From the looks of it, about the only people who were reluctant to help two top filmmakers on their movie about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden were the people who actually planned the raid and pulled it off.
All the other key players, from the Pentagon to the White House to the CIA were on board and eager to tell the Obama administration’s side of the story to Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who, the day after the raid in May 2011, set to work on Zero Dark Thirty, trying to get access to top officials at the Defense Department and the CIA, as well as in the secretive confines of special operators who planned and executed the mission.
The administration's exuberant, occasionally giddy assistance to the filmmakers, who had previously collaborated on an Oscar-winning film about the war in Iraq, is documented in a Defense Department Inspector General report obtained and posted online by the Project on Government Oversight. It finds that Leon Panetta, who at the time of the raid was the CIA Director, revealed names of special operations personnel involved in the raid, as well as other information that was designated Top Secret.
Pentagon officials were also eager to assist the filmmakers and arrange meetings with people who helped plan the raid. In the course of these discussions, administration officials revealed the names of military special operators who were not supposed to be publicly identified, partly over concerns that they or their families could be targeted for retribution.
But in contrast to the Obama administration's aggressive pursuit and prosecution of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and other leaks, apparently no action was taken against Panetta or the other officials who freely shared sensitive information with the filmmakers. Military officers thought operational security and protection of their forces should trump all. Political and policy level officials were not exactly indifferent to that concern, but they were keen to tell the administration’s side of this extraordinary story, and to ensure their bosses came off in the best possible light.
Among those pushing hardest to cooperate with Bigelow and Boal was Douglas Wilson, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public affairs and the Pentagon’s top communications strategist.
Wilson leaned on Adm. Eric Olson, the Special Operations commander, to cooperate with the filmmakers' research about the raid. Wilson noted that Panetta “wants the [Defense] Department to cooperate fully with the makers of the [bin Laden] movie.” Michael Vickers, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, was about to meet with the filmmakers and “want[s] to know what [to] say,” Wilson told Olson in an e-mail.
Olson said Boal and Bigelow could use a set of talking points that had been drawn up “to ensure accuracy and provide context to the movie project.” Then he reminded Wilson that one of his special operations planners, who had been involved in preparations for the raid, should “not be identified by name as having participated in any way.”
This planner, according to the inspector general report, apparently knew many of the details about the preparations for taking down bin Laden and how the raid unfolded. He was so involved that as negotiations with the filmmakers unfolded, the planner was seen as qualified to speak on behalf of Olson, as well as the commander of the elite Joint Special Operations Command, Adm. Bill McRaven.
Olson was especially sensitive to protecting the planner’s identity from public disclosure. And McRaven said keeping the names of all those involved in the planning and execution of the raid a “top aspect” of the mission. The Defense Department had provided “inordinate security” to the operators and their families, according to McRaven, and had gone so far as to brief them on whom to call if they noticed anything suspicious at their homes.
But at an interview in the Pentagon with Bigelow and Boal on July 15, 2011, Vickers gave the filmmakers with the name of that special operations planner. The next day, Boal e-mailed a public affairs desk officer at the Pentagon to “obtain access” to the planner.
Vickers and Wilson exchanged e-mails. “Very many thanks for this,” Wilson wrote, referring to his meeting with Bigelow and Boal. “Think they came away very happy” from the meeting. Wilson said he’d put the filmmakers in touch with Olson’s “key planner,” and that this “should complete for now their requests of DOD.”
Wilson exchanged a few excited emails with George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, who had also made himself available to Bigelow and Boal. “We’re going to the premiere of the Boal/Bigelow movie next year,” Little wrote.
“We’ll be hosting it :-),” Wilson replied.
Little, who was director of CIA public affairs at the time of the raid, said that Panetta hoped Al Pacino would play him in the movie. “That’s what he wants, no joke!”
“They will,” Wilson replied.
Panetta was portrayed in the film by James Gandolfini.
At the same time, that special operations planner was sending e-mails to Pentagon officials, and speaking with Vickers, about the meeting he was expected to have with Bigelow and Boal. The planner wanted to talk first with a DOD public affairs officer, who noted in an e-mail exchange that press accounts were circulating about administration officials possibly providing the filmmakers with special access as well as classified information about the raid, something the public affairs officer denied.
“We may want to let the dust settle a little,” the public affairs officer advised the special operations planner.
According to the planner, this was his last communication with the public affairs officer, and he never met with Bigelow and Boal.
But Boal did attend an awards ceremony at CIA headquarters on June 24, 2011, that recognized the efforts to track down bin Laden. DOD special operators were present, but not in a “cover status” that would have used a guise to protect where they worked and what they did, the report found. “No precautionary measures” were taken to keep Boal from identifying any of the operators.
