‘Zero Dark Thirty’ waterboarding depictions not accurate, senators say

Who exactly is the CIA operative behind the main character in “Zero Dark Thirty,” a new film chronicling the hunt for Osama bin Laden? Greg Miller stops by to break down what we know about her. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Depictions of waterboarding in a new movie about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden are “grossly inaccurate and misleading” and the film’s producers should make clear to viewers that the production is a dramatization of actual events, three senior senators said late Wednesday.

The movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” which was released in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, dramatically depicts efforts over the past decade to capture and kill the al-Qaeda leader. Producers describe the film as “an exciting hybrid” of investigative reporting and drama that takes dramatic license in chronicling the 10-year hunt.

But senior senators who received advance copies of the movie this week have reacted angrily, saying that the movie may lead viewers to believe inaccurately that coercive CIA interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, led to the eventual death of bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader was killed in a surprise raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

In a strongly worded letter, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that the film’s producers should make clear that depictions of torture are “not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.”

“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 Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect,” the senators wrote.

McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and opposes waterboarding, has argued before that harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA on senior al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed did not yield information that helped locate bin Laden. In their letter, the senators cited unclassified information about the bin Laden raid, including evidence that the CIA first learned of the existence of bin Laden’s courier “through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.”

The senators also noted that the CIA detainee who provided the initial tips about bin Laden’s courier did so before being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.

The letter was addressed to Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. A Sony spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The film, by the Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, has been nominated for Golden Globe awards. It will be released in Washington on Jan. 11.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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