CIA director wades into controversy over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty."
(Columbia Pictures)

In unusual move, the acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, has stepped into the controversy over the accuracy of the new film “Zero Dark Thirty.”

A bipartisan trio of senators -- John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin -- have complained in recent days that the movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, leaves viewers with the impression that torture of detainees was key to leading the CIA to track down and kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.


“You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. That’s not the case,” McCain said Thursday on CNN.

DOCUMENT: Feinstein, McCain, Levin Statement on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Morell’s take on the film’s presentation of torture’s effectiveness, and how that squares with reality, matches the senators’ -- to a point. In a letter addressed to CIA employees and posted Friday on the agency’s website, he wrote:

“The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.”


Morell added, though, that it was impossible to know whether the same information could have been gathered without “enhanced interrogation” techniques:

“Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved,” he wrote.


Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have said that their film “shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes.”

Morell took issue with other aspects of the film, which Bigelow and Boal researched thoroughly with government officials and others with first-hand knowledge of the raid.


Morell said “the film takes considerable liberties in its depiction of CIA personnel and their actions, including some who died while serving our country. We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory of them.” Morell did not go into more specifics on that point, but part of the film focuses on an event at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan in 2009 in which seven CIA operatives were killed in a suicide bombing.

Morell noted that he would “not normally comment on a Hollywood film” but said he thought it was important “to put ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ which deals with one of the most significant achievements in our history, into some context. ...The film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.”


He added: “What I want you to know is that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.”

He finished by saying that “I want you to remember that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not a documentary.”



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