Exclusive: New Documents in Zero Dark Thirty Affair Raise Questions of White House-Sanctioned Intelligence Leak and Inspector General Coverup
Critics have assailed the movie Zero Dark Thirty, charging that it fictionalized key elements of the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden and falsely credited the use of torture as being essential to locating the terrorist. But the factual liberties filmmakers took are only part of the story.
Now, a document newly obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) reveals more about the high-level government access Hollywood filmmakers had during their research—and what happened at the top of the CIA, including the Agency’s use of White House-approved talking points to brief the filmmakers specifically about intelligence used to locate the al Qaeda leader.
That intelligence, according to the CIA and as portrayed in the film, was extracted using coercive techniques including waterboarding, an assertion that has emerged as a major point of contention between the CIA and Members of Congress from both parties. Indeed, leading U.S. Senators have blasted as false the movie’s depiction of torture as key to tracking down bin Laden. Many details are unknown, but the possibility that White House-approved talking points may have been a prime source for the portrayal of how he was located puts Zero Dark Thirty’s inaccuracies in a troubling light.
A little-noticed email citing White House-approved talking points surfaced in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch in 2012, as did what is apparently another White House account of the raid. But it appears the document obtained by POGO references a different White House-approved narrative. The material uncovered by Judicial Watch does not refer specifically to intelligence that led to bin Laden’s location; the document obtained by POGO does.
The additional information appears in a never-issued 15-page draft version of a report prepared by the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DoD IG) and marked “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY.” The report was requested by then-Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Peter King (R-NY) shortly after bin Laden’s killing in May 2011 to determine whether filmmakers received “top-level access to the most classified mission in history.”
Trouble in a Timeline
Especially disturbing are the lengths to which DoD’s then-Acting Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks went to suppress details of the collaboration between Hollywood and the CIA. POGO also obtained an official timeline of the investigation. It shows there was “[r]emoval of CIA information” from the report on the same day that another document indicates she met with then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and discussed the report. Panetta was CIA Director during the bin Laden raid, and the highest-ranking subject of Halbrooks’ probe. Halbrooks ultimately issued a sanitized account of what happened and withheld the embarrassing material from Congress and the public. That material, uncovered during months of research, led to the conclusion that Leon Panetta, as CIA Director, and Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers had conveyed ultra-sensitive, legally protected information to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty.
After six years in the DoD IG’s Office, Halbrooks last week announced her resignation effective April 17. Shortly afterward, current IG Jon Rymer sent an email to DoD IG staff hailing her as his “closest advisor.” Rymer has appeared as disinterested as Halbrooks in telling the full story of what happened. In a statement to POGO, Rymer said that Halbrooks and the DoD IG office “maintained our independence and acted appropriately throughout the Zero Dark Thirty project. I have seen no evidence that third parties influenced the content of the report.” Halbrooks did not respond to a request for comment.
Rymer’s support and Halbrooks’ departure likely mean a full explanation of her actions will be unobtainable. Among the unanswered questions: Did Halbrooks shield Panetta because she was angling for a permanent appointment to the IG position at the time? And did Panetta directly influence her decision to keep him and others out of the report when he met with her the same day the document was scrubbed?
Whatever her reasons, the end result is that the actions of Panetta and his top intelligence advisor, Michael Vickers, have not been acknowledged, and neither will be held publicly accountable for providing restricted information to the filmmakers.
This follows what has been the Obama Administration’s disparate treatment of intelligence leaks, such as allowing former CIA Director David Petraeus to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, while harshly prosecuting low-level offenders like CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling. Petraeus admitted leaking highly classified information to his mistress, as well as to lying about it to the FBI, a felony offense with which he has not been charged. Sterling, who was convicted of leaking information to a New York Times reporter, could face decades in prison.
“FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY”
The 15-page version of the report POGO recently obtained, labeled “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY” (an unclassified designation), contains much of the same information as the 13-page version that POGO published on June 4, 2013.
While Halbrooks suppressed both reports, one key difference is that the newly obtained document includes an apparent summary of what a top CIA official told DoD’s Vickers about the intelligence shared with Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers:
“…Leon Panetta was fully cooperating with the movie project and that several CIA staff used White House-approved talking points to talk to Mr. Boal [the producer of Zero Dark Thirty] about the intelligence that led to UBL’s [Usama bin Laden’s] location.” (see IG Report below)
The film’s contention that bin Laden’s location was obtained using coercive techniques is disputed by key lawmakers including Senator John McCain (R-AZ), now Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), now Ranking Member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Feinstein’s panel produced a report saying that most of the “documents, statements and testimony” connecting the use of torture and the bin Laden mission were “inaccurate and incongruent with CIA records.”