It was at this ceremony that Boal was given another name of a DOD special operator who was involved in the bin Laden mission, the report states. This operator was not in a cover status, but the individual's name was not supposed to be publicly revealed.
There were conflicting accounts of whether the awards ceremony was a small gathering or a large affair, and whether it was really all that sensitive. According to one attendee, special operators were present in uniform with their names visible on their uniforms.
But the DOD tried to stop Boal from attending, according to the report. A public affairs officer at the department claimed that Panetta’s chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, intervened and insisted that Boal come. Bash denied this, and said the decision to let Boal attend the ceremony came from discussions between the CIA’s public affairs shop and the filmmakers. (Little was the head of CIA public affairs at the time.)
At the event, Panetta gave a speech and “specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,” the report says. He also provided information designated Top Secret and Secret--the report doesn’t say what the information was.
Later, McRaven was personally introduced to Boal. He was “surprised and shocked” that a filmmaker was allowed to the ceremony at CIA headquarters, the report says. The event was closed to the press.
Ultimately, no classified tactics, techniques, or procedures were revealed in the back and forth between Obama administration officials and the filmmakers, the report found. And McRaven and his subordinates said they weren't concerned that they had been.
Still, the apparent lack of response by the administration to keep sensitive information from being publicly revealed stands in contrast to the aggressive attempts to staunch leaks of other secrets and details about intelligence and military operations. The episode also underscores the distinction between authorized disclosures--which these all appeared to be--and unauthorized ones.
You’d be forgiven for not believing it, but there was a time when seizing a reporter’s private e-mails and accusing him in court documents of possibly aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy for doing his job would have been unthinkable.
By now, we’re well acquainted with the Obama administration's unprecedented prosecutions of suspected leakers, and how that pursuit has ensnared journalists and jeopardized their ability to protect their sources’ identities. But this anti-leaking zeal didn’t begin in 2009 with the inauguration of Barack Obama.
The course was set in 2003, when an influential appeals court judge opined that journalists’ supposedly legal right not to reveal their sources, known as “reporters’ privilege,” was complete bunk. The privilege—or at least lawyers’ perception of it—was the constitutional cornerstone that backed up journalists’ pledges never to reveal the names of people who talked to them in confidence. But now that the legitimacy of the privilege was questioned, prosecutors were emboldened to acquire reporters’ confidential information using tactics they wouldn’t have dared try in a prior era.
In a piece for the magazine three years ago, I wrote about how federal prosecutors have flexed their legal muscles over the past decade, and how the undermining of the reporters’ privilege helps explain why the Obama administration is so keen to go after leakers and is willing to turn journalists into unwitting, and unwilling, tools of investigations. Here are the key moments in the timeline.
July 2003: Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit writes an opinion explaining why the court had ruled against a group of authors who refused to hand over tape recordings of interviews they’d done with a source. Unexpectedly, Posner argues that the landmark Supreme Court decision in Branzburg v. Hayes that supposedly established reporters’ privilege actually did no such thing.
Journalists don’t have an “absolute” privilege to protect their sources, Posner writes. Instead, courts need to “make sure” that a media subpoena “is reasonable in the circumstances. . . . We do not see why there need to be special criteria merely because the possessor of the documents or other evidence sought is a journalist.”
Posner lowers a gate separating the government and the press. And within a few years, federal prosecutors are climbing over it.
December 2003: US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, acting as a special prosecutor in the investigation of who may have leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame to news reporters, subpoenas five journalists to testify before a grand jury. Judith Miller of the New York Times refuses to comply and eventually spends 85 days in jail.
“Plamegate” becomes a watershed for the press, in large part because Miller fought the subpoena and lost. This becomes a precedent that weakens reporters’ assertion of privilege where the underlying leak, in this case identifying a clandestine CIA officer, might involve a crime. In retrospect, then-Times executive editor Bill Keller wonders whether the paper should have tried to strike a deal with prosecutors that would have prevented Miller from having to fight the subpoena and go to jail.
February 2006: The Justice Department investigates the source of a New York Times article that revealed a secret program of warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency. In testimony before a Senate panel, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is asked whether the administration had considered “any potential violation [by the newspaper] for publishing that information.” Gonzales replies, “Obviously our prosecutors are going to look to see all the laws that have been violated. And if the evidence is there, they’re going to prosecute those violations.”
This is the first time any administration official has hinted that the government might prosecute journalists under criminal law for reporting on national security information.
