‘Zero Dark Thirty’ leak investigators now target of leak probe

12/20/2013 6:17 PM

12/29/2013 12:52 AM

More than two years after sensitive information about the Osama bin Laden raid was disclosed to Hollywood filmmakers, Pentagon and CIA investigations haven’t publicly held anyone accountable despite internal findings that the leakers were former CIA Director Leon Panetta and the Defense Department’s top intelligence official.

Instead, the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office is working to root out who might have disclosed the findings on Panetta and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers to a nonprofit watchdog group and to McClatchy.

While the information wasn’t classified, the inspector general’s office has pursued the new inquiry aggressively, grilling its own investigators, as well as the former director of its whistle-blowing unit, according to several people, including a congressional aide. They requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues surrounding the 2012 movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I’m concerned that the inspector general’s office is barking up the wrong tree,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who long has championed government whistle-blowing. “There’s no doubt they should look into the ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ fiasco, but they should focus on holding people accountable for leaking highly classified operational material instead of wasting time and money investigating who leaked the report.”

The handling of the disclosures of protected information to the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the award-winning account of the U.S. hunt for bin Laden, points up an apparent double standard in President Barack Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on unauthorized leaks.

It also is the subject of defense lawyers' motion at the Guantanamo war court, which seeks to learn what the filmmakers knew.

Disclosures by lower-level officials have been vigorously pursued. For example, seven Navy SEALs were reprimanded for disclosing classified material to the makers of a military video game. Moreover, the administration has prosecuted a record number of intelligence community personnel for leaking.

Rarely, however, has the administration taken criminal action against senior officials for leaking.

A central pillar of the crackdown – labeled the Insider Threat Program by the administration – aims to use behavioral profiling and tips from co-workers to identify federal employees who someday might make unauthorized disclosures.

Under the program, the Defense Department equates leaking to the news media with spying. Many of those who’ve been targeted, however, contend that they’re compelled to leak about official malfeasance because the government’s whistle-blower protection system doesn’t work, a defense raised by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The handling of the “Zero Dark Thirty” disclosures “suggests that some leaks are tolerated depending on who makes them,” said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit group that’s pressed Republican and Democratic administrations for greater transparency. “Snowden should call his lawyer. This is exactly what he’s talking about.”

Among the few high-profile leak cases the administration is known to have pursued are two that involve retired four-star generals.

The FBI launched an investigation more than a year ago into allegations that Panetta’s successor at the CIA, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, had disclosed classified material to his former paramour. The FBI and Petraeus’ lawyer refused to comment on the status of the case. A former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, reportedly lost his security clearance amid allegations that he’d leaked information on Iran to The New York Times. The status of any criminal investigation remains unclear.

In the bin Laden matter, Panetta himself exhorted intelligence and military personnel involved in the operation on the need to protect secrets at an awards ceremony at CIA headquarters. “In a sensitive operation like this, one leak – one leak – would have undermined the entire operation,” he said at the June 24, 2011, event.

“Everyone involved held this information tight,” he continued, according to a declassified transcript of the speech that Judicial Watch obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. “It is a tribute to you that you kept this secret, and as a result this mission was accomplished.”

It was in his speech that Panetta disclosed classified information to Mark Boal, the “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter. Boal was the only audience member who didn’t have top-secret clearance.

The speech contained classified NSA intelligence and top-secret military information, including the protected identity of the ground commander of the Navy SEAL unit that staged the bin Laden raid, according to a Defense Department Inspector General’s Office document that Judicial Watch obtained.

Members of the raiding party sat in the front row in uniform, wearing name tags. They and the then-commander of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, Adm. William H. McRaven, were “surprised and shocked” that a Hollywood screenwriter had been invited to the top-secret event, said a draft report on the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office probe.

The draft report was obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group. The Pentagon Inspector General’s Office internal leak inquiry is partly aimed at determining whether any of its personnel slipped the document to the organization, said the people familiar with the matter.

The issue is controversial because the draft report’s findings on Panetta – who’d become the secretary of defense by the time the document was completed – were sanitized from the final version that was released to the public eight months later. Instead, the findings were declared top-secret and sent to the CIA inspector general for “appropriate action,” according to a declassified document obtained by Judicial Watch.

