May 23 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration promised a Hollywood filmmaker unprecedented access to the top-secret Navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden to help her make a feature film on the operation at the same time it was publicly ordering officials to stop talking about the raid.
The Pentagon’s top intelligence official, Michael Vickers, offered Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow interviews with a member of the SEAL team that helped plan last year’s assault on bin Laden’s compound, according to a transcript of a July 15 meeting released yesterday by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based legal organization.
The summary was among hundreds of pages of material on the Obama administration’s cooperation with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on their proposed movie that Judicial Watch obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents illustrate a conflict between the administration’s public calls for shielding classified information related to bin Laden’s death and its private effort to assist the filmmakers.
During the meeting with Bigelow, who directed the Academy Award-winning Iraq War movie “The Hurt Locker,” Vickers also divulged the name of the typically secret Navy commando unit known as SEAL Team Six.
“Well, the basic idea is they’ll make a guy available who was involved from the beginning as planner, a SEAL Team 6 Operator and Commander,” said Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, according to the transcript.
Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory, a spokesman for Vickers, said in an e-mail last night that Vickers wasn’t referring to a SEAL Team Six member in the transcript.
“The identity of a planner, not a member of SEAL Team 6, was provided by the U.S. Special Operations Command as a possible point of contact for additional information if the DoD determined that additional support was merited,” Gregory said. “No additional official DoD support was granted, nor to our knowledge was it pursued by the filmmakers,” he said. “This was a meeting to explore possibilities about supporting the film endeavor.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters today that the filmmakers never met with the military planner and that officials haven’t reviewed a script from Boal or Bigelow.
‘Desire to Inform’
Help to the filmmakers was “driven by a desire to inform the American public,” not by politics, Little said. The comments by Vickers in the transcript referring to SEAL Team Six merely confirmed an “open fact,” he said.
“The fact that the SEALs were involved was not in any way, shape or form a secret,” Little said.
After decades in which officials were portrayed as corrupt and incompetent, U.S. policy makers are “thrilled to help” Hollywood shape their portrayal in a more positive manner, according to Rogan Kersh, associate dean and public policy professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
“Obama’s opponents howl that the administration is ‘politicizing’ the bin Laden operation,” Kersh said in an e-mail. “I can’t think of a politician who doesn’t claim credit for successful policy achievements, especially when film studios -- with their proven ability to reach millions of people -- come calling.”
Sued for Release
Judicial Watch sued the Defense Department in January for release of the records and received the material on May 18, the group said in a news release yesterday. The organization is also pressing for the publication of post-mortem photos of bin Laden and video, which the U.S. government has refused to release, citing national security concerns.
The July meeting involving Vickers, Bigelow and Boal, which was sanctioned by the White House, came two months after then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen urged military officials to stop talking about the May 2, 2011, raid.
“My concern is that there were too many people in too many places talking too much about this operation,” Gates said at a May 18 news conference. “And we had reached an agreement that we would not talk about operational details. That lasted about 15 hours.”
At the July 15 meeting, Boal told Vickers he had already met that day with CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell and earlier with White House Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, according to the transcript.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said today that “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.”
The administration does its best to provide information to the “press, authors, filmmakers, documentarians, who are working on projects that involve the president,” Vietor said in an e-mailed statement.
President Barack Obama has highlighted the raid’s success as part of his re-election campaign. In a new television commercial, Obama pledges to support military veterans.
“It’s because of what they’ve done that we’ve been able to go after al-Qaeda and kill bin Laden,” he says in the ad.
Request for Investigation
“We do not discuss classified information,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Aug. 10 after Republican Representative Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for an investigation into whether the filmmakers were given access to government secrets.
King’s request was prompted by an Aug. 7 New York Times column by Maureen Dowd that said: “The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history.”
The Pentagon routinely provides technical assistance and location access to filmmakers, including those who made the science-fiction movie “Battleship” that was released last week. In exchange for such access, equipment and personnel, filmmakers must modify a script if requested by the Pentagon or by a military service.
