Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was in good spirits Tuesday afternoon. He engaged in some jocular teasing of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. He joked with me and two other reporters after the duo fielded our serious policy questions.
But, then, he turned visibly somber and a bit agitated. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican had something on his mind.
As the mini-subway car clunked along the track between the Dirksen Senate Office Building and the Capitol Building, McCain told us he “watched a movie last night.”
My colleagues Donna Cassata of the Associated Press and Carlo Muñoz of The Hill were there, as well. Our brows furrowed. I had watched the season finale of “Homeland” the previous evening, but it hardly seemed germane to the policy discussion we had just been having with McCain and McKeon.
Our brows furrowed. Donna, the savvy veteran reporter, finally asked if he was referring to “Zero Dark Thirty,” the coming film about the hunt for and raid that killed al Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden. McCain said yes, saying he had received an advance copy earlier this week.
He called the film “sickening,” as everyone inside that crowded subway car instantly fell silent.
There are few chilling and somber moments for veteran reporters on a beat that so often can fuel cynicism. But this was that kind of moment.
McCain served nearly six years in a North Vietnamese prison camp during the Vietnam War. He still bears the physical maladies of the torture he suffered there, and has spoken out forcefully against the use of harsh interrogation tactics by U.S. personnel.
The film, according to McCain and reports from others who have seen it, strongly suggests torture by U.S. personnel of detained al Qaida leaders and operatives allowed Washington to track down bin Laden.
As Donna noted in a report published after the exchange, McCain has long said such claims simply aren’t true.
On Wednesday evening, McCain joined SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein in signing a letter to Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, expressing their “deep disappointment” with the movie. (Carlo first reported on the letter.)
“We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words ‘based on first-hand accounts of actual events’ and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters,” the senators write.
“As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the [Osama] bin Laden,” the senators told Lynton. “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden.”
But McCain, Levin and Feinstein say they “have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.”
“‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for [Osama] bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.”
National security officials have said the trail for bin Laden started when officials began tracking a courier they believed was working for a high-level al Qaeda official.
“The CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program,” the senator told the Hollywood executive.
The problem, they say, is the average American won’t take this side of the story into the theater, and will believe torture played a larger role than it might actually have in finding bin Laden.
“The fundamental problem is that people who see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ will believe that the events it portrays are facts,” the senators wrote. “The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”
They want Lynton to “consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against [Osama] bin Laden” because “it did not.”
‘Zero Dark Thirty’ director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal fired back in a statement quoted in media reports: “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,” the pair said. “We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it.”
The movie opened in limited theaters Wednesday. I intend to see the film. But I’ll be thinking of McCain’s face as he uttered the word “sickening” inside that subway car.