CIA: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ not a realistic portrayal of hunt for Osama bin Laden

The CIA says scenes of torture in the new film 'Zero Dark Thirty' are not an accurate portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. This follows similar criticism from three senior US senators who say the film is 'grossly inaccurate and misleading'.

Sony-Columbia Pictures/AP
This film image released by Columbia Pictures shows a scene from "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The film has been criticized for its scenes of torture.

In an unusual letter to CIA employees, the agency’s acting director Michael Morrell says the controversial Hollywood film “Zero Dark Thirty” takes “significant artistic license” with the years-long hunt that led to Navy SEALs killing terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and is “not a realistic portrayal of the facts.”

It’s not the first official complaint about the movie.

Earlier in the week, three senior US senators – Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, fellow Democrat Carl Levin, and Republican John McCain – sent a letter to Michael Lynton, chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, in which they expressed their “deep disappointment” with the film for its “grossly inaccurate and misleading … suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden.”

“Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Osama bin Laden,” the senators wrote. “We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.”

“The fundamental problem,” they continue, “is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts…. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.”

No one know this better than Senator McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent years as a POW in North Vietnam, where he was subjected to brutal torture used to elicit false confessions.

'Zero Dark Thirty': top 3 controversies surrounding the Osama bin Laden film

In his letter to CIA employees, acting director Mr. Morrell (who took over from disgraced director David Petraeus), does not say that waterboarding and other forms of what the agency calls “enhanced interrogation” did not occur during the hunt for Mr. bin Laden.

He acknowledges that such methods, which critics say amount to torture, were part of the agency’s “former detention and interrogation program.” (In “Zero Dark Thirty,” these are graphically shown as waterboarding, being hung from a ceiling, beatings, sleep deprivation, and being locked in a coffin-like box.)

But Morrell takes issue with the film’s portrayal of prisoner abuse and the role it played in the bin Laden mission.

“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,” Morrell writes. “As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some 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.”

Earlier this month, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted 9 to 6 to approve a classified report highly critical of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

“I strongly believe that the creation of long-term, clandestine ‘black sites’ and the use of so-called ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’ were terrible mistakes,” committee chairman Feinstein said regarding the report. “The majority of the Committee agrees.”

Based on their view that this element of “Zero Dark Thirty” is “grossly inaccurate and misleading,” Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain say Sony Pictures Entertainment has “an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film's fictional narrative."

'Zero Dark Thirty': top 3 controversies surrounding the Osama bin Laden film

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