Senators Call for Investigation Into ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Sources

After complaining that "Zero Dark Thirty" wasn't true, the Senate Intelligence Committee has changed course and now wants to know where the filmmakers got their information

The furor over the depiction of CIA-sponsored torture in "Zero Dark Thirty" continued to heat up Thursday, with three members of the Senate Intelligence Committee demanding that the CIA release details about how techniques like waterboarding and sleep deprivation were used to uncover information that helped lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden. The senators also said they are seeking details about contacts between the film's creative team and the U.S. government.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) released two letters Thursday that they have sent to Acting CIA Director Michael Morell regarding the agency's efforts to aid the filmmakers behind the Oscar-contender and its use of torture.

"The CIA cannot be held accountable for how the Agency and its activities are portrayed in film, but we are nonetheless concerned, given the CIA’s cooperation with the filmmakers and the narrative’s consistency with past public misstatements by former senior CIA officials, that the filmmakers could have been misled by information they were provided by the CIA," a letter from the three senators to Morell, dated Dec. 19, reads.

Also read: Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, Carl Levin Slam 'Zero Dark Thirty' for Torture Scene

However, the senators pressed for more specifics after Morell released a public statement to CIA employees two days later. In that statement, he said "enhanced interrogation techniques" were one of the methods employed to capture the terrorist leader. In a letter dated Dec. 31, Feinstein, McCain and Levin demand more information about what intelligence was gathered from these methods.

"In regards to the Bin Laden operation, what information was acquired from CIA detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques?" the letter reads. "When was this information provided: prior to, during, or after the detainee was subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques? If after, how long after? Please note whether such information corroborated information previously known to the CIA."

Feinstein, McCain and Levin also complained to Sony Pictures that "Zero Dark Thirty" presented a distorted and fictionalized version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Also read: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Steps Into the Line of Fire, Answers Critics

Their remarks came in a scathing letter to Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton that was made public on Dec. 19, the same day the three senators sent their first request for information to the CIA.

"We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie 'Zero Dark Thirty,'" the letter begins. "We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden."

The lawmakers have now changed their tack and want to know who in the CIA and the Pentagon gave information to director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal – a change from "it's untrue" to "who gave them that information?" to "what parts are accurate?" that are unlikely to go unnoticed by the film's defenders. 

The committee is examining records of the contacts between CIA officials and Bigelow and Boal, but it does not plan to contact the filmmakers themselves, according to an individual with knowledge of its workings. Reuters first reported that an investigation would be launched into the agency's cooperation with the filmmakers.

A spokesman for the CIA indicated the agency would cooperate with the investigation.

“As we’ve said before, we take very seriously our responsibility to keep our oversight committees informed and value our relationship with Congress," he said in a statement to TheWrap.

"Zero Dark Thirty" has won a number of critics' awards since its limited release in December, and is considered one of the Oscar frontrunners.

Boal, who spent months speaking to intelligence and government sources while researching the movie, said that he could not comment when contacted by TheWrap.

Sony Pictures spokesman Steve Elzer gave TheWrap the following statement: “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.”

In November, when "Zero Dark Thirty" was in the crosshairs of conservatives rather than liberals, the conservative group Judicial Watch filed a freedom of information request and received hundreds of pages of documents and emails chronicling contacts between the filmmakers and the CIA and Pentagon.

Those documents, some redacted, showed that some in the government were fans of Bigelow's and Boal's previous film, "The Hurt Locker," and were star-struck at the prospect of cooperating with a film that CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf told the Defense Department was "going to be the first and the biggest" of several bin Laden-related film projects.

"I want you to know how good I’ve been not mentioning the premiere tickets. :)," former CIA Director of Public Affairs George Little wrote to Boal at one point.

The Senate committee reportedly obtained those documents at the request of Republican members who were looking for evidence that the CIA or Pentagon shared classified information with the filmmakers. They did not find any such evidence.

Also read: Documents Reveal Pentagon, CIA Help With Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty'

At the Atlantic, former conflict journalist Mark Bowden, who interviewed extensive sources up to and including President Obama for his book "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden," called the film "extraordinarily impressive"  and disputed the charges that it paints torture as being effective.

"No movie can tell a story like this without aggressively condensing characters and events, fictionalizing dialogue, etc.," wrote Bowden, whose 1999 book "Black Hawk Down" was turned into a movie. "Boal's script is just 102 pages: fewer than 10,000 words, the length of a longish magazine article.

"Within these limits the film is remarkably accurate, and certainly well within what we all understand by the Hollywood label, 'based on a true story,' which works as both a boast and a disclaimer."

As for its depiction of enhanced interrogation techniques: "Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America's messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and 'Zero Dark Thirty' is right to portray that fact … The interrogation scenes in the beginning color the entire tale, but they are necessary. They are part of the story. Without them, I suspect some of the same critics now accusing it of being pro-torture would instead be calling 'Zero Dark Thirty' a whitewash."