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.
Alex Gibney's new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, opens in Washington today at the AFI Silver. In a review last month, I wrote that most struck me about the film is how Army Pfc. Bradley Manning emerges as the surprising hero, since the story of WikiLeaks is generally most associated with its flamboyant founder, the Australian hacker Julian Assange. It turns out this was a surprise for Gibney, too.
I met Gibney last week while he was in town promoting the movie, and he explained that when he began research for the film, he assumed it would largely be about Assange and the rise of an organization dedicated to exposing government secrets and holding officials accountable. Gibney had watched WikiLeaks' "Collateral Murder" video, which shows a US helicopter firing on a group of people that the pilot believes are Iraqi insurgents, but who were actually unarmed civilians and journalists.
"It was biased, but I was ok with that," Gibney said. "Because [Assange] also presented the full video" in addition to edited clips and captions, along with the provocative title. Gibney had never met Assange, but he saw him as a "classic whistleblower."
Gibney hoped Assange would give him access and sit down for on-camera interviews, just as disgraced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had done for Gibney's movie Client 9, about Spitzer's procurement of prostitutes and the demise of his political career. But according to Gibney, Assange wanted something in return for his cooperation--money. When Gibney refused to pay, he said, Assange asked whether he would reveal information that he'd gleaned from other sources, in effect spy on people who'd been talking about Assange.
At this point, Gibney's perception of his would-be leading man seems to have changed. "By the time I got on the story, [Assange] was incredibly famous," Gibney said. "He was surrounded by lawyers, sycophants, and agents. He was used to people doing things for him."
In the film, Gibney uses Assange's chosen hacker alias, Mendax, or "noble liar," as a thematic touchstone. Gibney asserts that Assange wants to hold the powerful and corrupt to account, but he exempts himself from the same scrutiny. "He thinks the ends justify the means," Gibney told me. As I wrote in my review, Assange's story comes across as a cautionary tale about narcissism, and Gibney concludes that WikiLeaks has become the thing it set out to destroy: An autocratic regime that survives by cult of personality and secrecy.
This helps explains how Manning came to be the pivotal figure in the film. Gibney came to see the young Army private not as Assange's source, but as the key figure in WikiLeaks' biggest publication, the disclosure of thousands of intelligence reports from combat zones and a trove of diplomatic cables.
The credit for the biggest exposure of classified documents history, Gibney said, belongs to Manning, not Assange. "Really, the Wikileaks 'war logs' are the 'Manning logs." Without Manning, Assange never would have obtained the material that made him a global celebrity and dramatically enhanced WikiLeaks' influence.
Manning was a kind of "everyday hero," Gibney said, but with motives that he calls "complicated" and "not pure."
"There was a huge component of political consciousness" to what Manning did, Gibney said. Manning's state of mind when he gave the information to WikiLeaks, as well as his intentions, are key factors that will help decide how severely he is punished.
Manning has already pleaded guilty to a number of charges. His court-martial for the remaining alleged offenses is set to begin June 3.
"I hope the movie will make [him] more sympathetic," Gibney said.
Investigative Reporters & Editors, the country's main professional association for public accountability journalists, is seeking nominations for a new and arguably ignominious distinction: The Golden Padlock.
"This honor acknowledges the dedication of government officials working tirelessly to keep vital information hidden from the public," said David Cay Johnston, president of IRE, a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes mostly about tax and finance issue . "Their abiding commitment to secrecy and impressive skill in information suppression routinely keeps knowledge about everything from public health risks to government waste beyond the reach of citizens who pay their salaries."
You can submit nominations to email@example.com. You can nominate an agency--or an individual!--and should detail "reasons and/or media coverage detailing the intransigence."
I know a certain military public affairs officer in New Mexico who so deserves this.
The protagonist of Alex Gibney's new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is ostensibly the Australian hacker Julian Assange, who founded the anti-secrecy organization and published the biggest trove of leaked classified documents in US history. He's not exactly a sympathetic character in Gibney's eyes. Assange's story comes across as a cautionary tale about narcissism, and the filmmaker ultimately concludes that WikiLeaks/Assange (they are one in the same) has become the very embodiment of the thing it set out to destroy: An autocratic regime that survives by cult of personality and, irony of all ironies, secrecy.
Gibney would have made a good film had he only offered that persuasive argument--which Assange's supporters will doubtless see as an unfair hack job by a documentarian who never even interviewed his subject. (More on why not here.) But Gibney went further than I'd expected by deeply and, at times, touchingly exploring the secondary character in this global power-drama, who turns out to be the real star of the show: Army Private Bradley Manning, the young man accused of providing WikiLeaks with thousands of classified military reports and diplomatic cables.
