WASHINGTON -- Nearly a decade after the last al-Qaida detainee was waterboarded, Americans still know little about what the CIA did to its prisoners, or whether it worked.
President Barack Obama decided against an investigation to hold accountable Bush administration and CIA officials who conceived and carried out what he and others believed were acts of torture. And a criminal investigation ended last year with no charges and no public report.
But now, a Hollywood movie has put renewed pressure on CIA officials to reveal whether simulated drowning and other harsh techniques elicited valuable intelligence, as the agency has long contended.
"Zero Dark Thirty," made by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal after extensive consultation with CIA officers, is sparking a new quest for answers, in part because it suggests that torture by CIA officers was instrumental in pinpointing Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Acting CIA Director Michael Morell has been caught in the maelstrom.
Senate Intelligence Committee sent Mr. Morell a sharply worded letter Jan. 3 demanding that he explain his assertion in a Dec. 21 message to CIA employees that "some information" leading to the al-Qaida head "came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques."
Committee Democrats, who produced their own 6,000-page, still-secret report on the CIA interrogation program, contend that the agency's records don't support that conclusion.
CIA officials and Washington politicians care so deeply about the movie's depiction because "Zero Dark Thirty" will influence how people understand the bin Laden operation, said Tricia Jenkins, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University and author of "The CIA in Hollywood," an examination of the agency's role in shaping its image through film.
"The CIA has long said that most people in the general public get their information about the CIA and its activities from film and television," she said. "The film will be a key shaper of public opinion and historical memory about this event."
Both critics and defenders with knowledge of the CIA program say the movie's torture scenes are grossly inaccurate -- a cartoonish depiction that bears little resemblance to reality. But defenders endorse the film's suggestion that harsh techniques, such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and slapping, yielded clues that helped the CIA find bin Laden. They say detainees subjected to duress offered information that helped the CIA track down Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the al-Qaida courier who was helping hide bin Laden.
Senate intelligence committee Democrats contend, however, that no significant information about the courier came from detainees after they were subjected to coercive techniques.
Mr. Morell was among several senior agency officials who consulted closely with Mr. Boal, the screenwriter, as he researched the project. He met with Mr. Boal for 40 minutes at CIA headquarters, records show. One email from a CIA public affairs officer says Mr. Boal "agreed to share scripts and details about the movie with us, so we're absolutely comfortable with what he will be showing."
Yet CIA officials were troubled by some scenes in the movie, prompting Mr. Morell's message to employees that the film "takes significant artistic license." In the message, Mr. Morell repeated what has been the CIA line since bin Laden was killed in May 2011 -- that "enhanced interrogations" weren't key to finding the terrorist leader. But he also said the CIA learned about the courier in part from detainees who were roughed up.
In their letter, Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as well as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., demanded that Mr. Morell explain exactly what he meant. But Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the panel's ranking Republican, said in a statement that he was perplexed by his colleagues' concerns. "It is entertainment, not a documentary," he said. "What's next -- a Senate inquiry of the Bourne trilogy or '24'?"
Mr. Morell is in a tough spot. He does not want to repudiate coercive interrogations entirely, because "it's a tool that you might want to use, and you don't want to give it away," a former CIA officer said. And he doesn't want to impugn CIA employees who were involved.
Intelligence panel Republicans also believe that coercive interrogations worked, a GOP aide said, and Mr. Morell might lose their support should he say otherwise.
What's not much in dispute is that, despite the aspirations of "Zero Dark Thirty" to accuracy, it gets the interrogation scenes wrong. Mr. Boal has responded that the film is not a documentary.
The film shows CIA officers in a sort of Hollywood fantasy of a tough interrogation, beating a detainee in a decrepit building, making him wear a dog collar and, on the spur of the moment, deciding to waterboard him.
According to a CIA Inspector General report in 2004 and other sources, the program was more methodical, which is not to say any less brutal. Each harsh technique was approved by Justice Department lawyers and briefed at the highest levels of then-President George W. Bush's White House.
Three detainees were waterboarded in 2002 and 2003. They were strapped to gurneys, and their medical conditions monitored. No dog collars were used, former officers say.
The movie also errs when it shows a detainee who had been waterboarded giving information about Kuwaiti. One of the three waterboarded, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, discussed the courier, U.S. officials have said. He denied Kuwaiti was an al-Qaida member. CIA officers found this telling because other detainees said he had an important role.
Ms. Feinstein, Mr. McCain and Mr. Levin say the detainee who provided crucial information about the courier in 2004, identified by U.S. officials as Hassan Ghul, did so before he was subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. He was never waterboarded, officials have said.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, suggested that one way to get at the truth would be for the intelligence committee Democrats to release their report. "False claims about the interrogation program are dangerous," he said, "in large part because there is a vacuum where there ought to be a public record."nation