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‘Zero Dark Thirty’s’ torture implication prompts Senate inquiry

Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty."

WASHINGTON — After complaining for weeks that the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” erroneously implies that torture yielded key information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee now want to know whether CIA personnel deliberately misled the filmmakers on that point.

The committee, headed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will examine documents to ascertain the extent to which CIA officers provided information that led to the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices in the film, a senior committee staffer said Thursday.

Democrats on the committee believe the SonyPictures film wrongly suggests that coercive interrogation was instrumental in tracking down the al-Qaida leader, and they believe the filmmakers got that misimpression from CIA officials, the staffer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

News of the inquiry comes two weeks after acting CIA chief Michael Morell sought to distance his organization from the film, which is increasingly being seized on by lawmakers of both parties and others to further long-standing agendas.

“What I want you to know is that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts,” Morell said in a letter to agency staff on Dec. 21. He acknowledged the CIA had cooperated with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal but said the agency does “not control the final product.”

Morell added that “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 Laden. That impression is false.”

It remained unclear what consequences, if any, CIA officials could suffer from the Senate inquiry. Morell became acting CIA director after David Petraeus resigned in November, and President Barack Obama reportedly is considering naming Morell as the next CIA director.

The post requires Senate confirmation following a hearing before the Intelligence Committee. If Democrats come to believe Morell was involved in offering what they believe is a bogus narrative on interrogations and bin Laden, it could hurt his chances.
The new inquiry by the Democrat-led Senate Intelligence Committee follows calls from Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., for a probe into whether the Obama administration improperly granted the filmmakers extensive access to government sources.

The situation marks a rare case when a movie is both questioned by D.C. officials and used as a way to advance political ideologies. That’s due in part to the fact that, while the movie is a drama, Boal has strongly asserted that he researched the film the way a journalist would research a news story, including talking with CIA sources. The filmmakers have also spoken repeatedly about their attention to the smallest details about the raid that ended in bin Laden’s death.

For now at least, it appears the Senate investigators will not seek to talk directly to the filmmakers. On Thursday, Sony released a statement saying:

“As the studio distributing ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ in the United States, we are proud of this important film. Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal and their creative team have made an extraordinary motion picture and we fully support bringing this remarkable story to the screen.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” opened in New York and Los Angeles just before Christmas and is expanding to about a dozen cities on Friday. The film continues to garner acclaim, landing a top nomination Wednesday from the Producers Guild of America.

It remains to be seen whether the film’s chances to win awards will be hurt by the fact that it has become both a punching bag and a cudgel in Washington.

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