WASHINGTON – Acting CIA Director Michael Morell said that “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Hollywood take on the 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 Sept. 11, 2001, that climaxed in last year’s dramatic and deadly raid in May on the al-Qaida terrorist leader’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The film shows U.S. personnel using harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding — a method widely seen as torture — to force captives to speak. The information obtained was crucial, according to the movie, in piecing together the trail that eventually led to bin Laden. Not so, Morell said in a message to Central Intelligence Agency employees released 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.”
Morell’s message 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.”
Morell said that “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 is widely believed to be a top candidate for the job of CIA director after the resignation of David Petraeus.
Morell’s message, first reported by The New York Times, echoes a statement decrying the “Zero Dark Thirty” interrogation scenes signed by three senators, including Republican John McCain.
In a letter to the head of Sony Pictures, McCain — the 2008 Republican presidential candidate — and Democratic Sens. 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.
However, two CIA officials active 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.”
And former CIA Director Michael Hayden wrote in The Wall Street Journal in June 2011 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.”
But Morell emphasized the film, a likely Oscar contender, “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.