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Project on Government Oversight

Unreleased: Probe Finds CIA Honcho Disclosed Top Secret Info to Hollywood

By Adam Zagorin and David Hilzenrath

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

The Defense Department Inspector General’s office has been sitting on a report that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disclosed “TOP SECRET” information and other sensitive details two years ago at an event attended by a “Hollywood executive” working on the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

In June 2011, when he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Panetta discussed the information at a CIA headquarters event honoring participants in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to an unreleased report drafted by the Inspector General’s office and obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

“During this awards ceremony, Director Panetta specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,” the draft report says. “According to the DoD Office of Security Review, the individual’s name is protected from public release” under federal law, the report says.

“Director Panetta also provided DoD information, identified by relevant Original Classification Authorities as TOP SECRET//SI//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL, as well as, SECRET/ACCM,” the report says.

Panetta was not interviewed for the report, the document says. POGO’s repeated attempts to reach him or a spokesperson for him through the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, his base in California, were unsuccessful.

“The report is not yet completed,” said Bridget Ann Serchak, a spokeswoman for the Inspector General’s office. “Once it is released, if it is unclassified, it will be posted on our Listserv and in our newsletter as well as on our website.”

Plugging Leaks

Click here to see our infographic about how leaks are treated differently case to case.

Disclosures of classified information have taken center stage in Washington recently as the government has ratcheted up actions against leakers, whistleblowers, and journalists. The nation has been struggling to draw the line between truth-telling in the public interest and criminal violations of national security—a debate that runs through the newly opened trial of accused WikiLeaks tipster Bradley Manning, the Justice Department’s pursuit of phone and email records of reporters for the Associated Press and Fox News, and the imprisonment of former CIA agent John Kiriakou for divulging the names of fellow officers.

James Comey, widely reported to be President Obama's choice to become FBI director, has set his own tough standard. "[S]ome things can't leak," Comey said in a 2007 video clip broadcast last week on the PBS NewsHour. “The flip side of that is, when they do leak, the government has to do something about it, has to, because we care about the rule of law."

The Inspector General (IG) report obtained by POGO lays out results of an investigation requested almost two years ago by the then-chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Peter T. King (R-NY). In August 2011, he wrote that he was concerned that filmmakers had reportedly received “top level access to the most classified mission in history.” The probe was formally initiated in December 2011.

The fact that the IG’s office has not released its findings has caused consternation among the office staff, people familiar with the probe told POGO. Within the office, there was a push to make findings public as early as a year ago, sources speaking on condition of anonymity said. Last fall, the office took steps toward releasing some version of the report, including putting it through a Pentagon vetting process and preparing talking points to explain the contents, a person familiar with the investigation said.

Another person with knowledge of the probe said the draft report obtained by POGO matched a copy that person examined in January, when it appeared to be all but ready for release. The IG’s office had gone so far as to include an undated cover letter addressed to the House committee chairman who requested the investigation.

Message From a Whistleblower

Appointed by President Obama, Panetta served as CIA director from 2009 to mid-2011 and as Defense secretary from mid-2011 until early this year. 

The unknown fate of the IG report was the subject of a December 2012 email exchange—obtained by POGO—between a congressional staff member and an employee in the IG’s office. The congressional aide mentions having heard that someone in the IG’s office was “sitting on it until Secretary Panetta retires” and asks the IG employee for any information about it.

The IG employee replies: “That effort . . . has been controlled and manipulated since inception by the IG Front Office.” The employee adds: “There is a version ready to hit the street, been long time ready to hit the street…but we will see if that happens anytime soon.  Highly unusual tight controls and tactical involvement from senior leadership on this project.”

The employee says the matter reflects broader problems within the IG’s office.

“I have grave concerns that the message and findings are now controlled and subject to undue influence across the board at DoD IG. I have never experienced or seen so much influence or involvement by outsiders now in developing and issuing oversight reports.”

The IG employee invokes whistleblower status.

“I consider this protected communications on alleged wrong-doings within the Government.”

Lame Duck Watchdogs

The story of the unreleased investigative report illustrates systemic problems that can undermine the independence of inspectors general, federal watchdogs meant to provide a check on executive branch departments and agencies. The Defense Department IG answers not only to Congress but also to the secretary. 

Across various departments, IG posts have gone unfilled for long periods of time, left in the hands of officials serving on an interim basis. Less secure in their jobs, they may be in a weaker position to challenge authority.

