Fact-Checking the CIA's Fact-Check on 'Zero Dark Thirty'

"The CIA is a lot different than Hollywood portrays it to be," reads an official explainer issued today by the Central Intelligence Agency — a thinly veiled attempt to continue debunking Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial Oscar favorite that its director admittedly hates. Referring to James Bond, the fictional MI6 agent, depictions of "shootouts and high speed chases," and scenes of "CIA officers chasing terrorists through the American heartland," the memo goes on to try and dispel an array of "myths" pertaining to the agency's operations, from its impact on foreign policy to its ability to spy on Americans. The effort follows a December 21 letter addressed to CIA employees from the agency's acting director, Michael Morrell, concerning the "artistic license" of Zero Dark Thirty. Today's release touches on the same themes: whether the CIA of our popular imagination corresponds to the CIA of reality, and how movies like Zero Dark Thirty (which isn't name-checked directly) blur the distinction between fact and fantasy. Should you believe the CIA's interpretation of Hollywood? We break down each agency claim with actual details from the movies — and Homeland, obviously.

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Myth No. 1: "Everyone at the CIA is a spy"

CIA says: "These officers recruit people in foreign countries who have access to valuable information (spies), but the officers themselves are not spies."

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Zero Dark Thirty says: Maya, the film's protagonist, is not depicted as a "spy," in the sense that she must go undercover for a long period of time. She does, once or twice, change her appearance in preparation for an interrogation, but that's not quite the same as, like, espionage.

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Reality: OK, so not everyone at the CIA is a spy. That's fair. Still, "recruiting" a source in a foreign country seems to involve a degree of lying about one's identity. That doesn't make the recruiter a full-blown spy — they're not on an actual covert mission — but it does mean they're party to some form of secrecy. 

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Myth No. 2: "The CIA spies on US citizens"

CIA says: "The Federal Bureau of Investigation has the lead on intelligence matters in the United States, especially those directed against US citizens. However, the CIA and the FBI work together as needed to protect the interests of US national security."

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Zero Dark Thirty Homeland says: The C.I.A. can and will spy on a Congressman if it thinks he's a legitimate terrorist threat.

Reality: The CIA's answer is silly. Their answer is, literally, "Well, we don't, but the FBI does!" The Senate extended the warrantless wiretapping program today. It does not matter which three-initial agency is able to spy — or is in fact spying, at this very moment! It matters if that spying is permissible in the first place.

Myth No. 3: "The CIA is above the law"

CIA says: "The National Security Act of 1947 and multiple Executive Orders provide the authority for CIA activities. The CIA reports to two Congressional oversight committees ... which ensure that the Agency operates legally and within the scope of its charter."

Zero Dark Thirty says: Using "enhanced interrogation techniques" — e.g., waterboarding, which simulates drowning — the CIA obtained information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden.

Reality: The CIA isn't said to have waterboarded anyone since March 2003. And as Scott Shane reported in The New York Times, a new classified Senate report concludes that brutal interrogation was not "a central component" in capturing bin Laden. And much of the CIA's operations remain classified, which many of the film's critics (not the movie kind) will no doubt remind you.

Myth No. 4: "The CIA arrests people who break the law"

CIA says: "The CIA, unlike the FBI, has no law enforcement authority. The Agency’s mission is foreign intelligence collection and analysis."

Zero Dark Thirty says: True. The biggest "law enforcement" aspect of the ffilm is the killing of Osama bin Laden, which was handled by a team of Navy SEALS.

Reality: Yup. Myth vanquished! The CIA can't handcuff anyone.

Myth No. 5: "The CIA makes foreign policy"

CIA says: "The CIA informs foreign policy. It works with other members of the Intelligence Community to produce objective analysis on intelligence issues. The president and policymakers make all US policy decisions, not the CIA."

Zero Dark Thirty says: The film features a number of heated, frustrating scenes in which Maya (the CIA agent) and her colleagues try to convince policymakers to go ahead with the mission. 

Reality: This one's tricky. Is organizing intelligence and presenting it to policymakers "making" foreign policy? No. But it's not just "informing" it either. Best to say the agency influences (or attempts to influence) foreign policy.