If You Want to Know the CIA's bin Laden Secrets, Just Make a Movie About His Assassination

Documents released last night show that not only did the CIA and Department of Defense offer extremely cozy access to filmmakers Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow for their forthcoming thriller about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden—they seemed to give up previously unreleased details about the raid's origins.

The documents, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by Judicial Watch, which had to sue to get them, show a level of access to CIA facilities and intelligence personnel that would make a national security beat reporter blush. CIA flacks spent an enormous amount of time last summer setting up interviews between Boal and senior CIA officials, including a tour of the room where the raid was planned and access to a CIA-built recreation of the bin Laden compound. All while the White House was engaged in a concerted effort to squelch "leaks" of classified information.

As Politico's Josh Gerstein points out, some of the email traffic in the CIA setting up Boal's visit acknowledges the apparent hypocrisy of opening the door on one of the Agency's most sensitive operations to a Hollywood production while vigorously working to shut down reporting on the incident by news outlets. "We're trying to keep [Boal's] visits at HQs a bit quiet, because of the sensitivities surrounding who gets to participates in this types of things," CIA spokesman Marie Harf wrote in one email. "I'm sure you understand." Another email from a Pentagon official to his colleagues notes an "increase in detailed requests in conjunction with books, documentaries, and film projects.... On behalf of [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and [Under Secretary for Intelligence] Dr. [Michael] Vickers, I request that you decline any direct requests for information regarding the UBL operation.... Recently there have...been a number of sensitive items appearing in the press, which is quite troubling."

That email is particularly ironic seeing as how Vickers himself sat down with Boal for a 45-minute interview in which he disclosed a previously unreported detail about the intelligence that led to the raid. According to a transcript of the interview, Vickers told Boal that American intelligence officials had briefly located and then lost track of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the bin Laden courier who eventually led them to their target, in the summer of 2009—a full year before they eventually linked him to the bin Laden compound.

We had gotten a glimpse of this guy a year earlier and then lost him. I remember specifically, vividly, at the time of that glimpse, "holy crap we are on to something" and then "oh man we lost him."

I couldn't find any detailed accounts of the bin Laden raid that reported the 2009 missed opportunity. The New Yorker's exhaustive account only mentions that "in August, 2010...C.I.A. analysts believed that they had pinpointed bin Laden's courier." The New York Times' tick-tock says that in July 2010, "Pakistani agents working for the C.I.A. spotted him driving his vehicle near Peshawar." NBC News' Michael Isikoff reported that the agency "located" al-Kuwaiti in 2009 through electronic intercepts, but not that they subsequently lost him.

"I can't definitively say that no one has ever reported that," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col James Gregory told me. "But as far as I know those words had not previously been spoken in public."

It's a minor—and highly cinematic—detail, but given the unprecedented amount of attention the raid received, it's odd that news of a missed chance at nailing bin Laden in 2009, five or six months into Obama's first term, was released to a filmmaker rather than one of the thousands of reporters clamoring for information about the raid. (One reporter, the Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman, was turned down for a face-to-face interview with Vickers at the same time he was planning on meeting Boal in person, the documents show.)

Vickers also gave up one of the most tightly controlled bits of information about the raid imaginable—the identity of one of the Seal Team 6 operators who helped plan it. After explaining that Admirals William McRaven and Eric Olson of the Special Operations Command wouldn't talk to him because "it's a bad example if it gets out," Vickers told Boal that "they'll make a guy available who was involved from the beginning as a planner; a SEAL Team 6 Operator and Commander." The identity of this SEAL, whose name is redacted from the documents, must be protected, Vickers told Boal: "The only thing we ask is that you not reveal his name...because...he shouldn't be talking out of school."

According to Politico's Gerstein, the Pentagon says Boal never followed up with the SEAL.

What did the Pentagon and CIA get in exchange for this access? "As an agency, we've been pretty forward-leaning with Boal," wrote a CIA flack encouraging her peers to open up to him. "He's agreed to share scripts and details about the movie with us so we're absolutely comfotable with what he will be showing."

It's by no means unusual for the CIA or the Pentagon to cooperate with filmmakers, of course, and the Pentagon regularly reviews scripts before it agrees to assist productions logistically. And reporters who cover the intelligence community tell me that access like that afforded Boal isn't unprecedented when it comes to reporters working on books or documentaries. But it almost always comes at the direction of the White House, I'm told. Which may explain why, according to the documents, Boal was squired on his trip to the Pentagon by Michael Feldman, a Democratic political operative and consultant with the Glover Park Group. Feldman declined to comment when asked what role he was playing.

Disclosure: A long time ago, I worked with Mark Boal at a magazine called Brill's Content.

[Image via Getty]