A new Frontline investigation explores the CIA’s unprecedented counterterrorism activities and its efforts to persuade Congress about the credibility of its “enhanced interrogation” techniques. The documentary, titled “Secrets, Politics and Torture” outlines the Agency’s efforts in the months after 9/11 to gain political and legal legitimacy to expand its torture program. The film also discusses the CIA’s influence over the depiction of its practices in the Hollywood movie, Zero Dark Thirty, which was released in 2012.
Recent reporting by preeminent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, has also reinvigorated debate about the assassination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and opened the door for others with alternative narratives about this event to come forward.
Published by the London Review of Books earlier this month, Hersh’s article argues that the United States acted with the cooperation of top Pakistani officials, had initially intended to claim bin Laden’s death was a result of a successful drone strike, and manufactured the story about bin Laden’s burial at sea.
In particular, Hersh claims a Pakistani military defector provided initial intelligence about bin Laden’s location at a compound in Abbatobad, Pakistan. The U.S. government and CIA have long insisted intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts came from one of his couriers, who divulged the information during a CIA interrogation.
To help drive this point home, the Agency reached out to filmmakers Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal in 2011 to help shape Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of the operation that killed the al Qaeda leader. According to e-mails obtained by Judicial Watch, the CIA cooperated with Bigelow and Boal’s project, for self-serving reasons. “I know we don’t pick favorites,” a CIA spokeswoman wrote, but “Mark and Kathryn’s movie is going to be the first and the biggest [Hollywood project depicting the bin Laden killing].” Bigelow and Boal had won Academy Awards for their 2008 war film The Hurt Locker, which detailed the experience of a U.S. bomb disposal team in Iraq.
Thanks to the CIA’s involvement in the production, Bigelow and Boal had access to an unprecedented array of classified information. “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,” Washington Post reporter Greg Miller told Frontline.
At Zero Dark Thirty’s outset, the audience is told the film is “based on first hand accounts of actual events.” From the start, however, the story’s accuracy was contested. “The movie left the American people with the impression that torture worked, and that without it, we would never have been able to trace the trail back to Abbattobad and find bin Laden,” Richard Clarke, former member of the National Security Council, told Frontline.
“Movies like Zero Dark Thirty have a huge impact. More people see them and more people get their impressions about what happened from a movie like that than they do from countless news stories or TV spots,” veteran journalist Michael Isikoff warned.
“I walked out of Zero Dark Thirty,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told Frontline, “Because it’s so false.”
As Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (2009-2015), Feinstein led a large-scale investigation into the ineffectiveness of the CIA’s interrogation methods. According to the documentary, the committee combed through six million classified CIA documents to produce a 6,000-page report – of which only a 525-page executive summary was released last December.
“The real report has not been declassified and the real report is chapter and verse of what happened,” Feinstein told Frontline.