WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade after the last Al Qaeda detainee was waterboarded, Americans still know little about what the CIA did to its prisoners, or whether it worked.
President Obama decided against an investigation to hold accountable George W. 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 hide-out in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
A senior CIA official on the short list to be the agency's next head, acting Director Michael Morell, has been caught in the maelstrom in a way that could complicate his bid for the job.
On Thursday, senators on the Intelligence Committee sent Morell a sharply worded letter demanding he explain his assertion in a Dec. 21 message to CIA employees that "some information" leading to the Al Qaeda chief "came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques."
Democrats on the committee, who produced their own 6,000-page, still-secret report on the CIA interrogation program, contend 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 subject to duress offered information that helped the CIA track down Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the Al Qaeda courier who was helping hide Bin Laden.
Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, however, contend that no significant information about the courier came from detainees after they were subject to coercive techniques.
Morell was among several senior agency officials who consulted closely with Boal, the screenwriter, as he researched the project. He met with Boal for 40 minutes at CIA headquarters, records show. One email from a CIA public affairs officer says 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 Morell's message to employees that the film "takes significant artistic license." In the message, 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, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) demand that Morell explain exactly what he meant. But Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, 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'?"
If Morell wants to be CIA director, however, he will need the support of the Intelligence Committee — particularly Feinstein. "This could really hurt his nomination process," said a congressional aide familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified to talk about internal discussions.
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.
Republicans on the committee believe coercive interrogations worked, a GOP aide said, and Morell might lose their support should he say otherwise.