WASHINGTON — Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden weighed in on the controversy surrounding the film “Zero Dark Thirty” Tuesday, calling it an accurate reflection of the “difficult decisions” that had to be made in finding Osama bin Laden while defending the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques that he approved under the Bush administration.
The Oscar-nominated film has drawn criticism for depicting the use of extreme interrogation methods that included sleep deprivation and water boarding by Americans as a key to obtaining information that led to bin Laden’s capture. At a panel discussion hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, Hayden called the movie “masterful,” though not completely accurate in portraying the interrogations.
“On balance, I liked it. I’m glad it was made,” Hayden said. “It shows how real life doesn’t have right angles. But Hollywood has to compress everything.”
However, some aspects of the portrayal of detainee interrogation in “Zero Dark Thirty” were misleading, according to Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009.
“Our enhanced methods were never intended to ascertain truth in the moment—we never asked anybody anything we didn’t already know while they were undergoing techniques,” he said. “We tried to move them to a state of cooperation.”
Hayden was joined on the panel by former CIA chief legal officer John Rizzo and Jose Rodriguez, former director of the National Clandestine Service. The three national security veterans were key figures in the bin Laden manhunt, and though they did not say the capture would have been impossible without the use of “aggressive” interrogation techniques, each asserted the value of the program.
“The impact is psychological, that you are no longer in control of your destiny,” Hayden said. “An honest man can argue with the methods of what we had to do, but the information we obtained helped save American lives, and I think the film reflects that.”
Rodriguez pointed that that “there’s more to this story.”
“What’s lost in the film’s narrative is the overarching destruction of the al-Qaida network that was going on, that was in large part enabled by the enhanced interrogation program,” he said.
Rizzo also critiqued the film’s controversial torture scenes. The way the lead interrogator, portrayed by actor Jason Clarke, used the enhanced techniques at his own discretion, Rizzo said, was “far from reality.”
“Interrogators were not allowed to ad lib. There was a meticulous procedure,” Rizzo said.
Hayden emphasized that the enhanced interrogation program was limited in scope.
“For two-thirds of detainees the techniques weren’t necessary. For the final one-third, it moved them to cooperate,” he said.
Because the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program ended under the Obama administration, Hayden said intelligence agencies could be lacking a key resource in the event of another national security crisis.
“We have made it so legally challenging and politically dangerous to use this option. It should at least be on the table for use at the president’s discretion,” he said.
Though the enhanced interrogation techniques classified by some as torture were pivotal in breaking down suspected al-Qaida members, the panelists maintained that human intelligence-gathering, data analysis and determination were the keys to tracking down bin Laden.
“The most powerful tool we had was our knowledge,” Hayden said.