The film is hugely sympathetic to Manning, who, since the movie was finished, has pled guilty to misusing classified material. Gibney argues that even if Manning committed a crime, the fact that some of the government's own assessments have found no great national security harm came of the disclosure should mitigate Manning's punishment. Manning's detractors will doubtless see that as as the conclusion of a biased filmmaker, who set out to turn a criminal into a martyr for public transparency and accountability.
The funny thing is, that's the character I thought Assange would turn out to be in this movie. Instead, it's Manning whose struggle to expose secrets seems most genuine and complex, and most significant for national security policy. After all, Assange was the recipient of the secrets. Manning is the one who let them loose, and exposed unacceptable weaknesses is the military's own security regime in the process.
Gibney makes extensive use of instant messages that Manning exchanged about his disclosures with the hacker Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the authorities and, in the film's final moments, regrets having done so. Manning tries to explain why he would risk violating national security and his own freedom to tell the world about what he believes are grave injustices carried out by the US government.
"i...care?" Manning writes.
Gibney flashes this portion of the text on screen at various points, and he makes a motif of Manning's other personal struggles, including with his gender identity and his inability to fit in with his peers and his fellow soldiers. Manning says he is extremely isolated. Feels entirely alone. The release of the documents is a way to change the world for the better and to imprint himself on it--to matter.
Manning seems like an accidental radical. A smart computer geek who never quite fit in with his peers--too weak, too effeminate, maybe just too smart--but who finds himself in a position to bring important matters to light. Assange, however, seems to be in the game to fuel his own ego. He craves credit, even adulation, for bringing the mighty security state to his knees, but he pays no mind to the consequences. He tells us that he would even release information about how to make a deadly weapon that could kill innocent people.
The title of Gibney's film comes from one of his interview subjects, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, who describes the business model of the US intelligence community as, "We steal secrets." It's hard to escape the conclusion that Gibney sees Assange as a kind of thief. Or at the very least, a resident of the moral gray zone that's also inhabited by the CIA. Hayden essentially argues, We steal because it keeps people safe. Assange could amend that for WikiLeaks: We steal because it keeps people honest. Gibney doesn't conclude whether either end is justified by the means. But that central tension holds the film together, and it brings you right back to Manning and his decision.
Some viewers will bristle at the suggestion that WikiLeaks' global campaign of radical transparency is, at base, simple theft. Is what Assange does, receiving secret information and publishing it, fundamentally so different than what journalists do? As a journalist, I wished Gibney had made more of an effort to address that quandary. But that could take another film.
I think it's enough that We Steal Secrets asks us to consider all these questions through the story of one deeply troubled and conflicted young man, who may spend the next several years of his life in prison. Gibney doesn't excuse what Manning did. But he tries to understand why he did it, in a far more human way than others who have tackled this story.
John Brennan's confirmation hearing for CIA Director has suddenly become a lot more consequential.
In the past few days, we've gotten a window into Brennan's role in the Bush-era terrorist interrogation program--it looks more significant than previously reported--and now comes a leaked Justice Department "white paper" that describes the administration's rationale for why targeted killings of U.S. citizens, a program that Brennan has overseen, are legal.
The revelations in both documents seem obviously engineered to put Brennan in the hot seat about two controversial programs, one of which, targeted killings, some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee still believe they have insufficient information. So, now we know the likely frame for Thursday's confirmation hearing, and I presume that some significant debate will turn on the question of what constitutes an "imminent threat."
The leaked Justice Department white paper arguably attempts to redefine what most people would consider the common sense definition of imminent threat--that is, an enemy is about to take up arms against you, or is preparing to attack you. Think bombers readying for takeoff, or a foreign nation basing missiles within range of the United States or its allies.
But that's not the kind of imminence the administration is looking for when deciding whether to kill a U.S. citizen. Indeed, the white paper argues that it would have made no sense to wait for the 9/11 hijackers to board airplanes before moving with lethal, preemptive force against them, had that been an option.
The paper argues that terrorist groups are always plotting, and that they would presumably strike if they had the opportunity. So if someone is a member of Al Qaeda, or an affiliate, he by definition poses a threat to America. But that doesn't mean said terrorist is poised to strike, and therefore, in a given moment, constitutes an imminent threat. Does it?
Now we enter a gray area that this white paper is unable to clear up.
"Imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity, the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on Americans," the white paper states in a section that addresses the central issues. (The question of imminence comprises much of the 16-page document.) Nothing in that sentence tells you when a terrorist is judged to be an imminent threat. Rather, it describes the considerations government officials must make when determining whether to kill him now. Or, imminently.
