‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Filmmakers Investigated for Bribing CIA Officers

Annapurna Pictures / The Kobal Collection/AFP
Annapurna Pictures / The Kobal Collection/AFP

Production of the film Zero Dark Thirtywhich chronicled the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Navy SEAL raid that killed him in 2011, has long been controversial. Now a Zero Dark Thirty controversy is being brought to light by newly-released documents: the filmmakers were nearly prosecuted for bribing some of the CIA officials with whom they worked.

Special access to the intelligence community was granted to director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, raising fears that national security might have been compromised. The depiction of enhanced interrogation techniques in the movie was criticized, especially by those who insist such techniques had little or nothing to do with locating bin Laden. The degree of editorial review the CIA was given over the EIT scenes, and other details of the film, was also controversial.

According to a report at the UK Daily Mailthe CIA Inspector General referred several questionable instances to the Justice Department, but they refused to prosecute, and the CIA did not pursue the allegations further.

“The documents show that the inspector general was concerned about Bigelow and Boal buying the CIA agent who tracked down Osama bin Laden some pearl earrings and taking her on an eight hour shopping trip with a stop at a Prada store,” the Daily Mail writes. “Overall the CIA inspector general and concluded that every single one of the officers it interviewed ‘accepted gifts, to include meals, from Bigelow and/or Boal.'”

These gifts are described as being part of a “charm offensive” by the filmmakers to gain favor with the CIA. It appears to have worked swimmingly, as the movie team enjoyed a year of remarkably close cooperation from the agency, including an invitation for Boal to attend a “classified awards ceremony where the Navy SEALs who carried out the raid in Pakistan were in attendance.” The speech delivered by Panetta at this event is said to have included classified material. In fact, the inspector general concluded that it should have been rated Top Secret. Boal did not have a security clearance.

Also part of the charm offensive: thousand-dollar meals and two-hundred-dollar bottles of tequila for top officials, including then-CIA director Leon Panetta, who was dinged by the inspector general report for potentially disclosing classified information to the Hollywood heavyweights.

The report focused on the contacts between Bigelow and a female CIA agent who was one of the inspirations for the character played by actress Jessica Chastain in the film. The agent is said to have become friends with Bigelow and Boal, and enjoyed numerous social contacts with them, including a shopping trip where she mentioned liking Prada, and Boal offered to set her up with tickets to a fashion show, boasting that he knew the designer personally.

The documents include a good deal of embarrassing star-struck fawning from administration officials, with the White House very eager to see a major film release touting the bin Laden kill. The movie was originally supposed to come out before the 2012 election and would have made for one of the greatest in-kind campaign contributions in history, but its release was eventually pushed back. Still, there was plenty of buzz around the production to please President Obama’s re-election team.

The CIA, which was taking a lot of heat for those enhanced interrogation techniques, was also happy to get a little good press.

Vice News, which secured the release of these documents with a Freedom of Information Act request, notes that some of the expensive schmoozing with Bigelow and Boal “initially went unreported by the CIA officers.” After the inspector general’s probe of the production was complete, one CIA officer sent the movie production company a check to cover the cost of the meals to which she was treated.

Vice also cites passages from the ethics report indicating there was much “jealousy” at CIA headquarters over “who was getting ‘face time’ with the filmmakers,” which is why some meetings were relocated from the CIA facility to those expensive hotels.

Although the Justice Department and CIA decided not to pursue charges over anything in the inspector general’s report, the CIA did implement a new ethics training program, write new procedures to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of classified information, and create a centralized record-keeping system to track contacts with the entertainment industry.

Complaints about the accuracy of the film were deflected by claims that no matter how much research and unprecedented national security access went into the script, it was merely a “dramatization,” which everyone should have seen coming from a million miles away.


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