‘Zero Dark Thirty’s’ torture implication prompts Senate inquiry

Jessica Chastain plays a CIA agent in "Zero Dark Thirty."
(Jonathan Olley, Columbia Pictures)

WASHINGTON — After complaining for weeks that the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” erroneously implies that torture yielded key information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a trio of senior senators now want to know whether CIA personnel deliberately misled the filmmakers on that point.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said Thursday that they had sent two letters to acting CIA chief Michael Morell. In the first, dated Dec. 19, they requested information about what the CIA told the filmmakers. In the second, dated Monday, they asked Morell to clarify a statement he issued on Dec. 21 about the movie and its portrayal of torture.

The senators believe the Sony Pictures film wrongly suggests coercive interrogation was instrumental in tracking down the Al Qaeda leader, and they believe the filmmakers got that misimpression from CIA officials.

DOCUMENTS: Senate response to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ — First letter | Second Letter


“Given the CIA’s cooperation with the filmmakers … and the narrative’s consistency with past public misstatements by former senior CIA officials … the filmmakers could have been misled by information they were provided by CIA,” the senators said in a statement Thursday. They requested “all information and documents provided to the filmmakers by CIA officials.”

News of the senators’ requests comes two weeks after Morell sought to distance his agency a bit from the film, which is increasingly being seized on by lawmakers of both parties and others to further long-standing agendas.

“What I want you to know is that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts,” Morell said in his letter to agency staff. He acknowledged the CIA had cooperated with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal but said the agency does “not control the final product.”


Morell added that “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 Laden. That impression is false.”

Yet he added: “Some [information] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, 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.”

In their Monday letter to Morell, the senators took issue with that aspect of his statement, warning him that his letter was “potentially inconsistent” with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and challenging him to “provide specific examples of information that was obtained in a ‘timely and effective’ way from CIA detainees subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Morell became acting CIA director after David Petraeus resigned in November, and President Obama reportedly is considering naming Morell as the next CIA director.


The post requires Senate confirmation following a hearing before the Intelligence Committee. If Democrats come to believe Morell was involved in offering what they believe is a bogus narrative on interrogations and Bin Laden, it could hurt his chances.

The new inquiry by the Democrat-led Senate Intelligence Committee follows calls from Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) for a probe into whether the Obama administration improperly granted the filmmakers extensive access to government sources.

All parties agree that CIA personnel spoke with Boal as he was researching the film; Morell and the head of the counterterrorism unit are among those he’s believed to have communicated with.

The situation marks a rare case when a movie is both questioned by D.C. officials and used as a way to advance political ideologies. That’s due in part to the fact that, while the movie is a drama, Boal has strongly asserted that he researched the film the way a journalist would research a news story, including talking with CIA sources. The filmmakers have also spoken repeatedly about their attention to the smallest details about the raid that ended in Bin Laden’s death.


For now at least, it appears the Senate investigators will not seek to talk directly to the filmmakers. On Thursday, Sony released a statement saying:

“As the studio distributing ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ in the United States, we are proud of this important film. Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal and their creative team have made an extraordinary motion picture and we fully support bringing this remarkable story to the screen.”



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