March 2006: A pair of FBI agents shows up at the Bethesda home of Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor and former investigative reporter for CNN. They demand that Feldstein hand over decades-old documents that he’d been researching for a book on investigative columnist Jack Anderson, who’d died a few months earlier. When Feldstein asks what crime the FBI was investigating, an agent replies, “Violations of the Espionage Act.”
The agents say they’re investigating a case involving two lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who’d been indicted for receiving classified information. The FBI wants Feldstein to tell them the names of reporters who’d worked for Anderson and who held pro-Israel views and had pro-Israel sources.
Feldstein doesn’t hand over the documents or assist the FBI. He later writes that the agent’s actions “suggested that the bureau viewed reporters’ notes as the first stop in a criminal investigation rather than as a last step reluctantly taken only after all other avenues have failed.”
May 2006: A federal prosecutor subpoenas two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle who’d seen transcripts of confidential grand-jury testimony in an investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), which produced performance-enhancing drugs for athletes. The reporters linked well-known players to steroid use, including players who publicly proclaimed that they’d never taken drugs. The government wanted to know who had violated the rules of grand-jury secrecy and shown court documents to the reporters.
The BALCO case tests the limits of internal guidelines that Justice Department lawyers are supposed to follow when subpoenaing members of the media. No national-security issue was at stake, nor was knowing who leaked the grand-jury information, which was a crime, necessary to establish the guilt or innocence of anyone involved in steroid use. The subpoenas were approved by Attorney General Gonzales.
Mark Corallo, the Justice Department spokesman under Gonzales’s predecessor, John Ashcroft, later says the prosecutors had broken the department’s rules. “This was an abuse of power,” Corallo tells the PBS news program Frontline. “. . . The government just did not meet the standards set by their own guidelines. . . . This one doesn’t even come close.”
The reporters, who had once been personally thanked by President George W. Bush, a former baseball team owner, for their public service journalism, ultimately avoid going to jail when their source identifies himself.
August 2006: A freelance videographer, Joshua Wolf, is sent to jail after he refuses to turn over video footage of a protest in San Francisco in which a police car was burned and an officer was injured. Wolf spends 226 days in prison. He is released when he finally agrees to turn over his uncut footage.
January 2008: The Justice Department subpoenas New York Times reporter James Risen, demanding to know the source of information for a chapter in his book, State of War, about a botched CIA operation against Iran. The government had been investigating the case for two years, and had considered trying to halt the book’s publication, in 2006. Risen resists the subpoena, which eventually expires at the end of the Bush administration.
February 2008: Newspaper reporter Toni Locy is held in contempt of court for refusing to identify her sources for a series of articles in USA Today. Locy had written in 2001 about Steven Hatfill, a virologist who was identified as a “person of interest” in the anthrax attacks, allegations that later proved false. Hatfill sued the government for violating his privacy and subpoenaed several journalists to find out who in the government fingered him as a suspect.
The Justice Department, which is defending the US government in the civil suit, argues that Judge Reggie Walton “should reject this attempt at expanded discovery” and quash Hatfill’s subpoena. Walton disagrees, underscoring judges’ new willingness not to recognize the reporter’s privilege, even in non-criminal cases. He rules that for every day Locy refuses to testify, she must pay $5,000 in penalties out of her own pocket. The decision is stayed pending appeal, and a court eventually vacates the judge’s ruling, but only because Hatfill had settled his case with the government, rendering Locy’s testimony needless. The appeals court did not reach any decision about the reporters’ privilege.
April 2010: The Justice Department subpoenas New York Times reporter James Risen a second time. Judge Leonie Brinkema questions why the government needs a subpoena when there appears to be enough evidence of who the leaker is to secure an indictment. She requires prosecutors to get the sign-off of Attorney General Eric Holder. Risen continues to fight the subpoena, and eventually Brinkema limits the questions the government may ask him in court. Risen appeals to keep that decision in place. The case could end up in the Supreme Court.
May 2010: A federal judge authorizes a search warrant for the personal e-mails of Fox News reporter James Rosen in connection with the suspected leak of classified information about North Korea a year earlier. An FBI agent swears in an affidavit in support of the warrant that “there is probable cause to believe” that Rosen is violating a criminal law on disclosing “national defense information” by acting as “an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator” with a State Department official suspected of being his source. Rosen is reportedly not informed that the government wants to search his e-mails and has no opportunity to resist the warrant.
May 2013: The Justice Department informs the Associated Press that it had subpoenaed the phone records of several AP journalists. The records, obtained months earlier, include numbers dialed to and from phone lines in four AP offices, possibly implicating the communications of 100 journalists, over a period around two months. The Justice Department appears to be investigating an AP story on a successful CIA operation to thwart a bombing plot hatched in Yemen.