As POGO said in testimony to Congress last year, “It is hard to imagine that an Acting IG known for conducting hard-hitting investigations and audits that implicate high-level administration officials would be asked by that same administration to serve as IG on a permanent basis.”

Lynne Halbrooks, Principal Deputy Inspector General of the Department of Defense.

The Defense Department IG’s job has been vacant since December 2011, and the office has been headed on a temporary basis by Lynne M. Halbrooks, who is now the principal deputy inspector general. She has sought support to be named permanent inspector general, a presidential appointment that traditionally involves the approval of the secretary. 

Serchak, the IG spokeswoman, said the absence of a permanent inspector general has not affected the office’s work.

“Nothing’s changed,” she said.

In January, representatives of the IG’s office told Senate overseers that the Zero Dark Thirty report would not be released until the office had completed two related reports, POGO has been told.

The IG report also highlights what critics have complained is inconsistent treatment of people who spill government secrets.

“It’s like Animal Farm,” said one person with knowledge of the investigation. “Some people are more equal than others.”

In the realm of national security, the government has taken extraordinary steps to plug news leaks, prosecute whistleblowers, and probe news organizations. In contrast, the IG report describes how the Obama Administration threw its support behind a Hollywood project depicting one of President Obama’s most dramatic triumphs – the nighttime SEAL team assault on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden – referred to as “UBL” – had been hiding. 

After Panetta became secretary of Defense, senior Panetta aides implored a resistant Special Operations Command to assist, according to the draft IG report.

“Secretary Panetta wants the Department to cooperate fully with the makers of the UBL movie,” a Pentagon under secretary emailed the head of Special Operations, according to the report.

Emailing a senior Pentagon colleague during the summer of 2011, Defense Department spokesman George Little offered a glimpse of Panetta’s enthusiasm. “I hope they get Pacino to play [Secretary Panetta],” the report quotes Little as having written. “That’s what he wants, no joke!”

Inside The CIA’s Big Tent

Zero Dark Thirty debuted in December 2012. At one time, it had been slated for release before last fall’s election. The producers included Kathryn Bigelow, the Academy Award winning director of The Hurt Locker, about an Army bomb squad in Iraq, and Mark Boal, screenwriter of The Hurt Locker.

The IG report recounts that Boal was permitted to attend a June 24, 2011, ceremony at CIA headquarters honoring personnel involved in the May 2011  bin Laden raid. The fact that the screenwriter was allowed to attend has been reported previously and has been a subject of controversy.  The IG report provides new details about the event—notably, that Panetta’s remarks contained information classified as Secret and Top Secret.

 Excerpt from the unreleased draft report.

The “SI” part of the Top Secret marking refers to Special Intelligence, another term for communications intelligence, according to a Defense Department classification manual. It applies to electronic intercepts, said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. The rest of the Top Secret marking – “REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL”—means that the information can be released to properly cleared personnel of the United States, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand.

The “ACCM” part of the Secret marking denotes material protected by “Alternative Compensatory Control Measures,” according to another Defense Department manual. Those measures include a list of people authorized to access the information, the manual says. “Compromise of ACCM program information can present an immediate and real threat to national security and those personnel involved in mission execution,” the manual says.

The report notes other indications that what was said at the event should be handled with care. The prepared remarks that Panetta delivered “were labeled SECRET//NOFORN”—meaning not releasable to foreign nationals—and a record of the event was made “accessible on the CIA’s classified network,” the report says.

The IG report does not say what Top Secret or Secret information Panetta provided. It rules out a broad category of sensitive Defense Department information: “tactics, techniques, and procedures,” known as TTPs. The report’s authors concluded that “no classified or sensitive special operations TTPs were exposed” at the event.

 “No Precautionary Measures”

The IG report says special operations personnel were not pleased to discover that an outsider was at the CIA event. At a reception following the ceremony, Admiral William H. McRaven, one of the raid’s overseers, was introduced to a person “identified as the maker of the ‘Hurt Locker,’” the draft report says. “ADM McRaven and DoD special operators present were all ‘universally surprised and shocked’ that a Hollywood executive attended this CIA Headquarters awards ceremony.”

 “ADM McRaven informed us he was concerned about the possible release of the special operators’ identities,” the draft report says.

As secrecy surrounding the raid eroded, in part through the appearance of a filmmaker at the CIA event, the military became increasingly concerned that participants in the raid could be targeted for terrorist retaliation. The report notes that McRaven held a meeting with families of special operators to tell them that “additional protective monitoring” would be provided and “to call security personnel if they sensed anything.”