"Thus, a decision maker determining whether an al-Qa'ida operational leader presents an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States must take into account that certain members of [AQ] (including any potential target of lethal force) are continually plotting attacks against the United States; that [AQ] would engage in such attacks regularly to the extent it were able to do so; that the U.S. government may not be aware of all [AQ] plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur; and that, in light of these predicates, the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has a high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties."
This paragraph could be summed up as "a list of reasons not to not kill a terrorist."
The white paper attempts to give some more detail on the decision-making process for concluding that someone is, in fact, imminently threatening the United States. But it's thin.
"A high-level official [the white paper never specifies that this must be the President] could conclude, for example, that an individual posts an 'imminent threat' of violent attack against the United States where he is an operational leader of [AQ] or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planing terrorist attacks against the United States."
Ok, we're getting somewhere. You're an operational leader of a terrorist cell, you're a very dangerous guy.
"Moreover, where the [AQ] member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member's involvement in [AQ's] continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat."
That seems a reasonable conclusion to draw, presuming that the evidence of previous activities is sound. I doubt anyone would argue that a terrorist who has attempted to kill Americans, but who has failed, won't try to do so again.
But nothing in the white paper constitutes a check list of all the requirements or characteristics for becoming an imminent threat in the government's eyes. Does the high-level official rely on visual identification of a target from drone footage? Intercepted communications showing X degrees of separation to a known terrorist group? Human tips? Some combination of the above? Is two out of three enough?
We're not likely to hear anything about these specifics, not in an open, unclassified hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the white paper doesn't go there.
"This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render" a lawful targeted killing, it states. So, this paper can be described as the legal rationale for targeted killing in theory, if not as practiced by the Obama administration today. This is not a new revelation. (Indeed, the white paper references some speeches on this subject by senior administration officials.) But the introduction of the white paper into the public domain creates many new dynamics, and not just for Brennan's upcoming confirmation hearing.
One last point that may have implications beyond the realm of counterterrorism. Does the administration think its legal rationale for targeted killings is flexible enough to be applied to non-terrorist threats to national security? Could it justify, say, killing a member of a hacker collective whom the government believes is trying to take down a power grid with a cyber attack?
The white paper "does not assess what might be required to render a lethal operation against a U.S. citizen lawful in other circumstances," it states. So, the paper doesn't say the rationale could not be used against hackers. It just doesn't assess the question at all. If the potential breadth of the rationale does come up at Brennan's hearing, we'll be in the land of "hypotheticals," and in Washington, those are always easy to dodge.
Book reviews, roundups of current titles, and interviews with authors are going to be a regular fixture on Dead Drop. But I also want to alert readers to books you are going to be seeing on shelves in the future, maybe in a few months, or even a few years.
Today I'm launching a regular feature, spotlighting interesting national security-themed titles on the horizon. There's some reader service here, in that I hope this helps you better curate your probably long reading list. But there's also a bit of intelligence gathering. Publishers routinely announce deals they have just signed with authors, and those deals give you a ground-level insight into what ideas are selling in the book business, what stories are hot, and what topics publishers are betting are so salient that you'll want to read about them a few years from now, which is about how long it will take books that are now being written to get to market.
So, here are some upcoming reads that might interest Dead Drop readers. Keep in mind that book titles and publishing dates are often tentative.
The Man Who Was George Smiley, by Michael Jango (Biteback Publishing)
A biography of the author and MI5 officer John Bingham, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, who was the real-life inspiration for John Le Carre's fictional spymaster.
Pub date: February 2013
Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, by Jeffrey D. Simon (Prometheus Books)
Simon, who has more than a quarter century of experience studying terrorism, examines the motivations and backgrounds of those who strike terror on their own, independent of an organized group.
Pub date: February 2013
The Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady (Wiley)
Two close observers of the national security apparatus investigate how the government keeps secrets, and why "real secrets can't be kept, trivial ones are held forever, and sensitive ones are far too susceptible to political manipulation."
Pub date: April 2013
The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti (The Penguin Press)
The New York Times reporter draws from his beat to write about the evolution of the CIA and U.S. special forces into "competing covert manhunting and killing operations."
Pub date: April 2013
Wilson, by A. Scott Berg (Putnam)
The long-awaited biography of Woodrow Wilson from the author of many books on larger-than-life Americans, including Katharine Hepburn and Charles Lindbergh. Berg also wrote a definitive biography of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Pub date: September 2013
Brothers Forever, by Tom Sileo and Col. Thomas Manion (Da Capo Press)
Sileo, a military writer, and Manion, a retired Marine colonel, tell the story of his Marine son, Travis Manion, and his Naval Academy roommate, Navy SEAL Brendan Looney. The two men are now* buried next to each other in Arlington National Cemetery. President Obama spoke about them during Memorial Day remarks in 2011.
Pub date: Spring 2014
*This post has been updated from a previous version.