Let's play a game. Let's pretend that Ryan C. Fogle, the US diplomat whom the Russian government accuses of working for the CIA, actually is a CIA officer trying to recruit Russian spies. There are reasons to believe the story is not that simple. (Here's a good list of them.) But for the moment, imagine he was in Moscow on a secret mission to recruit a Russian government official.
How to explain, then, the bizarre assortment of paraphernalia he had on his person? His costume kit looks like what you'd wear to a Halloween party if you were dressing up as a spy. And there are items here that, at first glance, seem useless to a 21st-century master of espionage. What on earth could Fogle be doing with, among other things, two wigs, an old cell phone, a map, a compass, and a canister of pepper spray?
Actually, quite a lot. Let's take the items one at a time.
A) A pair of wigs
If Fogle were on his way to meet a recruit, he might presume he was being followed. So obviously he'd want to disguise his normal appearance. But to throw off his minders, he might change wigs in mid-course. "Disguises can be used at different times, going into the operational act or leaving it, so that you look different leaving it," said Peter Earnest, the executive director of the International Spy Museum and a former CIA officer. He adds, "The use of disguises didn’t go out with the end of the Cold War."
B) A printed map of Moscow
In the age of GPS-enabled smartphones, why would a CIA officer need to carry a map? Maybe because he doesn't want to be tracked on that GPS-enabled smartphone. Presuming Fogle was trying to evade electronic surveillance (and there are other indications that he was), and that he doesn't know every avenue and alley of Moscow by heart, he might need an old-fashioned assist from a street map. This might also explain the equally unexpected presence of C) a compass.
Another, arguably less likely reason for carrying these directional paraphernalia: to give them to his recruit, so he could get out of town without using a smartphone.
D) An old model cell phone, apparently a Nokia
Like the map and compass, the old-school phone seems anachronistic. But if Fogle's intention was to limit his exposure to electronic surveillance and geo-location tracking and still have a reliable means of communicating with people, he might look for an older phone that doesn't automatically ping its location. He might also have brought the phone to give to his recruit as a way of communicating with him in the future.
E) Blue "RFID Shield" pouch
Fogle had a plastic document sleeve bearing the logo of this company, which designs protective barriers for passports and other documents embedded with radio-frequency identification chips. The company claims that when a passport is surrounded by its shield, "the identity and biometric data stored on the RFID chip . . . will be kept safe from snooping."
But the company doesn't appear to have any clear blue plastic models, which is what Fogle was carrying. And whatever is inside the pouch appears to be wrapped in tinfoil. That's a pretty standard DIY RFID shield. All in all, this item looks puzzling, but it might also show that Fogle was taking yet another counter-surveillance measure.
F) Canister of pepper spray
It's a bit hard to tell from the photo, but this looks like a canister of pepper spray, a standard non-lethal tool for self-defense. If Fogle got into a tight spot with some Russian security forces and needed to disable them, he'd prefer to do so without committing murder. Yes, he's carrying G) a knife, but that strikes me as a tool of last resort. Also, the knife isn't very big. Nor is Fogle, for that matter. It'd be easier for him to temporarily blind an adversary and then run away than to attack him with a knife.
The other items in Fogle's kit seem pretty obvious. Money to pay the contact. Flashlight—it was dark outside. The Swiss Army knife looks attached to a keychain, maybe along with a fob.
We should remain skeptical about this whole operation, since the US has offered no explanation, and because the apprehension of Fogle looks staged and designed for public consumption.
"This has the earmarks of being a setup," said a former intelligence official, who was quick to add, "That's not to say the guy didn’t have that stuff on him and wasn't trying to recruit somebody." The spying business is still going strong well after the end of the Cold War. "No one should be shocked that there still is gambling going on in this casino," the former official said. "Russians in lots of other countries still go out of our way to spy on us, and we return the favor."
Ryan C. Fogle, the US government employee whom the Russian security service claims is a CIA officer, is merely the latest spy-posing-as-diplomat to be thrown out of the country. And plenty of his Russian colleagues have gotten the boot for spying in the West. Over the past decade, dozens of agents, intelligence officers, and embassy employees on all sides have been outed, arrested, and deported or imprisoned for espionage.
2001: After the arrest of FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen, the US declares six Russian diplomats persona non grata. Later, another 46 diplomats are ordered to leave the country, marking the largest spy deportation since President Ronald Reagan ordered out 55 Soviet agents in 1986.
2001: Russia arrests and later releases a US Fulbright scholar on drug charges and alleges that he was a spy in training.