CIA Inspector General David Buckley, however, recused himself from the matter for unknown reasons, according to former and current U.S. officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. One possible explanation for Buckley’s recusal might have been that he witnessed the disclosures. He was listed as attending Panetta’s speech.

Whatever the reason, the only action Buckley’s office is known to have taken was reviewing policies that guide the CIA’s engagement with the entertainment industry.

Nor was any known action taken after a review by the CIA’s Office of Security that also concluded that “Boal was exposed to classified information by the DCIA (Panetta) comments,” according to an Oct. 22, 2012, document that Judicial Watch obtained.

Buckley referred McClatchy for comment to the CIA Office of Public Affairs. It declined to say anything, as did the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office.

Panetta didn’t respond to a request for comment. He recently told The Associated Press that he didn’t know Boal was in the audience.

The other facet of the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office internal leak inquiry is aimed at determining whether anyone in the office was a source for a Dec. 17, 2012, McClatchy report, said the people familiar with the matter.

McClatchy’s story said the inspector general’s office found that Vickers had disclosed the protected name of a U.S. Special Operations Forces officer who helped plan the bin Laden raid to Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director, and referred the case to the Justice Department. No final determination of the issue has been announced.

Like the findings on Panetta, the conclusion that Vickers had leaked restricted information was part of the draft Pentagon inspector general’s report but was sanitized from the final version. At the time, Vickers was Panetta’s leading choice to replace him as CIA director.

Several current and former officials who are familiar with the investigations saw the excising of the findings on Panetta and Vickers from the final Pentagon Inspector General’s Report and the inaction of Buckley and his office as part of a pattern of politically driven efforts to shield senior officials.

These current and former officials, who also requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, said those efforts began after Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., first asked the Pentagon and CIA inspectors general to investigate a report that the administration had provided Bigelow and Boal “top-level access” to details of the bin Laden raid.

The CIA and Pentagon inspectors general were hesitant to get involved, according to the officials.

During an initial meeting between the pair and investigators from their offices, Buckley expressed reluctance about launching a full-blown investigation, saying he wanted to stick to a review of CIA policy on cooperating with the entertainment industry, said an official who attended the session.

Buckley later recused himself from the matter

Then-acting Pentagon Inspector General Lynne M. Halbrooks, meanwhile, found herself smack in the middle of the controversy at an inopportune moment. Halbrooks wanted to be considered for the post permanently, according to the current and former officials. Her main competitor was Buckley. Neither got the permanent post, and Halbrooks returned this year to her position as the principal deputy inspector general.

Nonetheless, she authorized an investigation in December 2011, which by several accounts was aggressively pursued. The probe was approaching completion the following November, when investigators reviewed a set of talking points in preparation of the imminent release of a final report, according to documents McClatchy obtained.

Halbrooks, however, stepped in, telling several officials overseeing the inquiry that the report wouldn’t be released, igniting a dispute.

As the disagreement escalated, Daniel Meyer, who was then Halbrooks’ director of whistle-blowing, accompanied one of her staffers to a meeting on Capitol Hill at which the staffer told congressional aides that Halbrooks and her general counsel, Henry Shelley Jr., were trying to slow-roll the investigation until Panetta left office.

Meyer is among those who’ve been questioned in the Pentagon inspector general’s internal leak investigation.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where Meyer now works as the executive director for intelligence community whistle-blowing, didn’t respond to a request to speak with him.

In his three years as the Pentagon inspector general whistle-blower advocate, Meyer became well-known for aggressively investigating whistle-blower allegations. In 1990, Meyer himself became a whistle-blower as a naval officer when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee about alleged misconduct by the investigators who were looking into an explosion aboard the battleship Iowa.

No final report had been released when the Project on Government Oversight published on June 4 the draft containing the findings that Panetta and Vickers had released restricted information. The final version, from which those conclusions had been deleted, was released June 14.

“There needs to be a more serious investigation of what went on here,” said Fitton of Judicial Watch. “These investigations appear to be haphazard and hapless. It looks like the whole thing was blowing up, and rather than do a serious investigation, these agencies went into cover-up mode.”

Join the Discussion

Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service