For nearly two years, lawmakers have repeatedly accused government officials of leaking classified information to filmmakers about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But in a report released June 14, the Defense Department inspector general revealed — in excruciating detail — its findings that the White House did not communicate with DOD about providing the filmmakers with access to military special operators. And while DOD did, on its own, take steps to set up a meeting between a special operations planner and the filmmakers, no such meeting ever occurred.
Four months after bin Laden’s death in May 2011, rumors started circulating that administration officials were providing classified information to filmmakers Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow. The duo had been the team behind the award-winning “The Hurt Locker,” about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Bigelow directed and Boal wrote the screenplay; both won Academy Awards for their efforts, and the film won Best Picture. It was known the two were working on a film about bin Laden, initially about his escape from U.S. forces in Tora Bora, but later shifting focus to the fatal raid.
With the film, “Zero Dark Thirty” — which eventually grossed more than $130 million and was nominated for five Academy Awards — slated for release weeks prior to the 2012 election, many saw propaganda in the works.
“The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history from an administration that has tried to throw more people in jail for leaking classified information than the Bush administration,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote Aug. 6, 2011. “It was clear that the White House had outsourced the job of manning up the president’s image to Hollywood when Boal got welcomed to the upper echelons of the White House and the Pentagon and showed up recently — to the surprise of some military officers — at a CIA ceremony celebrating the hero SEALS.”
Bigelow denied these allegations of White House favoritism shortly after Dowd’s column.
But responding to the widespread allegations, Peter King, R-N.Y., former House chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, submitted a congressional request to the inspectors general at DOD and CIA. Most important, King wanted to know whether the White House had advised DOD or CIA on providing access to “covert military operators and clandestine CIA officers,” and why Boal had appeared at the ceremony for the SEALS involved in the bin Laden raid.
Nearly two years later, he finally has his answers.
DOD and White House never met “regarding the advisability of providing filmmakers with access to military special operators,” the report reads. The White House did coordinate with DOD about getting the filmmakers set up in a meeting with Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, through June and July of 2011. But from there, Vickers’ emails and other communications revealed an internal DOD discussion over the level of support the agency wanted to give the film.
Emails revealed a high level of support from DOD’s director of entertainment media and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, who became defense secretary July 1, 2011. But Special Operations Command balked at the request to interview Navy SEALS, sending an email stating its position “there was already too much information released concerning the bin Laden raid and has obvious concerns about DOD providing any support for this effort.”
But Boal was welcomed at the CIA awards ceremony Dowd wrote about June 24. According to the DOD Public Affairs Office, the CIA Public Affairs Office did not want him to attend, but that fact was not passed along in time. The CIA Public Affairs team was worried as the SEALS would be visible, “with nametapes, because it was a formal ceremony. [They] were in the front row, front, left side, prominently on display for everybody,” according to one official’s testimony.
Other officials paint a different picture. One described it as: “a huge enormous crowd, I mean they built a tent and it was not sensitive, I would say it was not a highly sensitive event. It was pretty much a cattle call for a lot of folks and for around the community and obviously not open to the public per se.” It was even broadcast on the CIA’s closed circuit television. A video depicting the event was accessible via the CIA’s classified network.
But SOCOM officials were wary of Boal’s appearance at the event. Navy Adm. William McRaven — commander of Special Operations Command after Aug. 8, 2011 — was described as “visibly, surprised and shocked,” by one official.
Still, DOD did work to grease the wheels at SOCOM. Douglas Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, sent Boal an email directly, saying he “will work to unclog the SOCOM pathway for you.” And he did just that. An email from Vickers revealed McRaven, despite initial hesitations, had agreed to allow a special operations planner to talk on background.
“His main task is to provide accuracy and context where needed,” wrote Eric Olson, the previous commander of Special Operations Command. “My (our) hope and intent is that [the special operations planner’s initials] not be identified by name as having participated in any way.”
But the special operations planner actually never participated in any way. No meeting ever occurred.
Throughout July, the filmmakers and Wilson continued to communicate. But in mid-August — eight days after King filed his request and 11 days after The New York Times charged the White House catering to Bigelow and Boal — the special operations planner was told, “We may want to let the dust settle a little,” before any meeting should take place.
In the end, no meeting ever did.