Charles Grassley (R-IA)—then-Ranking Member and now-Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—called Halbrooks’ publicly released account of the matter “highly-sanitized” and “not worth the paper on which it was written.”
An Independent Watchdog?
The timeline obtained by POGO raises the question of what influence Panetta may have had on Halbrooks’ decision to remove his misconduct from her report.
It shows that CIA material was removed from the report on December 18, 2012. According to a report by Senate Judiciary staff posted on the web, that’s the day Halbrooks met with Panetta at the Pentagon. “A reasonable person would conclude something happened at her meeting [with Panetta]. Otherwise it’s a hell of a coincidence,” a source who worked for Halbrooks on the investigation told POGO. (The same Judiciary staff document shows the dates when other key information was removed from the 13-page IG report POGO exposed in 2013.)
It’s not clear exactly what Panetta and the IG discussed, but Halbrooks has said the topics included a media report from the previous day alleging that Vickers might have broken the law by releasing the restricted name of a special operator to Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers. The media report said Halbrooks’ office had quietly referred Vickers’ name to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution, potentially harming his chances to become CIA Director following Petraeus’ resignation only weeks earlier. (DOJ opted not to pursue the matter.)
A spokesperson for Vickers said a DoD investigation found that his conduct was “above-board, responsible, and conscientious” and that he “made no improper disclosures.” However, the “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY” report took a different view. It said the special operator’s name Vickers shared with filmmakers was “‘not for public release,’ protected under 5 U.S.C. Section 552a, the Privacy Act, and 10 U.S.C. Section 130b, Personnel in Overseas, Sensitive, or Routinely Deployable Units: Non-disclosure of Personally Identifiable Information.” The report also cited Admiral William McRaven, a commander of the bin Laden raid, saying he wanted to protect the name from public disclosure.
What’s clear is that after her meeting with Panetta, the report she oversaw would be locked away, even though it appeared she had been ready to release it to top DoD officials and key Members of Congress. An unsigned and undated cover memo that accompanies the FOUO report is addressed to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (now Secretary of Defense), Vickers, Admiral McRaven, and others. The memo says copies would also be sent to top Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, including leaders of the House and Senate Committees on Intelligence and the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
Meeting in the SCIF
Other entries in the timeline show that Halbrooks was deeply involved at virtually every stage of preparing the reports she later suppressed. She was the top official in the room at team meetings called “In-Process Reviews,” or IPRs, to discuss information, some of it embarrassing to Pentagon leadership and the White House—meetings that took place in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF—and not in her own office, a participant told POGO.
During much of this period in 2011 and 2012, Halbrooks was also an active candidate for DoD’s permanent Inspector General, lobbying outside stakeholders in her bid for a job she ultimately failed to win when President Obama chose Rymer, the current IG, to fill that post.
At one point, according to the Judiciary Committee staff report, Halbrooks blamed a “junior team” for doing a sub-standard investigation without a highly-qualified top-level manager.
Yet in the summer of 2013, Halbrooks personally presented investigators who produced the report with a “Team of the Year” award. “If there was a junior team, Ms. Halbrooks was its leader,” one person with firsthand knowledge of the investigation told POGO. “She supervised all those meetings, she knew and approved of everything that went on. She was informed not just about general facts, but key details and briefing slides. Many of the meetings were attended by the general counsel [of the IG], or his deputy, her chief legal advisors. She knew about everything of any substance.”
According to interviews, one of the most controversial aspects of her investigation, at least internally, was Halbrooks’ decision not to allow staff to interview Panetta himself. The Defense Secretary was, after all, the most important subject of her probe. “There was a staff recommendation that we make a request to interview Mr. Panetta in order to validate what we had already learned…and it is very unusual not to interview the subject of a serious allegation,” a member of the investigative team told POGO. Meanwhile, investigators were permitted to interview Vickers and Panetta’s chief of staff.
The timeline shows that at one point (August 3, 2012), Halbrooks participated in a session at which team members performed what the document calls a “SECDEF Interview Dry-run” held after seven sessions labelled “SECDEF Interview Questions Review.” Despite all this, and at Halbrooks' direction, Panetta was never questioned about his conduct.
Panetta did not respond to a request for comment.
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