Senators Call 'Zero Dark Thirty' 'Grossly Inaccurate' in Letter to Sony Pictures

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain Soldiers - H 2012

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain Soldiers - H 2012

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other say the film's depiction of torture is "factually inaccurate," urging Sony to add a disclaimer to the movie.

A bipartisan group of senior U.S. Senators who have seen the new film Zero Dark Thirty sent a letter Wednesday to the movie’s distributor, Sony Pictures, calling the picture "grossly inaccurate and misleading" for suggesting that intelligence obtained through torture played a role in locating Osama bin Laden.

The movie, a reconstruction by director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal of the decade-long pursuit and killing of the al-Qaida kingpin by the CIA and U.S. Navy SEALs, already has received critical acclaim from the New York Film Critics Circle and others and is widely viewed as an Oscar contender. 

The film begins with an extended depiction of American interrogators waterboarding an accused terrorist, and many have argued that the film suggests that intelligence gleaned from that session and others produced information that led U.S. operatives to an al-Qaida courier who ultimately provided the location of bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has seen Zero Dark Thirty, calls that suggestion entirely false. She and the other Senators urge Sony, which is releasing the film, to add a disclaimer on the film.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have 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,” reads the letter, addressed to Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton.

Bigelow and Boal have said in a statement that their film is not political and does not take a position on whether torture led to the location and killing of bin Laden:

"This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a two-and-a-half-hour film. We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The 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. One thing is clear: The single greatest factor in finding the world's most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort. We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it."

Feinstein was joined in the letter by Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Senate Armed Service Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.).

McCain, a former GOP presidential candidate who was tortured by the North Vietnamese while held as a prisoner of war, told the Associated Press that he was “sickened” by the movie. McCain said the filmmakers had fallen for false claims by apologists for torture.

Feinstein, Levin and McCain all told The Hill that torture—euphemistically labeled by its defenders as “enhanced interrogation” — played no role whatsoever in leading the CIA to bin Laden, an assertion they forcefully repeated in their letter to the studio.

“We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie Zero Dark Thirty,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden.

The letter continues:

“We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words ‘based on first-hand accounts of actual events’ and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to 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. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect. Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have 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.”

In the letter, the three senior lawmakers cite a recently approved 6,000-page classified report on interrogation tactics by the Senate Intelligence Committee that they say found waterboarding and other techniques regarded as torture by the international community produced no actionable intelligence. The exhaustive report required three years to complete and was approved by the committee on a 9-6 vote.

The senators write:

“The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Osama bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier's identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which Osama bin Laden was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program ...

“The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques."

The lawmakers also cite a letter to McCain from then-CIA Director Leon Panetta categorically stating that "… no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means."

Feinstein, McCain and Levin conclude the letter to Sony by saying:

“We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role that movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner. 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 ...

“(W)ith the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right ..."