Acting CIA director Michael Morell said that Zero Dark Thirty, the Hollywood take on the US’ hunt for Osama bin Laden, exaggerates the importance of information obtained by harsh interrogations.
The movie by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow tells the story of the decade-long search after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US that climaxed in last year’s dramatic and deadly raid in May on the al-Qaeda leader’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The film shows US personnel using harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding — a method widely seen as torture — to force captives to speak. The information obtained was crucial in piecing together the trail that eventually led to bin Laden, the movie shows.
Not so, Morell said in a message to CIA employees released to reporters on Saturday.
The movie “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,” the message read.
Morell’s message, sent on Friday, states that “multiple streams of intelligence” led CIA analysts to conclude that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad.
He acknowledged that “some” of the information “came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.”
The controversial techniques were banned in 2009 by US President Barack Obama.
“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,” Morell said.
Morell is widely believed to be a top candidate for the job of CIA director after the resignation of the agency’s former director, David Petreaus. Petreaus stepped down last month after admitting to an extra-marital affair with his biographer.
Morell’s message echoes a statement decrying the Zero Dark Thirty interrogation scenes signed by three US senators, including Senator John McCain, himself a prisoner of war and torture victim during the Vietnam War.
In a letter to the head of Sony Pictures, McCain and Democratic senators Diane Feinstein and Carl Levin wrote that the movie “clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective” in obtaining information that would lead to bin Laden.
“We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect,” the senators wrote. “We believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for [bin Laden] is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.”
However, two CIA officials on active duty when suspects were tortured disputed those assertions.
Jose Rodriguez, who oversaw the CIA’s counterterrorism operations when “harsh interrogation” methods were in use, wrote in the Washington Post in April that the path leading to bin Laden “started in a CIA black site ... and stemmed from information obtained from hardened terrorists who agreed to tell us some [but not all] of what they knew after undergoing harsh, but legal, interrogation methods.”
Former CIA director Michael Hayden wrote in the Wall Street Journal in June last year that a “crucial component” of information that eventually led to bin Laden came from three CIA prisoners, “all of whom had been subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation.”
Hayden claimed that he learned the information in 2007 when he was first briefed about pursuing bin Laden through his courier network.
However, Morell emphasized that the film “takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.”
“What I want you to know is that Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts,” he said.