For years in Washington, top-level access to the Pentagon and intelligence community officials was dished out to select reporters who had proven their chops on the beat for newspapers, wires, networks, and magazines. But in Obama’s Washington, the rules are changing.
The two people who appear to have gotten the best access last year to this often-classified side of government were Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning pair who wrote and directed The Hurt Locker, for their forthcoming film about the SEAL Team Six raid that killed Osama bin Laden. At the time of those meetings, the film about what many consider Barack Obama’s finest moment was scheduled for release just a month before the election—potentially providing a huge, free-media coup for the president.
That arrangement, first reported by Maureen Dowd last year, was confirmed Wednesday by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal watchdog, which published a tranche of government emails and transcripts they received through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in January. Those government documents show that Bigelow and Boal received extraordinary access in the weeks after bin Laden’s death to senior national security officials who rarely talk to reporters—and that their access was granted in some cases at the direction of the White House.
On the first Saturday after the raid, reporters were invited to the Pentagon and shown a few videos and other items collected at the Abbottabad compound. That briefing aside, most of the interactions between the working national- security press and the CIA were restricted to conversations with press officers. While reporters also have access to senior intelligence and military officials at social events, congressional hearings, and through preexisting source relationships, the kind of red-carpet access rolled out by press officers for the filmmakers is unheard of for journalists on the beat.
To be sure, the military and CIA have worked closely at times with Hollywood for decades. But the disparity in access following the bin Laden raid troubled some observers.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the special treatment given to the filmmakers “outrageous.”
“If these filmmakers got access that trained national security and military reporters did not, then it’s telling the public: ‘We are not going to allow trained journalists to tell this story. If you want to know what happened, go buy a ticket to a movie,’” she told The Daily Beast in an interview.
Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists said, “The whole interaction with the filmmakers appears to be self-serving and self-aggrandizing [attempts] in an election year to glorify the administration.”
Aftergood and Dalglish both stressed they had seen nothing in the government materials released by Judicial Watch, and at points redacted, that showed Bigelow and Boal had access to classified information.
“Is this a violation of national classification policy? I don’t think we know that,” said Aftergood. “There is no indication up to now that classified information was revealed to the filmmakers, as far as I know. On the scandal meter it is in the low digits.”
Nonetheless, Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, is pressing the CIA and the Pentagon for more details about whether national-security secrets were disclosed to the filmmakers.
“After reviewing these emails, I am even more concerned about the possible exposure of classified information to these filmmakers, who as far as I know, do not possess security clearances,” King said in a statement. “The email messages indicate that the filmmakers were allowed an unprecedented visit to a classified facility so secret that its name is redacted in the released email. If this facility is so secret that the name cannot even be seen by the public, then why in the world would the Obama administration allow filmmakers to tour it?”
The facility King is referring to is a vault inside the CIA building where some of the planning for the bin Laden raid took place.
Preston Golson, a spokesman for the CIA, said in an email that rooms at the CIA the filmmakers visited were not classified facilities. “On some occasions, when appropriate, we arrange visits to the Agency for unclassified meetings with some of our officers. Rarely, we have allowed filming on our premises under very tight parameters,” he said. “Virtually every office and conference room in our headquarters is called a ‘vault’ in Agency lingo. The vault in question, that had been used for planning the raid, was empty at the time of the filmmakers’ visit.”
Thomas Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, suggested the filmmakers got the same access as the press. “When people, including press, authors, filmmakers, documentarians, who are working on projects that involve the president, ask to speak with administration officials, we do our best to accommodate them to make sure the facts are correct.”
He added, “That’s hardly a novel approach to the media. We do not discuss classified information. The information that the White House provided about the bin Laden raid was focused on the president’s role in that decision-making process. The same information was given to the White House press corps.”
A transcript of a meeting with the Department of Defense shows that the filmmakers were told the name of a SEAL Team 6 commander, but were asked not to use it or credit him as a consultant, since “he shouldn’t be talking out of school.”
The pair also appear to have had at least two meetings with John Brennan, an assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security and Denis McDonough, a deputy national-security adviser.
According to a transcript from a July 14, 2011, meeting between the filmmakers and Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Boal said: “I took your guidance and spoke to the [White House] and had a good meeting with Brennan and McDonough and I plan to follow up with them; and they were forward-leaning and interested in sharing their point of view; command and control; so that was great, thank you.”
In addition to administration and Pentagon officials, Bigelow and Boal also met with several members of the CIA.
Marie Harf, a former CIA spokeswoman who is now working with Obama’s reelection campaign, wrote in one email to a colleague to arrange a meeting with the filmmakers that Boal “has met with a number of your colleagues in CTC (Counterterrorism Center) and throughout the Agency. One of those folks he’s chatted with is [redacted], who recommended you as someone else who might want to sit down with Mark … he’s spoken to a number of folks who worked on the operation from [HQS], and to your predecessor [redacted], but he’s looking for more color about what it was like to be working this from the field.”
The released emails and transcripts also show Jeremy Bash, who was then-CIA Director Leon Panetta’s chief of staff, trying to help “unclog” the filmmakers’ access to special operations command. The Pentagon now says a meeting discussed and planned in those documents with a special operations planner never happened.
Bigelow and Boal’s drama, now called Zero Dark Thirty, is slated for release in December. Boal is himself a former journalist who has written for Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice.