Could the release of "Zero Dark Thirty" provoke violent protests against the U.S. in response to the film's searing depictions of "enhanced interrogation" — the coercive, super-secret and bitterly debated methods used by the CIA against al Qaeda terrorism suspects?
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow's acclaimed docudrama about the pursuit of Osama bin Laden opened Wednesday at five theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
The film, an early Oscar favorite, graphically depicts coercive CIA interrogation techniques, including the waterboarding, domination and psychosexual humiliation of a detainee, who is, variously, collared and leashed like a dog, stuffed into a cramped "confinement box" and stripped naked for questioning in the presence of a female investigator.
Although the portrayal of such treatment given to a prisoner, regardless of his religion, may be deemed offensive by viewers of any faith, the film steers clear of depicting Islam's Prophet Muhammad or showing the Koran being desecrated — two acts considered blasphemous by many Muslims.
Muslims have expressed outrage in response to the anti-Islam video "Innocence of Muslims," the unintentional burning of Korans and a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.
Although "Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't enter into any of that territory and nothing suggests a similar chain of events will follow the film's release, a senior defense official said U.S. forces are always on alert.
"I doubt extremist murderers are going to garner much sympathy in the West or in the Muslim world, but we'll keep an eye on things," the official said.
"This isn't exactly the first time this issue has surfaced. It's been debated for years, and other major Hollywood productions have fictionalized similar themes. It's important to keep this in perspective. I haven't seen the movie, but one thing is for sure: It has a happy ending, not just for the United States, but for Muslims around the world targeted by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network."
Yet fears of a violent backlash against "Zero Dark Thirty," which goes into wide release in the U.S. on Jan. 11, are swirling in some corners of Washington and appear to be accentuated by a public perception of a U.S. government consultative role in pre-production research for the film.
Radical corners of the Muslim world have been known to fan the flames around perceived official U.S. involvement with material considered blasphemous, as happened this autumn in Egypt. Protesters infuriated by the "Innocence of Muslims" stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, then tore down the American flag and briefly replaced it with an Islamic banner.
The demonstrations coincided with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., where the "Innocence of Muslims" was made but practically unnoticed. However, a television network in Egypt prone to hard-line Salafist programming drew attention to the video and drummed up anger by broadcasting portions of it.
Claims that the Obama administration provided the "Zero Dark Thirty" filmmakers special access to high-level national security officials and shared sensitive information about the bin Laden raid have led to an internal Pentagon investigation of suspected security leaks.
The Pentagon inspector general determined this week that Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers provided Ms. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal with the restricted name of a U.S. special operations officer who helped plan the raid.
The inspector general referred the case to the Justice Department. The Pentagon denies any public disclosure to the filmmakers about intelligence-collection methods and downplays its level of cooperation with the filmmakers.
"Methods used to gather information, or intelligence, has never been something that we provided," said Army Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman who added that the interrogation scenes in the movie are dramatizations based on research by the filmmakers.
He said Pentagon officials did not pre-screen the movie and were not involved in writing the script.
Its information-sharing was limited to "overarching strategic atmospherics," which included the general timeline regarding who knew what and when, how U.S. officials made the decision to conduct the operation versus other options, and the risks involved with choosing that particular option, Col. Gregory said.
Whether administration disavowals dispel perceptions of an advisory role on the film remains to be seen.
A spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center, meanwhile, told The Washington Times that the agency "regularly monitors domestic and international terrorist threats, including those that might develop as a result of world news or events." He would not comment on any planning or intelligence related to "Zero Dark Thirty," per normal policy.
The CIA declined to comment on any contingency planning or security threats expected after the release of the film, also citing normal policy not to discuss such matters.
A spokesman for Sony Pictures, which is distributing the film within the U.S., said he was "not aware of any threats whatsoever" associated with the film's release.
The State Department, the New York Police Department, a theater in New York showing the film this week, and NBC Universal Pictures, which is distributing the film internationally, did not respond to queries by The Washington Times.
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