By JONATHAN GURWITZ
New York Times News Service
The nationwide premier of “Zero Dark Thirty” didn’t occur until Jan. 11. But that didn’t stop an unusual group of critics from giving the movie a unanimous thumbs-down weeks ago — and for the most unusual reasons.
“I thought it was terrible,” one commentator told The Hill after a pre-screening in mid-December. “It is a combination of fact, fiction and Hollywood in a very dangerous combination.”
The critic was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. No word yet on whether the senator considers movies such as “Fahrenheit 9/11”, “W.”, “Frost/Nixon” or “Game Change” to be equally dangerous.
Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., joined Feinstein in seeking to protect the American public from this particular motion picture peril. On Dec. 19, they sent a letter to acting CIA Director Michael Morell requesting “information and documents related to the CIA’s cooperation with the makers of the film.”
The bipartisan group said they were motivated by concern over the film’s implication that “coercive interrogation techniques” played a critical role in locating bin Laden. They know that isn’t true, they wrote, because Feinstein and Levin read it in a study presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
On the same day, Siskel and Ebert … make that Feinstein, Levin and McCain … sent a not-so-subtle letter to the chairman of Sony Pictures, the movie’s distributor. “You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right,” they wrote while acknowledging the film is fiction. “Please consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Osama bin Laden.”
Setting aside the issue of chilling effects, it’s a matter of orthodoxy among some people that “coercive interrogation techniques” never provide accurate information and that, even if they did, intelligence ends never justify torturous means. That dogma rests on the assumption that CIA officers are modern-day Torquemadas.
Jose A. Rodriguez, a 31-year CIA veteran who headed the agency’s clandestine operations and was intimately involved in what he calls its “enhanced interrogation” program, has a different criticism. Contrary to the movie’s depiction, the techniques employed by the CIA are to thumbscrews what open-heart surgery is to bloodletting.
“I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture,” Rodriguez wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised.”
Morell, the acting CIA director, has a more nuanced view. “The truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad,” he wrote in a Dec. 21 message to CIA employees. “Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques.”
Amid all the murky assertions of truth and falsehood, one thing is clear: In the fight against terrorists determined to inflict massive civilian casualties, those who claim to know with absolute certainty what should or should not be done, what they would or would not do in a position of responsibility are deluding the public and themselves.
Morell gets to the heart of the dilemma faced by members of a civilized society when confronted by enemies bent on their destruction: “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.”
That discerning statement earned Morell another threatening letter from the D.C. trio demanding to know what role the CIA played in helping shape a morally ambiguous movie about a morally ambiguous subject.