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Declassified Memo Shows ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Filmmakers Played Role of Willing Propagandists for CIA

“Zero Dark Thirty” movie poster (Photo courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons)

Filmmakers behind the Oscar-nominated film, Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatized the hunt for Osama bin Laden that ended in his execution, were known to have communicated with the CIA multiple times during production. Now, according to a declassified memo obtained by Gawker, it appears the CIA successfully convinced screenwriter Mark Boal to censor and rewrite certain scenes in the film that the CIA did not think presented the agency appropriately .

The memo opens by noting that conference calls took place on October 26, November 1, November 18, one other day in November and December 5 in 2011, where “Mark Boal verbally shared the screenplay for the Kathryn Bigelow-directed Bin Ladin movie with [Office of Public Affairs] officers.”

“From an Agency perspective,” the memo reads, “the purpose for these discussions was for OPA officers to help promote an appropriate portrayal of the Agency and the Bin Ladin operation. Boal noted early on that, while it is known that he conducted research for his screenplay from a variety of sources, the characters and storylines are heavily fictionalized while based on true events.”

The memo indicates that the public affairs officers advised Boal to edit an interrogation scene with a character “modeled after Ammar al-Baluchi”:

The main character/targeter/substantive debriefer Maya is introduced and an ops officer/interrogator named Ted Stanton participate in the interrogation. For this scene, we emphasized that substantive debriefers did not administer EITs, because in this scene he had a non-interrogator, substantive debriefer assisting in a dosing technique. [REDACTED] Boal said he would fix this. [emphasis added]

Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, was going to be actively involved in torturing a detainee. The CIA objected and Boal ultimately rewrote the scene.

Another interrogation scene involved the use of a dog to which we raised an objection that such tactics would not be used by the Agency. Boal confirmed in January that the use of dogs was taken out of the screenplay.

Rafiq al-Hami, a Tunisian national, was arrested in Iran in November 2001. According to the Open Society Foundation’s report, “Globalizing Torture,” when he was held in “three CIA ‘dark sites in Afghanistan,” he was “stripped naked, threatened with dogs, shackled in painful “stress” positions for hours, punched, kicked and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.”

Al-Hami’s case is a known instance. There must be multiple unknown instances, where detainees were threatened by dogs. So, it would not have been terribly far-fetched to have dogs appear in an interrogation scene. Yet, Boal took it out in deference to the CIA.

Overall, the interrogation scenes in the film of Hassan Ghul and Abu Faraj will likely include EITs that are already in the public domain from the DOJ/Office of Legal Counsel memos.

This indicates the officers were also making sure techniques or instances of torture that had not been declassified were not being depicted the film. If one had been found, the officers would have likely asked Boal to take it out because it was not publicly known that technique had been used—regardless of whether it was illegal or inhumane.

Also, evidently, Boal wrote a fictional scene where Agency officers were socializing that the officers found objectionable:

…One scene early in the film that was objected to was a rooftop party in Islamabad where an officer, after drinking fires a celebratory burst of AK-47 gunfire into the air. We insisted mixing drinking and firearms is a major violation and actions like this do not happen in real life. We requested this be taken out of the film. Boal confirmed he took this out of the film… [emphasis added]

The CIA did not want the public getting the wrong idea that agents sometimes behave like proud, unsophisticated warrior-like Americans. Audiences would never have thought once about how bad it looked to mix drinking and weapons. But, again, Boal complied.

Officers took exception to a “cinematic device” Boal was using, where May conducted research through “reviewing film of detainee interviews.” Multiple videos were analyzed as she looked for clues. The problem the officers had was that “detainee sessions were not videotaped and used for research and analysis.” Boal understood but “visually” it was the “only way to show research in an interesting cinematic way.” Since it was just factually inaccurate and did not make the CIA look bad, the officers “did not request Boal take this scene out of the movie.” [The CIA is known to have recorded some interrogations that included waterboardings, but tapes were destroyed by pro-torture advocate and head of the clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez.]

CIA Director of Public Affairs: “I Can’t Tell You How Excited We All Are” 

It had already been revealed that the CIA saw the film as a great opportunity for the agency. Judicial Watch obtained documents showing an e-mail exchange on June 7, 2011, where “CIA spokesperson Marie E. Harf openly discussed providing preferential treatment to the Boal/Bigelow project over others related to the bin Laden killing.” He wrote, “I know we don’t pick favorites but it makes sense to get behind a winning horse…Mark and Kathryn’s movie is going to be the first and the biggest. It’s got the most money behind it, and two Oscar winners on board.”

