Jan. 3, 2013 — -- The Senate Intelligence Committee has launched a new probe to determine how much the CIA may have influenced the portrayal of torture scenes shown in "Zero Dark Thirty," the Hollywood dramatization of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The probe, as first reported by Reuters and confirmed to ABC News by a spokesperson for the committee's chairman, will attempt to answer two questions: Did the CIA give filmmakers "inappropriate" access to secret material and was the CIA responsible for the perceived suggestion that harsh interrogation techniques aided the hunt for America's most wanted man?
In a press release today, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office said Feinstein, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) and former Presidential candidate John McCain (R.-Ariz.) – the latter two are ex officio members of the Intelligence Committee – sent two letters to acting CIA Director Michael Morell in December asking just what the CIA might have told the filmmakers about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation.
The first letter, dated Dec. 19, focused on the possibility that the CIA "misled" the filmmakers into showing torture as an effective tactic.
"As you know, the film depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees. The film then credits CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques as providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the [bin Laden] compound," the letter says. "The CIA cannot be held accountable for how the Agency and its activities are portrayed in film, but we are nonetheless concerned, given the CIA's cooperation with the filmmakers and the narrative's consistency with past public misstatements by former senior CIA officials, that the filmmakers could have been misled by information they were provided by the CIA."
Two days after the letter was sent, Morell posted a statement on the CIA website explaining that the movie was "not a realistic portrayal of the facts" but said some information did come from detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation.
"...[T]he film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false," Morell said. "As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved."
The trio of Feinstein, Levin and McCain wrote the second letter on New Year's Eve in apparent frustration with that statement and asked Morell to provide information on what exactly the CIA learned from detainees who underwent harsh interrogation – and if it was learned before, during or after the detainees' ordeals.
A CIA spokesperson told ABC News today the agency had received the letters and "take[s] very seriously our responsibility to keep our oversight committees informed and value[s] our relationship with Congress."
Directed by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow and hailed by critics since its limited release last month, "Zero Dark Thirty" has also become a lightning rod for the ongoing debate over the role torture may have played in the ultimately successful hunt for bin Laden. The movie features multiple scenes in which American interrogators oversee or take part in harsh techniques including simulated drowning, violent beating, and force feeding of alleged al Qaeda operatives or associates.
In his book "The Finish," "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden wrote that enhanced interrogation appeared to play a significant role in corroborating the identity of an al Qaeda courier who years later led U.S. officials to bin Laden. At least two detainees who underwent enhanced interrogation – one of them the former high-level al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded a reported 183 times – acknowledged the existence and the nom de guerre of the courier but failed to provide any more complete or accurate information about him, Bowden wrote.
In an article written today in The Atlantic, Bowden argued that "Zero Dark Thirty" actually portrayed torture as relatively ineffective and said that he agrees with Morell's assessment that it was a factor, but not the key to finding bin Laden.
In their letters, the Senators said that based on the material they had been given by the CIA, no detainee reported the courier's full name or specific whereabouts and that the Agency actually learned the vital information that led to bin Laden "through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program."
As to whether Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were ever given inappropriate access to information, Boal told ABC News' "Nightline" in an exclusive interview in November that he never received classified documents.
"I certainly did a lot of homework, but I never asked for classified material," Boal said. "To my knowledge I never received any."
Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group, is involved in ongoing litigation with the government over exactly what information was shared with the filmmakers. The group previously obtained documents that its president said "provide more backing to the serious charge that the Obama administration played fast and loose with national security information to help Hollywood filmmakers."
ABC News' Josh Haskell contributed to this report.