2006: A Navy enlisted man, Ariel Weinmann, gave tomahawk missile information to the Russians in Vienna. He was later caught and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
2006: Canada arrests and deports an alleged Russian spy, who had been living as a Canadian with fake documents for a decade.
2007: The UK expels four Russian diplomats.
2010: Ten russian agents, dubbed the "illegals,” are arrested in the US, accused of trying to gather information on businesses and American policy.
2010: The UK and Russia exchange tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats.
2012: Alexander Fishenko is arrested for selling hi-tech electronics to Russia.
2012: Retired Russian Col. Vladimir Lazar is convicted of spying and selling 7,000 maps to the Pentagon.
2012: Russia orders the US to end USAID operations in the country for meddling in internal affairs.
Nicholas Hunt contributed reporting.
The Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of several Associated Press journalists, apparently in an investigation of who disclosed to the organization information about a classified counterterrorism operation in Yemen. According to the AP, investigators "obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors . . . in what the news cooperative's top executive called a 'massive and unprecedented intrusion' into how news organizations gather the news."
This is a significant threat to journalists' ability to shield the identify of their sources. But it is not surprising and was probably inevitable.
Last year, a Justice Department official said the administration was "out for scalps" in its zealous investigation of leaks and subsequent prosecutions. Identifying those who disclose classified information to journalists is easier today because the government has several means of legally accessing electronic records, such as phone logs, and more sophisticated software for analyzing who was communicating with whom.
When an agency reports a leak of classified information to investigators, they first look at the so-called BIGOT list, which contains the names of all individuals who are read in on any classified program, and how much information they're authorized to know. That helps them determine, among other things, whose phone records to examine.
It's not clear on what grounds the Justice Department was able to subpoena the AP's phone records, but investigators may already have had some notion who was on the other end of any calls to reporters or editors.
"The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP," the organization reports.
The breadth of these records is what's most perplexing. In the past, investigators have obtained access to a specific reporter's records, but I can't think of any case where the government got so much information and from so many offices, as well as private lines. Do investigators really have reason to believe that their suspected leaker or leakers were talking to at least six journalists in at least four different AP offices? To get a media subpoena, they'd have to persuade a judge, and the attorney general, that this was so, and that the only way to know for sure who was disclosing the secrets was to seize all these journalists' records.
There's no indication from the AP report that investigators were listening in on journalists' conversations. But they wouldn't have to in order to determine that a reporter and a particular government employee have a relationship. The phone log will tell them that.
“I’ve done investigations like this, and I know that the longer I stay on phone with you, the more suspicious it looks,” Steven Tyrrell, a former Justice Department prosecutor who had been in charge of two high-profile leaks cases, told me last year. During the second term of the Bush administration, Tyrrell led the Justice Department's case that reportedly scrutinized the phone records of New York Times reporter James Risen, in an attempt to find out who gave him classified information about a CIA operation in Iran.
Risen's case has some important lessons for the AP, which has demanded that the Justice Department return the phone records and destroy all copies. According to a former intelligence official, when the Justice Department first sought a subpoena to compel Risen to identify his source to a grand jury, in 2008, investigators already had a suspect. They "already know who it is," the former official said, adding that the person was a former CIA employee.
Seeking a subpoena under these circumstances may have breached the Justice Department's own guidelines on when prosecutors can try to compel reporters to disclose their sources. The guidelines state that the government must have exhausted all other reasonable means of identifying a suspect. Prosecutors must also get the approval of the Attorney General. Media subpoenas are a tool of last resort, and they are supposed to be narrowly crafted.
The subpoena for Risen's testimony expired at the end of the Bush administration, but then, during the first term of the Obama administration, prosecutors sought to renew it. A judge resisted prosecutors' second attempt, ordering them to get Eric Holder's sign-off. According to another former official, the judge thought the government had enough information to go ahead and indict their suspect without forcing Risen to testify.
Prosecutors ultimately charged Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee, with disclosing secrets.
The pattern here suggests that prosecutors are getting more aggressive not just about finding the source of leaks, but about making journalists tools of their investigations.
More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, US intelligence agencies are doing a much better job sharing information about terrorism and other national security threats. Their challenge now "is largely one of information overload," says a new report by the Congressional Research Service, published last week.
"Analysts now face the task of connecting disparate, minute data points buried within large volumes of intelligence traffic shared between different intelligence agencies. According to a [Director of National Intelligence] statement from July 2010, 'Terabytes of foreign intelligence information come in each day, vastly exceeding the entire text holdings of the Library of Congress, which is estimated at 10 terabytes.' In the additional views section of the Senate report on the Christmas day bombing attempt, Senators Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr noted that analysts who could have connected the dots prior to the incident struggled to search the large volume of terrorism-related intelligence available to them. The same problem was identified at the FBI in the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting."
