The CIA Is Not Too Happy with 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Acting CIA director Michael Morell is not happy -- not one bit happy -- with how the CIA was ultimately portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, that new movie getting all the buzz about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. 

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Acting CIA director Michael Morell is not happy -- not one bit happy -- with how the CIA was ultimately portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, that new movie getting all the buzz about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

"I would not normally comment on a Hollywood film," Morell starts, "but I think it important to put Zero Dark Thirty, which deals with one of the most significant achievements in our history, into some context." Morell published a company-wide memo to the CIA's website late Friday evening, which is pretty unusual in and of itself. But Morell felt he needed to weigh in on the many controversies surrounding the movie, including the weird reports over the gender of the movie's main character and that whole icky bit about torture. "But in doing so, the film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate."

He goes on to clarify the movie is "a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts," and that the CIA, despite helping a little with the production, does "not control the final product."

His three main complaints about Zero Dark are:

First, the hunt for Usama Bin Ladin was a decade-long effort that depended on the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers.  The filmmakers attributed the actions of our entire Agency—and the broader Intelligence Community—to just a few individuals.  This may make for more compelling entertainment, but it does not reflect the facts.  The success of the May 1st 2011 operation was a team effort—and a very large team at that.

Second, 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.  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.

Third, 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.

The most important complaint, obviously, is the bit about "enhanced interrogation techniques," a.k.a. torture. Just a few days ago, the curious combination of Diane Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin sent a letter to Sony Pictures requesting a disclaimer be played before the film. The Washington Post also astutely points out a Senate committee recently approved a report that said "water-boarding and other brutal CIA interrogation methods did not produce meaningful results," in the hunt for Bin Laden. All in all, things don't look good for the Zero Dark writers and producers.

To hear them tell it, they're just trying to condense years of interrogations and intelligence gathering into a watchable movie. Mark Boal, Zero Dark's screenwriter, defended the movie to The New York Times:

“I’m trying to compress a program that lasted for years into a few short scenes,” he said. The film, he said, attempts “to reflect a very complex debate about torture that is still going on” and shows brutal treatment producing both true and false information.

Like the debate about torture, we suspect the debate over Zero Dark's depiction of torture will never, ever come to an end.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.