The CIA and the Pentagon regularly assist filmmakers whose scripts portray them in a positive light, while denying that same assistance to filmmakers whose scripts are critical of their operations. This happens even though the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional for the government to favor speech it likes while not showing the same consideration to speech that it dislikes. Now new CIA documents obtained by Vice show the extent to which the agency went to assist the filmmakers behind 2013 Oscar Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty in its favorable portrayal of torture as a method of obtaining information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The CIA and the Pentagon both have offices dedicated solely to approving and shaping scripts so that they are portrayed favorably. Numerous Hollywood filmmakers who have played ball with the CIA and the Pentagon have benefited from their largesse – either in the form of access to military hardware such as tanks, jet fighters and nuclear aircraft carriers or, in the CIA’s case, access to its headquarters in Langley, VA, and to briefings on clandestine operations. In many cases, this amounts to a government subsidy and approval of films and TV shows, like the NCIS franchise, whose scripts are all approved by the Navy’s film liaison office in return for giving the producers access to military hardware and facilities.
In an article published today based on more than 100 redacted pages of CIA documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Vice says those records “contain the most detailed information to date about the controversial role the CIA played in the production of Zero Dark Thirty.”
Included in the those records is a March 2014 report from the CIA Office of Inspector General titled “Alleged Disclosure of Classified Information by Former D/CIA” – referring to CIA Director Leon Panetta – and a September 2013 report from the inspector general’s office titled “Potential Ethics Violations Involving Film Producers.”
The documents reveal that a few weeks after bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal was allowed to attend Panetta’s classified awards ceremony honoring those who were part of the team that hunted down the Al Qaeda leader.
The inspector general, however, found that Boal shouldn’t have been there because Panetta’s speech at the ceremony should have been classified as “Top Secret” because is contained classified information derived from information gathered by the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense.
The documents also show that the CIA later allowed Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow access to numerous CIA operatives who were involved in the clandestine operation. During those meetings, the filmmakers wined and dined the CIA officers and presented them with inexpensive thank you gifts, including a $70 pair of pearl earrings and a $170 bottle of tequila. During one of those meetings, a CIA officer “ordered grilled cheese, French fries and a soda” – hardly the stuff of improper conduct.
Bigelow declined comment to Deadline. Calls to Boal, to Panetta and to the CIA’s public affairs office were not returned.
According to the article, written by Jason Leopold and Ky Henderson, “The inspector general identified several potential criminal violations of federal law — Panetta’s unauthorized disclosure of classified information to Boal, and a separate federal violation of transmitting or losing of defense information. Additionally, the inspector general’s audit staff identified as a potential violation of federal criminal law the bribery of public officials and witnesses by Bigelow and Boal. The cases were referred back to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, but Justice declined to prosecute in favor of ‘administrative action’ by the CIA. The CIA did not take any action.”
In return for access to classified information and access to CIA operatives involved in the hunt for bin Laden, Boal gave the CIA access to the script he was writing.
“Boal had vetted his script with CIA officers and public affairs officials numerous times, both in person and telephonically,” the article states. “The timeline included in the cache of documents said Boal also ‘reads his script over the telephone’ to public affairs officers on October 26, November 1, November 18, and December 5 (2011) ‘so that [public affairs] could determine if the script inadvertently exposed any sensitivities.’ ”
According to the article, “One CIA official told investigators that Boal walked him through the ZDT script ‘during four or five telephone conversations in September or October 2011.’ The official, whose name is redacted, ‘offered that he checked the names in the script to ensure they were not close to true names.’ The official said he and another person whose name is redacted reviewed the script for ‘egregious errors like having dogs in the interrogation scenes.’ The officer said that he told Boal this was inaccurate because ‘CIA would never have dogs in an interrogation room.’ Boal was also told that a scene that showed ‘Agency officers partying and shooting guns’ was inaccurate because ‘Agency officers would not do that.’ Other concerns were raised about detainee debriefing scenes that depicted captives being ‘punched and kicked.’ ”
The CIA insists that the torture of Al Qaeda operatives, as depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, provided invaluable information about the whereabouts of bin Laden, but critics including Sen. Dianne Feinstein argue that that’s a “false narrative.”
To assist filmmakers in casting the CIA in the most favorable light, the agency has a formal policy called “Management Guidance on Contact with the Entertainment Industry and Support to Entertainment Industry Projects,” but — not surprisingly — those guidelines remain a secret.
During the 2012-13 awards season, the Senate Intelligence Committee launched its public battle against the film when members issued a letter to Sony Pictures head Michael Lynton that called Zero Dark Thirty “grossly inaccurate.” The committee subsequently called for an investigation into the propriety of access given by the CIA to Bigelow and Boal. That inquiry was dropped almost immediately after the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony, where the film — up for five Oscars including Best Picture and for Boal’s original screenplay — won just once, for sound editing.
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