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.
In 2006, as the war in Iraq was reaching a fever pitch, a Pentagon employee working on special operations teamed up with a Czech technology entrepreneur who had dabbled in the porn business and devised what they considered an ingenious plan. Knowing that video games played on mobile phones were popular throughout the Middle East, the team wanted to build games that contained positive messages about the United States. But the games weren't just about propaganda. Every download would give the United States a window into the digital comings and goings of whomever was playing it it, a cyber foothold that could allow American spies to potentially track and collect information on thousands of people.
The propaganda/spy campaign was dubbed Native Echo, and it was conceived by Michael Furlong, a colorful civilian employee working for US Special Operations Command, and a company called U-Turn, which was headquartered in Prague and founded by a pro-American Czech national named Jan Obrman, whose parents had fled the Soviets in the 1960s. The idea was to target Middle Eastern teenagers in "high risk/unfriendly areas," and over time to integrate the US messages "into the lifestyle of the targets," ideally to make them more amenable to US armed forces, and to counter the rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists.
The full account of this previously unreported intelligence operation is found in the new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. The book explores the ways in which the CIA--which before 9/11 had long been out of the business of killing people--and the US military--which had not been the domain of spies--have often changed roles over the past decade. It is filled with characters, like Furlong, who move between the membranes of these two worlds, and find themselves at home in either one.
Mazzetti writes that the first mobile game developed for Native Echo was modeled on the popular Call of Duty series. This new "shooter" game, Iraqi Hero, "took the player on an odyssey through the streets of Baghdad, shooting up insurgents trying to kill civilians in a wave of terrorist attacks," Mazzetti writes. "The goal was to reach an Iraqi police station and deliver the secret plans for an upcoming insurgent attack, plans that had been stolen from a militia group's headquarters."
Native Echo was timed to coincide with the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Its "main focus was on combatting the flood of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and parts of North Africa," Mazzetti writes.
As an intelligence collection program, Native Echo was both broad and audacious:
"Thousands of people would be sending their mobile-phone numbers and other identifying information to U-Turn, and that information could be stored in military databases and used for complex data-mining operations carried out by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. The spies wouldn't have to go hunting for information; it would come to them."
In order to hide the US role in the scheme, "Furlong convinced [U-Turn's] executives to create an offshore company that could receive Pentagon contracts but not be tied directly to the United States," Mazzetti writes. Obrman set up JD Media Transmission Systems, LLC, incorporated in the Seychelles Islands, in order to receive money transfers from the US through a foreign bank account.
Furlong was a master at working the byzantine procurement bureaucracy to further his covert plans. "Taking advantage of a law that allows firms owned by Native Americas to get a leg up when bidding on government contracts, Furlong arranged for U-Turn to partner with Wyandotte Net Tel, a firm located on a tiny speck of tribal lands in eastern Oklahoma," Mazzetti writes.
U-Turn developed two more games for Native Echo--Oil Tycoon, which challenged players to protect vital pipelines and infrastructure, and City Mayor, in which players became urban planners and rebuilt a fictional city destroyed by terrorists. The team came up with various ways to distribute the games, including by hand via memory cards, which could be sold or given away in markets and bazaars, Mazzetti reports. "The way to get far wider distribution, however, was to post the games on Web sites and blogs frequented by gamers in the Middle East. This allowed [Special Operations Command] to monitor how many people were downloading the games and, more important, who was doing it."
Mazzetti concludes that it's hard to know how far Native Echo went, and even how many companies like U-Turn were hired to create propaganda for the military. Furlong came up with other wild ideas, some of which were never approved. But the relationship between the military and U-Turn blossomed, and it offers a concrete illustration of how the armed forces evolved into a network of spies.
The Way of the Knife is full of stories like this, of people living on the edge between two worlds, frequently not sure how to operate on turf that had long been forbidden. The book is a culmination of Mazzetti's years of reporting on the intersections of the military and the CIA, and it is a forceful, compelling articulation of a new way of war. Mazzetti's reporting has been among some of the most important, in that it has shed light on usually hidden practices, particularly the use of brutal interrogations on terrorist detainees. As the book unfolds, we see how the 9/11 attacks shake the CIA out of their Cold War culture of espionage, and turn the agency into a highly-efficient global killing force.
I spoke with Mazzetti yesterday as he was heading off to New York to begin a book tour. He said that he began working after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that the first few months of writing were filled with some anxiety, since his journalism beat was now the hottest around. Lots of his competitors were writing books and long magazine articles about the raid. But Mazzetti said that he wanted to write something broader, to show how the long arc of the war on terror has fundamentally changed how the US fights.
"I covered the Pentagon for five years, and then I have been covering the intelligence world since 2006," Mazzetti said. "And really, I realized that I was kind of covering the same beat. The lines that existed before 9/11, where the military did this and the spies did that, really have blurred."
Mazzetti said he's glad to be back at the Times after a 15-month book leave. He had missed the collegiality of an office. Writing a book is solitary business. But in the midst of the project, Mazzetti and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed Max, their first child.
"I can't wait until he is old enough to read this book," Mazzetti writes in his acknowledgments. "I cherish the memories of the mornings we spent together during the first few months, and of the smiles he delivered when I came home at the end of particularly frustrating days of book writing. They put things in perspective."
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.