Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Relax, 'Zero Dark Thirty' is only a movie

By Michael V. Hayden, CNN Contributor
updated 8:54 AM EST, Fri December 28, 2012
In
In "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain's character is based on a real-life member of the team that hunted Osama bin Laden.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hayden: Controversy unfairly surrounds intelligence officials' roles in two Washington issues
  • He says political fights have obscured reality in both areas
  • He says the Benghazi security breakdown wasn't an intelligence failure
  • Hayden: "Zero Dark Thirty" has elements of truth, but is dramatized in Hollywood style

Editor's note: Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as CIA director in 2006 and served until February 2009, is a principal with the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm. He serves on the boards of several defense firms and is a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University.

(CNN) -- When asked if I miss being in government, I usually try to lighten the moment by responding that I awake most days, read the paper, and then observe that, "It's yet another great day to be the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency."

Of course, this casual answer is designed to limit comment on the things I miss (largely the mission and the people) and especially the things I don't (a longer list).

But lately my half-flippant answer seems a little more true than I ever wanted it to be. And its somber implications apply not just to the director of CIA but to other senior intelligence officials as well.

Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden

These jobs have always been hard. While I was at Langley, a prominent American (not in government, but very accustomed to calculating risk) once asked me, "On a scale of zero to 10, how would you rate CIA analysis?"

I began my answer on CIA analysis--and by extension on the entire American intelligence enterprise--by noting that "eight, nine and 10 are not on our scale. If you can get to those numbers, nobody is asking us those questions." Using a baseball metaphor, I concluded that "all the pitches we see seem to be hard sliders on the outside corner at the knees."

That's hard enough, but today the intelligence community seems unduly burdened with questions beyond this permanent, almost existential, dilemma.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Take Benghazi, for example. Some have described what happened before the attack in which a U. S. ambassador and three other Americans died as an intelligence failure. Really? If someone needed more information to know that security there had deteriorated beyond the point of safety, they weren't waiting for warning -- they were waiting for someone to die. Good people made bad decisions, but it wasn't because they were unaware of the situation on the ground.

Then there is the aftermath of Benghazi: What did we know, when did we know it and how did the administration choose to express it? The intelligence community is still living with the consequences of what could be described as a public debate badly crossing the wires of political speech with those of analytic thought.

McCain: 'So many questions' on Benghazi
Bin Laden film sparks debate
'Zero Dark Thirty' torture controversy
Political uproar Over 'Zero Dark Thirty'

An intelligence analyst may attribute an attack to al Qaeda, whereas a policy maker could opt for the more general "extremist." It's still not clear what happened in this case (or why) and both speakers could technically be correct, but it is never a good thing for the analyst to be drawn into a debate to explain or justify the word choices of the politician. Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper's office seemed forced to do just that in late September.

Surely what happened before and after those fateful hours in Benghazi is of national importance and our political processes need to adjudicate these questions. But at their heart these are now more political and policy debates than intelligence issues.

Then there's this movie, "Zero Dark Thirty" about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Some have complained that too many "secrets" were dished out by the intelligence and special operations communities to director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and their crew, part of a broader pattern of using intelligence for political effect.

There are now reports that one of the intelligence community's stars, Under Secretary of Defense Mike Vickers, may have leaned too far forward in talking to the film's creators. I doubt it. But I am glad that someone took the trouble to chronicle an American intelligence success.

But even that narrative is controversial. So controversial in fact that acting CIA Director Michael Morell felt compelled to issue a note to his workforce last week reminding them that the movie was a work of fiction, not a documentary. And three members of the Senate are on record demanding that Sony Pictures issue a disclaimer on the role of CIA enhanced interrogations in the hunt for bin Laden.

Here's what I know about the film's controversial aspects: The scenes of CIA interrogation are overwrought and inaccurate; more than detainee-derived data was key in getting to Abbottabad; and the film's star, "Maya", was not alone in urging the agency to move.

But as often happens in art, each of these story lines has a thread of truth. CIA interrogations of more than 30 detainees were tough; the agency did derive significant intelligence from them; and "Maya" was a real heroine.

At the end of the day, though, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie. Made by Hollywood. To be dramatic. That this is being debated and that intelligence leaders are being drawn into that debate is as revealing as it should be troubling.

When I was at CIA I asked my civilian advisory board to tackle some tough questions. Among the toughest: In a political culture that every day demands more transparency and more public accountability from every aspect of national life, could American intelligence continue to survive and succeed?

That jury is still out.

One hopes that in the new year our intelligence professionals--from seniors like Clapper, Morell and Vickers to the newest arriving analyst--can disentangle themselves from these public disputes and focus on their core responsibilities.

Responsibilities like gauging the spread of al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, helping decision makers judge whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a bridge or a barrier to Islamist fanaticism, identifying what part (if any) of the Syrian opposition can be trusted, or giving all of us confidence that we can detect an Iranian nuclear breakout before it is too late.

Working on that stuff actually constitutes the definition of a "great day."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael V. Hayden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 6:12 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
updated 1:05 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
updated 12:55 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
updated 3:32 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
updated 8:41 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT