The outgoing US defence secretary has admitted that intelligence obtained using enhanced interrogation techniques or torture was used to "put together the puzzle" that led the American military to Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.
'Zero Dark Thirty,' Kathyrn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated film chronicling the hunt for bin Laden that ended with his killing in Pakistan by US special forces in 2011, has sparked a furious debate by implying that torturous interrogation tactics such as water boarding were used in the years-long intelligence-gathering effort that led to the raid.
Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday, Leon Panetta, when asked if the implication was accurate, initially played down the suggestion, said: "First of all, it's a movie, let's remember that."
But then he seemed to acknowledge that torture was in fact used, telling the show's host, Chuck Todd, that "the real story is that in order to put the puzzle of intelligence together that led us to bin Laden, there was a lot of intelligence... Yes, some of it came from some of the tactics that were used at that time, interrogation tactics that were used."
Mr Panetta, who is due to step down following the confirmation of Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee to replace Mr Panetta, by the US Senate, went on to say, however, that the US could still have located bin Laden without using such controversial interrogation techniques.
"The fact is we - we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to [those sorts of interrogation techniques," he explained, adding: "I think we could have gotten bin Laden without that."
The response was similar to what he said in a private letter to Senator John McCain in 2011, days after the raid. In the letter, whose contents were later reported by US media, Mr Panetta explained that "nearly 10 years" of intelligence work had led the CIA to conclude that bin Laden was hiding in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was eventually killed.
There was no key piece of information, he wrote, but rather "multiple steams of intelligence" that had gone into piecing together the full picture - including, he admitted, some information from detainees who "had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques." "Whether those techniques were the 'only timely and effective way' to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively," he wrote at the time.