The crippling dilemma of information overload is not news. (See here, here, here.) But in the context of the Boston Marathon bombings, and the inevitable questions that will follow about who knew what when, it's important to keep this salient fact in mind: The US intelligence community does not have a problem collecting information. It has a problem understanding much of it.
(Thanks, as always, to Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists for posting this CRS report, among many others.)
Is David Petraeus about to jump into the world of high finance?
ValleyWag has gotten this terribly intriguing tip about the former general/CIA Director's possible comeback: "He has been making the rounds at a number of New York-based venture capital and private equity firms and one very knowledgeable source said Petraeus is slated to announce a relationship shortly." The source points to KKR & Co. as a possible landing spot.
More intriguing still, at least to me, is speculation that Petraeus could join the high-profile data-mining outfit Palantir. I can say from personal experience with Petraeus that he has been deeply impressed by the company, which did its early breakout work in the national security and intelligence communities. Petraeus even requested a meeting with the CEO after reading this story I wrote about the company in 2012.
Petraeus had recently become CIA Director, and apparently he didn't realize then that Palantir had a long history with his new agency. In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital arm, was an early backer of Palantir. And the spy agency also gave the fledgling company an extraordinary test bed for its software:
"According to a government official familiar with the episode, the CIA allowed Palantir to set up its software in the agency’s counterterrorism center, the hub of its global campaign to track down terrorists. The official was astounded that a little-known company from Silicon Valley was allowed to place its equipment on a network that pulses with some of the most highly classified intelligence the government collects. The CIA let Palantir use some of that intelligence to show off its software, the official says, an extraordinary departure from normal security protocols.
"Palantir didn’t disappoint. The official says the company worked for several months without pay and convinced the CIA that its technology could do what it claimed."
Osama bin Laden may have met his fate at the hands of military men. But it's a lesser-known fact that, for more than a decade, many of the CIA officers who were tracking the terrorist leader were women. Indeed, for as long as the CIA has been in the business of finding the founder of al Qaeda, and eventually killing him, women have been leading much of the hunt. Some say it's work to which they're particularly well suited.
The CIA established a group devoted exclusively to gathering and analyzing intelligence on bin Laden, known as Alec Station, in 1996. Counterterrorism wasn't the high-stakes, career-advancing line of work that it would become after the 9/11 attacks. And the members of Alec Station, many of whom were women, took a professional risk by pigeon-holing themselves into a profession that didn't seem to have a future.
But this tight band of CIA officers, some of whom called themselves "the Sisterhood," had found a bit of refuge from the male-dominated culture of the agency, in which no woman has ever served as director. They also found a rare, and at the time maybe even unique kind of intelligence work, in which analysts--the traditionally desk-bound thinkers of the agency's Directorate of Intelligence--worked closely with those who ran spies and did the clandestine work of espionage in the field, the members of the agency's Directorate of Operations. Historically, those sides didn't mix much on a personal or professional level. But at Alec Station, analysts and operators worked together, and in fairly short order they realized that the man whom much of the CIA had written off as a feckless wannabe jihadist was poised to become extraordinarily dangerous.
The story of how the CIA first got onto bin Laden's trail, and how it ultimately pointed Navy SEALs to his physical address in Pakistan, is the subject of the new documentary Manhunt, premiering Wednesday night on HBO. Directed by Greg Barker (Sergio, Koran by Heart), it "stars" some of the former members of the Sisterhood and other CIA officers who joined in the hunt for bin Laden and his al Qaeda brethren before and after the 9/11 attacks. The film is based on the book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad, by journalist Peter Bergen, the author of four books on al Qaeda who produced bin Laden's first television interview, for CNN in 1997.
The film Manhunt is a work of broad ambition, so broad, and covering so many years, that after the first half hour, when we were still not very close to Abbottabad, I wondered how Barker would ever bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. (Even though we all know how this story ends.) But the film succeeds by turning the bin Laden story into a personal and intimate one, told entirely through the perspective of the people who actually tried to track him down.
Not every member of Alec Station is here, nor is everyone who played a central role in bin Laden's ultimate demise. But those who speak on camera do so without aliases or disguises, and in numbers that, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented for any work of film or television. If Manhunt weren't also an engrossing story, it would still be notable just for brining into the Klieg lights so many people who spent their lives in the shadows.