In a statement today, King said the e-mails tell “a damning story of extremely close, unprecedented and potentially dangerous collaboration with top officials of the CIA, DoD and the White House and a top Democratic lobbying firm” -- the Glover Park Group, which he said “was intimately involved in brokering these filmmakers’ access to clandestine officials and potentially special operators only weeks after the mission and when details were otherwise still very closely guarded.”
King said that according to the e-mails, the filmmakers were allowed a “visit to a classified facility so secret that its name is redacted in the released e-mail. If this facility is so secret that its name cannot even be seen by the public, why would the Obama administration allow filmmakers to tour it?” They also were permitted to tour the CIA’s vaults, he said, “which is absolutely shocking to those of us who know the sensitive nature of materials kept there.”
He also wrote today to Vickers and Morell, expressing his concerns about the potential release of classified information.
Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican who serves on the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, wrote the Defense Department’s inspector general today asking for an investigation of whether the filmmakers were given classified information.
A summary of a June meeting between Vickers and Boal, the writer and producer of “The Hurt Locker,” offers a glimpse of the Obama administration’s possible motives for assisting the filmmakers -- aside from preventing inaccuracies and disclosures of classified information.
Vickers said that based on the intelligence, there was a “60 to 80 percent certainty” that bin Laden was in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and that ordering the raid “was a ‘gutsy decision by the POTUS,’” shorthand for President of the United States, according to the summary. Vickers “recommended” that the filmmakers look at the raid from the Central Intelligence Agency, Pentagon and White House vantage points.
“White House involvement was critical,” according to the summary of Vickers’ discussion.
Bigelow is out of the country filming and can’t be reached for comment, her publicist, Susan Ciccone, said yesterday.
Pentagon and special operations officials haven’t publicly acknowledged the official designation of the Navy unit known informally as SEAL Team Six and formally as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or Devgru, based in Dam Neck, Virginia.
When 17 members of the unit were killed last Aug. 6 in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crash, the fact that they were members of that unit wasn’t disclosed even though their names were released.
‘If It Gets Out’
Vickers had no such reticence when meeting with the filmmakers.
“He can probably give you everything you would want or get” from the top U.S. Special Operations Command commander or direct raid commander, Vickers said, referring respectively to then-Admiral Eric Olson and Admiral William McRaven.
According to the documents, McRaven, then head of the Joint Special Operations Command, and Olson wouldn’t speak with the filmmakers because military officials were concerned “that it’s just a bad example if it gets out -- even with all sorts of restrictions and everything.”
The SEAL Team Six planner whose name was blacked out in the transcript will “speak for operators and he’ll speak for senior military commanders” because they are all “the same tribe and everything,” Vickers said during the July meeting.
The commanders tell their troops never to talk about operations, and doing so now would jeopardize their leadership, Vickers told the filmmakers, according to the documents.
Still, filmmakers were ecstatic. “That’s dynamite by the way,” Boal told Vickers, according to the transcript. “That’s incredible,” Bigelow said.
Officials at the CIA went to unusual lengths to cooperate with Bigelow and Boal. In a June 30 e-mail to a recipient whose name was redacted, then-CIA spokesman Marie Harf, who now works for Obama’s re-election campaign in Chicago, said: “As a Agency, we’ve been pretty forward-leaning with Boal, and he’s agreed to share scripts and details about the movie with us so we’re absolutely comfortable with what he will be showing.”
“I know this is a little outside what we typically do as CIA officers,” she continued later, “but Boal seems committed to representing the Agency well in what is a multimillion-dollar major motion picture.
“(... we’re trying to keep his visits at HQs a bit quiet, because of the sensitivities surrounding who gets to participate in this types of things. I’m sure you understand ...)”
Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman, said in an e-mail yesterday that “on some occasions, when appropriate, we arrange visits to the Agency for unclassified meetings with some of our officers.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com