Three former top-ranking Central Intelligence Agency officials picked apart plot lines of Zero Dark Thirty Tuesday, including the film's depiction of enhanced interrogation, which the former officials say failed to accurately chronicle how the events played out during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, John Rizzo, former deputy counsel of the CIA, and Jose Rodriguez, the former director of the National Clandestine Service at the CIA, seemed mostly satisfied with the overall narrative laid out in the film.
But all three men, each of whom had a guiding hand in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques after 9/11 and controversially portrayed in several of the movie's scenes, said they took issue with certain inaccuracies in the film.
Throughout the first hour of the movie, a CIA officer named "Dan" appears to be able to ask a detainee any question that comes to mind, and perform any interrogation technique at his disposal if the detainee fails to give a satisfactory answer. Among the techniques shown is putting the detainee inside a box barely big enough for him to fit when it was closed.
Rizzo said those scenes weren't quite right.
"Those interrogators were not allowed to ad lib... There was a meticulous procedure to undertake," he said.
The former CIA lawyer also took issue with the portrayal of "the box." While he acknowledged that the technique was "not pleasant," Rizzo noted that the CIA often used a much larger box in which detainees could stand, and that the smaller box the agency employed was not the same size as the one portrayed in the film.
Rodriguez also said that the interrogation shown in the film lasted much longer than it had in real life. Enhanced interrogation of detainees post-9/11, he said, mostly lasted just a few days, or in the case of more high profile terrorists, a few weeks.
"But it was a finite amount of time," he said.
Rodriguez said evidence of this fact is that detainees often figured out how long their torture would last. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for example, named "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks" by the 9/11 Commission Report, realized that agents were allowed to waterboard him for up to 10 seconds, according to Rodriguez.
"After a while [KSM] figured it out and he started to count with his fingers up to 10 to let us know that the time was up," said Rodriguez.
Waterboarding was a technique used post-9/11 in which water was poured over a detainee's cloth-covered face, making him feel as if he was about to drown.
Rodriguez also argued that the film failed to note why torture was effective.
One high-profile detainee, according to Rodriguez, had recommended to the CIA that it use these tactics on all al-Qaeda members because "they would not be expected by Allah to go beyond their capabilities."
"Once they felt they were [tortured long enough] they would become compliant" and share the information they had with the agency, he said.
"And they'd do so without sin," added Hayden. This narrative, the former CIA chief told the audience, was important for his own soul-searching after a CIA Inspector General report in 2009 was critical of the techniques used, and President Barack Obama essentially discontinued all use of enhanced interrogation through an executive order later that year.
"I was not trying to prove the point that what we were doing was universally applicable for all detainees and circumstances," said Hayden. "It was particularly well-suited to this group."
Another part of the film Hayden seemed genuinely pained by was the portrayal of CIA agent Jennifer Matthews ("Jessica" in the film), who died in 2009 after a suicide bombing along at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan killed her and six other CIA operatives. In the movie, Matthews' eagerness to land a source appears to lead to the operatives' deaths. Hayden said he was "disturbed" by that portrayal.
"Jennifer was a wonderful officer... She was in this before hunting bin Laden was cool," he said. "I understand artistically they wanted to create some sort of juxtaposition between her and [the main character CIA officer] Maya. But it was very unfortunate and very unfair that she was portrayed that way."
Rizzo agreed, saying that Matthews was "a far more complex and interesting character in real life" (and "far more attractive," he also noted). Rizzo related that after 9/11, Matthews had been put on a list of CIA agents held partially accountable for failing to stop the attacks. Her inclusion on that list had "haunted her" for years afterwards, he said.
What was accurate about the inclusion of Matthews, according to Hayden, was that bin Laden was brought down by women.
"It was an incredible band of sisters that really spearheaded the UBL [Osama bin Laden] cell," he said, noting that most of CIA operatives who briefed him on the al-Qaeda leader over the years were female.
Another scene from Zero Dark Thirty that has raised questions shows a CIA officer using agency funds to buy a Lamborghini for a Kuwaiti in order to acquire an important phone number. But Rodriguez said the scene wasn't true.
"I don't ever remember approving the purchase of an Italian sports car to give to anybody," he said, a remark that elicited laughter in the room.
The event was moderated by Marc Thiessen, who wrote a book called Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, which defended the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques after 9/11.