The film portrays intelligence work up close, with a particular emphasis on the role of women. Cindy Storer, a former CIA analyst, and Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, demonstrate how to locate a terrorist using fragments of disjointed and often contradictory information. We watch them tack photos and bits of paper to a white board, connecting the items with colored lines. The picture doesn't come together as quickly as some of Carrie Mathison's jazz-fueled intel binges on "Homeland," but like that fictional representation, real-life analysis is tedious, frequently maddening, and often unproductive. But when it pays off, it does so with lethal effects.
There are times when Manhunt feels like fiction. Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11 and most purely represents the spying-side of the agency (now known as the National Clandestine Service), is as flamboyant and mischievous a character as you'd expect to find in an espionage potboiler. He's full of war stories and serves as the brawn to the analytic brains, and, visually at least, a strong masculine counterpoint to a story dominated by women.
But like a good spy story, not everything is what it seems. Far from butting heads with his women colleagues, either owing to their gender or some link to the "other side" of the CIA bureaucracy, Martin fuses with them. And the farther we get in time from the 9/11 attacks, the more the distinctions across the CIA between men and women, analysts and operators, start to fade, until they become arbitrary. Bakos represents the final synthesis of the two--a targeting officer is both an analyst and an operator. And the blending of those two worlds brings us to the modern CIA, which is more a global paramilitary organization than a Cold War spy house.
Manhunt is a work of empathetic storytelling. Barker doesn't want to tell you the story of finding bin Laden so much as show you how the hunters did it. And because you walk in his subjects' shoes, you feel their triumphs and their failures acutely. You can imagine yourself sitting in an office like theirs, doing mind-numbing work and taking it home in your head at night. You can grieve with the CIA officers who talk, through tears, about their friends and co-workers who were killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009, an event that the film accurately portrays as a turning point in the CIA's war against al Qaeda--it galvanized the agency to recommit to finding bin Laden. These testimonials make the bin Laden story, which has been the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, accessible.
Manhunt inevitably draws comparisons to that other big movie about killing bin Laden. But while Zero Dark Thirty purports to be a work of journalism, Manhunt actually is. There are no pseudonyms or character composites. And when some of the same events are portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, which is a superb film, they feel beyond the realm of our everyday experience. We can more easily imagine ourselves like Storer, showing up to work every day and banging her head against a desk, than we can see ourselves on the deck of a Blackhawk helicopter, wearing night-vision goggles and carrying an assault rifle.
Barker's empathy imposes certain limits on his film. You don't know where he stands on some of the most controversial and socially important questions of the bin Laden story, such as whether torture produced information that helped the CIA finish their manhunt. When Barker and I met in Washington a few weeks ago, he told me it's the mark of a successful film that you can't say for sure what he thinks. Not everyone who watches Manhunt will be satisfied with Barker's approach, which leaves some very big questions about some very dark days not fully answered.
But we shouldn't expect every story about bin Laden to be told through the lens of a moral dilemma. It's enough, at least for this film, to show people doing a job, one that was measured in years and lives lost, and that changed those who did it, just as it changed history.
If you've been watching the nearly non-stop coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, you've seen a parade of alleged terrorism experts on the major networks and cable outlets. If you've seen Phil Mudd's face, however, you've seen the genuine article.
Mudd was the deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and, later, the first-ever deputy director of the National Security Branch at the FBI. He left government in 2010, and now he's out with a new book that is part memoir, part inside look at the United States' hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist.
Takedown: Inside the Hunt for al Qaeda starts with Mudd, in 1984, driving up to the gates at CIA headquarters to answer a help-wanted ad he heard about through a family friend. "I have my resume here," Mudd told the guard through a rolled-down car window. (Not having seen the ad himself, Mudd didn't have an address to mail his application.) A month or so later, he writes, he came home to a message on his answering machine from a guy who only gave his first name. Mudd "knew instantly, despite my ignorance about intelligence, national security, or Washington itself, that this was the CIA."
Mudd's book is not a story of clandestine operators and special forces, but of the people who try to "connect" those proverbial dots about nascent, ambiguous terrorist plots, and who ultimately played just as vital a role in taking down Osama bin Laden as their gun-toting colleagues. The book is meant to evoke empathy for the pain-staking, frequently confounding work of what some have compared to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box.
Of the CIA's failure to stop the 9/11 attacks, Mudd writes, "It is not that reasoned intelligence analysis could not have pieced together such a story; we learned a painful lesson about understanding this adversary that day. But no one could have believed the scenario that unfolded with enough conviction to take the kind of action needed to fight this threat--global military and intelligence operations, along with diplomacy--that came to convulse the planet."
