. director Leon Panetta's admission that it had. Shane wrote on May 4, 2011: "But a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden's trusted courier and exposing his hide-out."

In other words, it may have helped, but don't make me write it.

Shane took a similar denialist tone on Thursday's front page, talking of "gruesome" waterboarding and using the word "torture" in the first sentence.

Even before its official release, “Zero Dark Thirty,” the new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has become a national Rorschach test on the divisive subject of torture.

The film’s unflinching portrayal of the Central Intelligence Agency’s brutal interrogation of Al Qaeda prisoners hews close to the official record, offering a gruesome sampling of methods like the near-drowning of waterboarding.

What has already divided the critics, journalists and activists who have watched early screenings is a more subtle issue: the suggestion that the calculated infliction of pain and fear, graphically shown in the first 45 minutes of the film, may have produced useful early clues in the quest to find the terrorist leader, who was killed in May 2011.

Such a claim is anathema to outspoken critics of the Bush administration’s decision in 2002 to resort to methods that the United States had for decades shunned as illegal. And a new, 6,000-page report on C.I.A. interrogations by the Senate Intelligence Committee, based on a study of some six million pages of agency documents, finds that brutal treatment was not “a central component” in finding Bin Laden, said the committee’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.

But the report, which the committee will decide whether to approve on Thursday, remains classified, with little likelihood that any of it will be public for months. It has already become fodder for a partisan fight, with Republicans denouncing it as flawed and incomplete. Nearly a decade after the C.I.A. is last known to have waterboarded a suspect, the American argument over torture remains unresolved and has lost little of its emotional potency, whether the spark is a blockbuster movie or a Senate report.

According to intelligence officials and the incomplete public record, detainees who endured varying degrees of physical force did tell their interrogators some truths, as well as half-truths and outright lies. What remains unprovable is whether -- as F.B.I. agents with long experience questioning terrorists have argued -- the same or better information might have been obtained without taking the morally and politically treacherous path the C.I.A. chose.

Shane went to the ACLU to bolster his case.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who saw the film Tuesday night, said he was concerned that because the film opens with torture and ends with the killing of Bin Laden, “it may leave a hazy impression that it was cause and effect.”

But he added: “I don’t think it makes a strong case for or against torture. It shows the big breaks came from good, old-fashioned intelligence work.”

Then he blamed America's acceptanace of "torture" on a TV show.

The portrayal of torture in television shows like “24” -- which makes no pretense of reflecting real events -- may already have contributed to a notable shift in American public opinion toward the idea that brutal interrogations are necessary and effective, said Amy B. Zegart, who studies intelligence at Stanford University.

She commissioned a study in August that showed a switch since 2005 in views on the torture of terrorists who might know about new plots. There was a sharp a decline, for instance, in disapproval of waterboarding and of chaining naked prisoners in uncomfortable positions in the cold. The more spy shows people have watched, she said, the more enthusiastic they are about torture.

“I think the evidence is that television is shifting views,” said Ms. Zegart. “Entertainment has an alarming impact.”