By Mick Krever, CNN
Every so often, politics and moviemaking coincide in a way that aligns the attentions of both Hollywood and Washington.
The release of Zero Dark Thirty, the graphic film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is such a moment.
Detractors say it overemphasizes the positive role of torture, and that the CIA may have over-shared operational details with its writer.
But on the day it was nominated for a best picture Academy Award, a former top CIA official, while admitting that there may not have been a “direct correlation” between torture and the bin Laden breakthrough, said torture’s importance in the broad fight against al Qaeda should not be minimized.
“I would categorize what we got from detainees as equally as important as things like human-source intelligence and technical intelligence,” Philip Mudd told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said. “It was critical.”
Mudd was deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center until 2005, then worked at the FBI until 2010.
“None of these detainees is going to walk in this door and say, ‘Here’s the holy grail,’” he said. “But if they can give us a fragment of a name, if they can identify someone we pick up from a safe site in some place like Somalia, that’s never going to make the New York Times, but that’s critically important.”
In Zero Dark Thirty, the breakthrough is portrayed as a “connecting of the dots” between dozens of sources – with one detainee, initially tortured, at the center.
Meanwhile, in Washington, politicians are gearing up for a confirmation battle over John Brennan, President Obama’s pick to lead the CIA. He has been a top national security official, both at the CIA and in the White House, for much of the period leading up to the capture of bin Laden. His first nomination to lead the CIA, in 2008, was derailed over torture.
Indeed, the controversy over the film is heightened as political opponents, like Republican Senator John McCain, raise concerns over Brennan’s alleged past support for torture.
Mudd called the choice of Brennan to lead the CIA an “excellent” one, but admitted that his confirmation process will be “very difficult.”
He worked closely with Brennan at the CIA, and said that his position as deputy executive director from 2001 to 2003 was a managerial, not operational one.
“I don’t remember him having a critical role in things like enhanced interrogation techniques,” Mudd said.
As for the alleged leaks from the CIA to the film’s writer, Mudd said Brennan, who has worked at the White House since 2009, is not culpable.
“If I were him on the hill I would be saying, ‘What do you want me to do? I wasn’t there.’”
Mudd said that he was uncomfortable with Zero Dark Thirty, because it portrays the CIA as a “rogue organization.”
The actual methods employed by the CIA, Mudd said, like “pushing people against a flexible wall,” are unlike those portrayed on film.
Most Americans, he said, would say that “what the CIA did was nothing like what [they] imagine, or nothing like what [they] see in a movie.”
President Obama called for an end to enhanced interrogation when he took office, but has dramatically increased the use of other controversial practices, like drone strikes, which Mudd defended.
“I don’t lose any sleep over it, and I believe I’m an American who represents American values,” he said. “I think Americans should ask for, and require answers, but war is hell. Get over it.”
CNN’s Ken Olshansky produced this piece for television.