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Senate panel to examine CIA contacts with "Zero Dark Thirty" filmmakers

Screenwriter Mark Boal and Director Kathryn Bigelow pose for photos for their new film 'Zero Dark Thirty' in New York December 4, 2012. REUT
Screenwriter Mark Boal and Director Kathryn Bigelow pose for photos for their new film 'Zero Dark Thirty' in New York December 4, 2012. REUT

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After the Senate Intelligence Committee's chairwoman expressed outrage over scenes that imply "enhanced interrogations" of CIA detainees produced a breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the panel has begun a review of contacts between the makers of the film "Zero Dark Thirty" and CIA officials.

In the latest controversy surrounding the film, Reuters has learned that the committee will examine records charting contacts between intelligence officials and the film's director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.

Investigators will examine whether the spy agency gave the filmmakers "inappropriate" access to secret material, said a person familiar with the matter. They will also probe whether CIA personnel are responsible for the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices, and in particular the suggestion that they were effective, the person said.

The intelligence committee's Democrats contend that is factually incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatized account of the hunt for al Qaeda leader bin Laden and the May 2011 U.S. Navy SEAL raid in which he was killed. Government e-mails and memoranda released to the conservative group Judicial Watch show that both the CIA and Pentagon gave the filmmakers extensive access.

But the film has also produced a series of awkward political headaches for President Barack Obama. Early on, Obama's Republican critics suggested it was a gimmick to boost his re-election campaign. But now, some of Obama's liberal supporters are attacking the film and officials who cooperated with its creators for allegedly promoting the effectiveness of torture.

The CIA had no comment on the latest congressional inquiry regarding the film.

One of the intelligence officials whom the documents show as having met with the filmmakers is Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director at the time and now the agency's acting chief.

Current and former national security officials have said Morell, a highly regarded agency veteran, is a favorite to succeed retired Gen. David Petraeus as the agency's director.

CLOUD OVER MORELL?

But some of the same officials now say the controversy over the film's content has cast a cloud over Morell's prospects.

Last month, Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein joined Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and former Republican Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in sharply condemning what they described as "particularly graphic scenes of CIA officers torturing detainees" in Zero Dark Thirty.

The film has been screened in New York and Los Angeles but does not premiere nationwide until January 11.

In a December 19 letter to the chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produced the film, the senators alleged it was "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location" of bin Laden.

The three senators claim Zero Dark Thirty "clearly implies that the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier" for bin Laden, who would unknowingly lead the agency to his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The senators assert, however, that their own review of CIA records proves that the story told in the film is "incorrect" and "the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program."

Sony, in response, released a statement from Bigelow and Boal, which said in part: "We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden.

"The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes."

Boal said in an email that he was unaware of the Senate committee's interest and had had no contact with the panel.

The person familiar with the committee's plan to review administration dealings with the filmmakers said initially this would involve reviewing uncensored copies of CIA records regarding the film. The committee presently does not plan to contact the filmmakers directly, the source said.

A 'DRAMATIZATION'

Last year, the CIA and Pentagon, in response to a freedom of information request from Judicial Watch, released hundreds of pages of internal documents discussing the agencies' arrangements for dealing with Bigelow and Boal.

The documents, many heavily redacted, show that top CIA and Pentagon officials, including Morell and Michael Vickers, now the Pentagon's intelligence chief, talked to the filmmakers.

One Pentagon email exchange with Ben Rhodes, a senior White House national security aide, said Boal had been briefed by CIA officials "with the full knowledge and full approval/support" of Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then Secretary of Defense while the film was being prepared.

A second person familiar with the matter said the committee had acquired copies of the CIA records last year.

The committee originally obtained the uncensored records at the request of Republicans, who were looking for evidence that intelligence or Pentagon personnel inappropriately shared classified information with the filmmakers, this source said.

Other Congressional Republicans, most notably Representative Peter King, outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, complained loudly about dealings between the Obama administration and the filmmakers following reports it would be released shortly before the 2012 Presidential election. Ultimately, the film was not released until after the election.

Two days after the Senators made public their letter to Sony, the CIA released a statement by Morell, who said that Zero Dark Thirty was a "dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts," and that while the agency had "interacted" with the filmmakers, it did not "control the final product."

Morell's statement was equivocal on whether "enhanced interrogations" had produced information critical to finding bin Laden.

"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," Morell added.

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Todd Eastham)

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