Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Senior senators slam 'Zero Dark Thirty' torture scenes

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
December 22, 2012 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
In the new film
In the new film "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain plays a CIA analyst who is part of the team hunting Osama bin Laden.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sens. Feinstein, McCain, Levin send letter calling new film "grossly inaccurate"
  • Letter adds to controversy over depiction of torture as a key to finding bin Laden, Bergen says
  • Senate committee has approved 6,000-page classified report on CIA interrogations program
  • Bergen says as much as possible of that report should be released to the public

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst and author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, three senior U.S. senators sent Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, a letter about "Zero Dark Thirty," the much-discussed new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which described the film as "grossly inaccurate and misleading."

In the letter, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, expressed their "deep disappointment" in the movie's depiction of CIA officers torturing prisoners, which "credits these detainees with providing critical lead information" about the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden's hiding place in northern Pakistan.

The senators point out that the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty" open the movie with the words that it is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events." The film then goes on, the senators say, to give the clear implication "that the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden."

Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' is utterly gripping

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

The senators write that this is not supported by the facts: "We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect."

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to sign off on the findings of its three-year study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program, during the course of which the committee's staff reviewed more than 6 million pages of records about the program.

Based on the findings of that review, Sens. Feinstein and Levin had released a statement eight months ago that said, "The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Usama 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. ... 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."

In their letter to Sony, the three senators write, "(W)ith the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. ... We believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts."

Requests from Sony Pictures for comment on the senators' letter yielded a response referring to a statement that the film's director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had released last week:

"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."

'Zero Dark Thirty' puts U.S. interrogation back in the spotlight

'Zero Dark Thirty' torture controversy
Political uproar over 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Bin Laden film sparks debate
Kathryn Bigelow talks 'Zero Dark Thirty'

"Zero Dark Thirty" does indeed show many scenes of the various forms of sleuthing at the CIA that were necessary to track down al Qaeda's leader.

But the statement from the filmmakers does not address the fact that eight months ago, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee had publicly said that based on an exhaustive investigation, there was no evidence that coercive interrogations helped lead to bin Laden's courier -- which is clearly what the film suggests, no matter what retrospective gloss the filmmakers now wish to apply to the issue.

Nor does the statement indicate if Sony plans to put a disclaimer at the beginning of "Zero Dark Thirty" explaining that the role of coercive interrogations in tracking down bin Laden that is shown in the film is not supported by the facts.

As I outlined in a piece on CNN.com 10 days ago assessing the role that coercive interrogations might have played in the hunt for bin Laden, about half an hour of the start of "Zero Dark Thirty" consists of scenes of a bloodied al Qaeda detainee strung to the ceiling with ropes who is beaten; forced to wear a dog collar while crawling around attached to a leash; stripped naked in the presence of a female CIA officer; blasted with heavy metal music so he is deprived of sleep; forced to endure multiple crude waterboardings; and locked into a coffin-like wooden crate.

These are the scenes that will linger with filmgoers, far more than the scene in the movie where two CIA analysts discuss what will prove to be a key lead to bin Laden that surfaces in an old file. Brutal interrogations, of course, make for a better movie than a discussion at the office.

It is only after systematic abuse by his CIA interrogators in "Zero Dark Thirty" that the al Qaeda detainee is tricked into believing that he has already given up key information, and he starts cooperating and tells them about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who ultimately proves to be bin Laden's courier.

Acting CIA director Michael Morell, in a letter to CIA employees on Friday, took strong exception to this portrayal of how bin Laden was found:

"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. "

"Zero Dark Thirty" opened Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles and will open nationwide in the second week in January.

Let's hope that the attention that "Zero Dark Thirty" has directed to the issue of what kind of intelligence was derived from the CIA's coercive interrogations will help to put pressure on the White House and the CIA to release to the public as much as possible of the presently classified 6,000-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that examines this issue.

_____________

Full disclosure: Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of "Zero Dark Thirty." We advised that al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Screenwriter Mark Boal told CNN as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were "toned down" in the final cut. I also saw this final cut of the film. Finally, HBO is making a theatrical release documentary which will be out in 2013 based on my book about the hunt for bin Laden entitled "Manhunt."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT