Deep in the cover of night in the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, a team of Navy SEALs descended from helicopters, breached the compound of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and brought him to justice. The story is the stuff that blockbuster movies are made of, but many of the details are largely a closely guarded secret. That was until the Obama White House granted extraordinary access and information to Hollywood filmmakers for their film about the raid, originally slated to be released just before the November presidential elections. As disturbing as that may be, it is not the first time this White House has disclosed confidential information under questionable circumstances.
The news of the information leak comes from Judicial Watch, a conservative organization that seeks transparency in government. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the organization obtained records from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency regarding meetings and communications between government agencies and director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Judicial Watch reports that “According to the records, the Obama Defense Department granted Bigelow and Boal access to a ‘planner, Operator and Commander of SEAL Team Six,’ which was responsible for the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, to assist Bigelow prepare her upcoming feature film.”
Politico reports on a July 2011 meeting between Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers and the film makers in which he told them that leaders of the Special Operations Command couldn’t speak to them for appearances’ sake, but that they would make available a Navy SEAL who was involved in planning the raid from its earliest stages. According to Politico, that meeting occurred just weeks after the Pentagon and CIA warned against the dangers of leaked information about the raid. On top of that, Judicial Watch reports on an email exchange in which top officials expressed their desire to “shape the story” and have the filmmakers use “White House talking points,” including calling the raid a “gutsy decision” and that “WH involvement was critical.”
Not to be missed is the political angle. A June 9, 2011, email reveals that the White House was aware the movie was set for a fourth-quarter release date — coinciding with the president’s re-election bid — and that the meeting between the filmmakers and the DOD / CIA was arranged by The Glover Park Group, a Democratic-leaning advocacy firm headed up by a former adviser to Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. And then there’s the fact that Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns the production house distributing the film, hosted a fundraiser for President Obama on its lot last month, part of a West Coast fundraising tour that raise the campaign more than $4 million.
Though we do not know for certain the full extent of the information revealed, we do know that this is not the first time that the Obama Administration’s handling of classified information has been called into question. Earlier this month, former CIA officials blamed the Obama Administration for leaking details on Britain’s involvement in a covert mission that resulted in the foiling of an underwear bomb plot. The Guardian reported that the leak followed a series of disclosures beginning with a report on an expansion of CIA drone attacks in Yemen, followed by the president’s surprise trip to Afghanistan on the anniversary of the bin Laden mission. Mike Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, said of the leak, “MI6 should be as angry as hell. This is something that the prime minister should raise with the president… This is really tragic. Any information disclosed is too much information. This does seem to be a tawdry political thing.”
Of course, the protection of classified information is the sole province of the Executive branch, i.e. the President. It’s not unusual for the government to give reporters information about war or to embed journalists with tactical units in certain missions — that has happened in both in Democrat and Republican administrations. However, there is a fundamental difference between that kind of access, which arguably furthers the public’s understanding of the war effort, and disclosures of this nature. The White House knew when the film about the bin Laden raid was slated to be released, and the White House alone decided to release the information. Those facts should raise a red flag for Congress that the White House has come awfully close to the line. It’s up to them to find out how this Administration is handling or mishandling ultra-sensitive national security secrets.
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