As "Zero Dark Thirty" is targeted by some D.C. politicos, what is apparent is that the criticism has its contradiction.
In their letter to Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) deny that the key piece of information that eventually led to Osama bin Laden --- the existence and identity of a courier --- came from "coercive interrogation techniques," aka torture. "No detainee reported on the courier's full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which Usama bin Laden was hidden," they wrote in the letter.
But two days later, acting CIA director Michael Morell issued a statement in which he noted that the film takes "significant artistic license," but he does not say that information gleaned from detainees subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" was of no help in the hunt for Bin Laden. Rather, he writes, "Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, 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's why the letters, reviews and latest Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry seem like a push-pull between lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the CIA, reigniting the debate over torture that is much more powerful when coming from a movie than when coming from a book or magazine article. The filmmakers have stepped into this political minefield, which finds Senate leaders unable to dismiss "Zero Dark Thirty" as just another movie from Hollywood but rather an influential version of history. The Senate investigation will apparently focus on whether CIA operatives told the filmmakers version of events, that torture was effective in at least some cases. Right there, that tells you the push-pull that has been going on between Capitol Hill and the leaders in Langley, Va.
Mark Bowden writes in The Atlantic that the movie is, in a broad sense, "remarkably true." He writes that the letter from Feinstein, McCain and Levin contains some "lawyerly subtlety."
"In the letter, they raise the rather fine point about the timing of Qhatani's mention of 'Ahmed' as proof that torture was not involved, and write that the CIA 'did not first learn' of the courier's existence 'from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.' True. They first heard the name from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested in 2001 at the behest of American authorities and questioned in that country and in Jordan. He says he was tortured. I believe him."
He adds, "I think the moral question arises precisely because torture, or fear, can be an effective tool in interrogation. If we as a nation ban it, we do so despite that fact. We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy."