Justifying Torture

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Was Filled With CIA Lies

A new documentary from Frontline doesn’t want to let the CIA off the hook for providing a false narrative to an Oscar-winning blockbuster and presenting it as a true story.

05.19.15 4:41 PM ET

In the days leading up to the nationwide release of Zero Dark Thirty, the 2012 blockbuster movie about the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Senator Dianne Feinstein was given an advanced screening. How did the then-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose investigators were working on their own story about the hunt for bin Laden and the role that torture may have played, react to Hollywood’s depiction?

“I walked out of Zero Dark Thirty, candidly,” Feinstein says. “We were having a showing and I got into it about 15, 20 minutes and left. I couldn’t handle it. Because it’s so false.”

False, in Feinstein’s estimation, because she says the film inaccurately portrays torture as a key tool in obtaining information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. Feinstein recounts her revulsion in a new documentary from Frontline, airing Tuesday night on PBS, about the CIA’s torture program and whether brutal interrogations of detainees helped surface intelligence that led to bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, where U.S. special operations forces killed him in 2011.

The documentary portrays the Kathryn Bigelow movie, which purports to be a definitive account, as a skewed view that was heavily influenced by the CIA and its press office. The agency had given the filmmakers extraordinary access to classified details about the operation that they didn’t otherwise hand out to journalists.  

“A lot of other people who covered the beat like I did in that search for bin Laden—we didn’t get close to that kind of cooperation from the agency on telling the inside story,” veteran Washington Post intelligence reporter Greg Miller told Frontline.

The documentary is short on news and revelations. But it concisely lays out the the dueling narratives between the CIA’s version of its so-called “rendition, detention, and interrogation” program, and the Senate Intelligence Commitee’s years-long investigation of the same. The committee’s findings conclude that the agency tortured detainees and failed to come up with useful intelligence about terrorist attacks. If you haven’t been following the minutiae of this now-decade-long controversy, the documentary will bring you up to speed.

Investigative journalist Michael Isikoff told Frontline that many more people will see Zero Dark Thirty than will read the countless newspaper articles about the CIA’s interrogation techniques. The movie, he thinks, will stand as the dominant narrative for what really happened in the search for bin Laden.

The Frontline producers seem conscious of that fact, and perhaps in the hopes that more people will watch a TV piece about the CIA program than read about it, they set out to poke holes in Langley’s version of events—and in Hollywood’s.

If there’s a central narrator to the piece, it’s former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, who seems less interested in defending his former employer than in settling a few scores. While Rizzo has told many of these stories already in his memoir, there are a few dramatic scenes—notably around a senior CIA official’s decision to destroy videotapes that interrogators had shot, illustrating the agency’s brutal work.

Rizzo recounts his reaction in 2005, upon receiving a cable from an overseas “black site” where prisoners were tortured, informing him that “pursuant to headquarters directions, the videotapes have been destroyed.”

Rizzo says that “after 25 years at [the] CIA, I didn’t think too much could flabbergast me, but reading that cable did.”

Two years later, The New York Times broke the story that the agency had destroyed the footage. Rizzo says he immediately feared a “nightmare scenario” for the CIA if Congress suspected that the agency had tried to cover up the destruction. But he remembered that Porter Goss, the ex-CIA director and longtime congressman, had agreed back in 2005 to notify the heads of the congressional intelligence committees about what had happened.

Rizzo says he called Goss, who by then had left the CIA, and reminded him how they’d “divided up responsibility,” with Rizzo agreeing to tell the White House and Goss calling the Hill.  

“I’ll never forget this,” Rizzo told Frontline. “There was a pause on the other end of the line, and Porter said, responded, ‘Well, actually, actually, I don’t think I ever really told the heads of the Intelligence Committee.’ The words he used was, ‘There just didn’t seem to be the right time to do it.’”

Ultimately, the documentary tells a story not so much of a full-fledged coverup, but of a series of obfuscations and spin jobs by various elements of the CIA. It was all in an effort to put the torture program in the best possible light and keep embarrassing facts out of the public eye.  

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That’s not a new story either, and one could be forgiven for watching the hour-long documentary and wondering, “What was the point of making it?”

The filmmakers answer that question in a parting shot from Times reporter Peter Baker, who correctly notes that there will probably be no more official investigations of the torture program, no further legal consequences for those involved, and no policy debate, since the torture program was shut down years ago.

“The fight right now is for history,” Baker says. “Why did it happen? Was it the right thing? Was it the wrong thing? And how should we look at it in generations to come?”

On those questions, Zero Dark Thirty won’t be the last word.