On July 20, 2011, in an e-mail, Boal thanked then-CIA Director of Public Affairs George Little for “pulling for him” inside the agency. It made “all the difference.” Little responded, “…I can’t tell you how excited we all are (at DOD and CIA) about the project…PS – I want you to know how good I’ve been not mentioning the premiere tickets [smiley face].”

“Boal has been working with us and with the CIA (via George Little) for initial context briefings,” another e-mail sent on June 15, 2011, read. “At DoD this has been provided by Mike Vickers, and at CIA by relevant officials with the full knowledge and full approval/support of Director Panetta.”

Thus, it would seem film director Alex Gibney was correct when he critiqued the film for its portrayal of torture and wrote, “Boal and Bigelow were seduced by their sources.”

He argued:

While there is nothing wrong with access per se, what is concerning is the way that the CIA — and other military agencies — grant selective access. Sometimes that’s because of the star status of the project. The letters show how much the agency loved Hurt Locker (one of the rare times I agree with the perspective of the CIA). Other times, it’s because the agency is satisfied that the filmmakers have a vision that is “consistent” with that of the CIA. Whatever the reason, this will become a bigger and bigger concern for movies based on factual events (be they films with actors or documentaries). Why not give all American citizens to declassified information?

Whatever happened on ZD30, we can be sure of one thing. The CIA PR team must be delighted, particularly those who were supporters of the EIT “Program.” As former CIA director Michael Hayden noted, “I was happy the film was in the hands of such talent.”

Boal insisted to Gawker that filmmakers had “honored certain requests to keep operational details and the identity of the participants confidential. But as with any publication or work of art, the final decisions as to the content were made by the filmmakers.”

No Objections to Giving the Impression Waterboarding Led to Osama bin Laden

What makes objections from the CIA and the fact that the filmmakers seem to have complied when requests were made to take out scenes even worse is the propaganda that appears in scenes of the movie. As highlighted by the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, a CIA interrogator in the movie claims “everyone breaks in the end.” He adds, “It’s biology.” She pointed out “many prisoners have been tortured to death without ever revealing secrets.” In another scene, “an elderly detainee” said he wanted to cooperate because he didn’t want to be tortured again.” It implied “brutalization brings breakthroughs.”

It is unknown whether this is all the requests the CIA made of the filmmakers. It is unknown what ended up in the film under advisement of the CIA before they read the script and then shared objections with Boal. But, what is known is that there was widespread objection to the film because it made it appear that waterboarding led to locating bin Laden.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain wrote to the Sony Pictures studio chief, “We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of [Osama] bin Laden.”

Frank Bruni, who reviewed the film for the New York Times, highlighted the “torture sequence” at the beginning of the film that “immediately follows a bone-chilling, audio-only prologue of the voices of terrified Americans trapped in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center.” He found it was set up as “payback.” He also thought the movie showed information was produced by torture that was “vital to the pursuit of the world’s most wanted man.”

“No waterboarding, no Bin Laden: that’s what Zero Dark Thirty appears to suggest. And the intelligence agents involved in torture seem not so much relieved as challenged by Obama’s edict that it stop. Their quest for leads just got that much more difficult,” Bruni wrote.

Effect of CIA Propaganda Amplified by State Secrecy

It would be one thing if the public already knew all the details around the CIA’s rendition, detention and torture program. But, as Peter Maass appropriately described:

…[T]he new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

In other words, there is so much that remains classified and unknown. This is one of the most popular presentations of the CIA’s operations in the “war on terror.” It doesn’t show how torture played absolutely no role in finding bin Laden and it does not show that the CIA lied repeatedly about its torture program and sought to cover up what it was doing to detainees in custody.

A nearly 6,000-page report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence fully presents what the CIA was doing with its torture program. However, it has not been declassified. CIA director John Brennan is not cooperating with senators, who would like to see it released. The CIA is actively impeding or stalling efforts to have it disclosed to the public. The Obama administration is known to be reviewing the report but is currently withholding the report, according to journalist Marcy Wheeler.

To the extent that Boal and Bigelow’s film, picked by the CIA to improve the perception of the Agency, actually achieved its objective, both Boal and Bigelow are not filmmakers but propagandists. Their movie exists in a void the CIA and former CIA officers have actively worked to maintain because officers involved in the torture program have an interest in not having their reputations besmirched by a Senate report that shows they were involved in a rogue or criminal operation. There are also CIA officers, who would probably like to restore the torture program because they believe it was effective. And, Boal and Bigelow’s movie ingratiatingly portrays a chapter in CIA history that human rights organizations universally condemn without leaving the impression that the agency’s actions were unjustified.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."