Mudd's memoir will feel at home alongside operations-focused accounts of the CIA's war in the shadows, not because it's full of breathtaking adventures from the field, but because it's steeped in a particular culture and ultimately has the ring of authenticity. Mudd explains how the agency crafts the President's Daily Brief in such a way that it sounds more like a daily newspaper than a top secret intelligence document. But that's what you'd expect from someone whose job was to talk to top policymakers about classified material. For Mudd, this was a matter of routine, and while the significance of his line of work was not lost on him, it perhaps didn't seem as novel or enthralling as it may sound to an outsider.
There are some pretty harrowing war stories in the book. Mudd was part of a small CIA team that went to Afghanistan to help overthrow the Taliban, when the agency "took the gloves off," as Cofer Black, then the director of the Counterterrorist Center, liked to put it. But the book makes its most valuable contributions to the bin Laden story when we see Mudd trafficking in information--the most powerful currency in Washington--obtained from many parts of the vast intelligence system. He takes you deep into the confusing process of sorting all those puzzle pieces and explains that murky process in a clarifying way.
The FBI has released photos and video of two men described as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings and has asked for the public's help locating them. FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers emphasized during a press conference that no detail was too small, and that these are the only two men the FBI considers suspects at this point. The public was urged to disregard other photos at this point and to call 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324), prompt #3 with information.
Officials did not say whether they think the suspects are part of a known terrorist group, whether foreign or domestic. A press conference in Boston this afternoon was short on details of the investigation. The man in the white cap, DesLauriers said, is believed to have put down a backpack that contained one of the two bombs.
It's obviously too early to say definitively who these men are or how they may or may not be connected to an organized group. But three former CIA officers who I spoke with this morning--before these photos were publicized--cautioned against ruling our a foreign connection at this early stage. The former officers were in Washington to talk about their role in the upcoming HBO documentary Manhunt, about the CIA's search for Osama bin Laden--in which they all played key roles. I'll have more on the movie in a few weeks. I asked them to give me their read on the unfolding investigation in Boston.
They all thought that it was premature to say this is not the work of al Qaeda or some foreign terrorist group. Just because this attack doesn't fit AQ's previous signatures doesn't mean the group hasn't changed up the playbook. And just because there were apparently few, if any, warning signs or chatter in the run-up doesn't mean that the attack must have been planned by a domestic terrorist group.
"My fear has always been that al Qaeda would go low-tech and tactical," said Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11. Martin worried that the group would move away from its trademark spectacular attacks that cause mass casualties (blowing up buildings and airplanes) towards assaults on soft targets, such as shopping malls, that might result in fewer deaths but still end up sewing panic and confusion, and that are easier to plan and harder to interdict. The finish line of the Boston Marathon, Martin said, is a very soft target and a very high-profile one.
When bin Laden was alive, al Qaeda tended to favor bigger, large-scale attacks. But now that he's dead, the strategy may have shifted, noted Cindy Storer, an analyst who was part of the CIA "sisterhood" following bin Laden's trail in the 1990s. Martin added that an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's long-time no. 2, is now in charge of the group, and that Egyptian terrorist groups have historically used the lower-scale, tactical attacks like the one in Boston.
Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, also urged people not to over-generalize al Qaeda. There are multiple variants and offshoots. Might the Boston attack have been executed by a group that hasn't shown up on the radar yet? Al Qaeda and its affiliates have also successfully recruited westerners and others who might draw less suspicion and have an easier time entering the United States, she said. Indeed, the group has made no secret of its desire to do so.
Everyone cautioned they were just speculating, but their insights were nevertheless instructive. For instance, despite some commentary that the attack must be the work of amateurs because it didn't kill more people and involved improvised bombs, all three former officers said the attack reflected a high degree of skill, and possibly some significant training. For starters, the attackers--they didn't know how many there were this morning--built two bombs that went off as planned. That's not as easy as you might think. Building an explosive device that works as intended it not as simple as following a recipe on the Internet. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square car bomber, couldn't do it. Neither could Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber who tried to blow up an airplane mid-flight.
Second, the attackers were able to "infiltrate, execute, and exfiltrate," as Martin put it, meaning they got to their target, planted and set off the devices, and then got away without being caught. Martin called that "disconcerting." Pulling off this kind of mission isn't easy, and the fact that investigators are coming up short on leads lends credence to the idea that the attacker may have been trained in how to avoid detection. Martin speculated that they might have used disguises like wigs or hats, which would make them harder to find now. (In the photos, both men are wearing ball caps. One is wearing sunglasses.)
Even though the signs don't point to a traditional al Qaeda attack, that doesn't mean it was planned at home or is the work of a lone-wolf. We could be witnessing something new, or a variation on an old strategy.