The probe by the Defense Department IG’s office did not assess the extent of any compromise to CIA sources and methods or intelligence-gathering capabilities, the report says.

In the run-up to the event, the prospect of a Hollywood executive attending was a subject of concern within the CIA public affairs office, the report says. 

The report says that a CIA public affairs officer tried to prevent the filmmaker from attending. That information is attributed to a Defense Department official who had been in contact with the CIA public affairs officer. However, the day of the event, the CIA public affairs officer allegedly relayed that efforts to keep the filmmaker out failed “and the ‘Chief of Staff’ directed that the Hollywood executive be given access to the event.”

The report says Panetta’s chief of staff at the CIA—Jeremy Bash, who followed him to the Defense Department in the same role—disputed that account, saying he was not involved.

Though special operations personnel expected it to be a small event, it was far from that, the report  says. “The Director of CIA’s Chief of Staff described it to us 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’” but “`not open to the public per se,’” the draft report says.

The special operators attended in uniform with their names displayed and were directed to reserved seats in the front row, the report says. The identities of the SEAL Team members could have been useful leads for anyone trying to gather information about the mission.

“We found no precautionary measures were taken to protect special operators from being identified by the Hollywood executive at this event,” the draft report says. 

Panetta:  “No Unauthorized Disclosures”

The findings in the draft inspector general’s report seem to be at odds with public statements Panetta has made.

Panetta told ABC in May 2012 that “nothing inappropriate” was shared with the filmmakers.

“We’ll try to make sure that we give them accurate information so that the historic record is protected. But you know, we do not share anything that is inappropriate with anybody,” he said on “This Week.”

At a June 2012 Senate hearing, based on the controversy that was already raging, Panetta was asked about “this accommodation with Hollywood filmmakers regarding the bin Laden raid.”

He responded forcefully.

“Look, let me first say as a former Director of the CIA, I deplore the unauthorized disclosures of classified information,” Panetta said. “I think that this is something that does have to be fully investigated, and it has to be very clear that this is intolerable if we’re going to try to protect the defense of this country.”

“Look, let me first say as a former Director of the CIA, I deplore the unauthorized disclosures of classified information,” Panetta said. “I think that this is something that does have to be fully investigated, and it has to be very clear that this is intolerable if we’re going to try to protect the defense of this country. We’ve got to be able to protect those who are involved in clandestine operations.”

Panetta gave the impression that the concerns were unfounded.

“I also want to make clear that, you know, no unauthorized disclosures were provided to movie producers or anybody else. What we do have is we do have an office at the Pentagon that almost every day deals with people that want to do something about, you know, either a movie or a book or an article or something related to our defense," he told lawmakers. “And we want to make sure that the information that they do use is accurate. And we do assist them with regards to the accuracy of that information. But I can assure you, I’ve asked that question, in this instance, nobody released any information that was unauthorized.”

Panetta’s alleged disclosures at the CIA event were not the only potential embarrassments for the Pentagon and the Obama Administration in the draft IG report.

The document says that Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers gave Boal and Bigelow the name of a Special Operations planner of the raid – an “Operator and Commander”—that was protected by law and was “For Official Use Only, not for public release.”

But, as with Panetta’s alleged mention of the ground commander’s name, the federal laws the report cites with respect to the undersecretary’s disclosure are not specifically focused on covert operators. They deal with, among other things, “personally identifying information” about “any member of the armed forces assigned to an overseas unit, a sensitive unit, or a routinely deployable unit.” The “For Official Use Only” label does not mean the information is classified.

The report obtained by POGO paints Panetta’s disclosure in more serious terms. It flatly states that, beyond naming the ground commander at the June 2011 ceremony, he revealed information that was classified.

Santa Delayed

As recently as December 2012, after repeated delays, the IG’s office was gearing up to release the Zero Dark Thirty report, POGO has been told.

In the December email chain with a congressional staff member, the IG employee who had been so critical of the IG’s office expressed relief.

“Senior leadership met on Friday afternoon.  Decided subject report you inquired on should be issued.”

“Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause [sic]…DODIG does its mission.”

As it turns out, that assessment was premature.

POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian contributed.

To contact the authors: azagorin@pogo.org and dhilzenrath@pogo.org

To contact POGO Director of Communications Joe Newman: jnewman@pogo.org