The four-year-old dispute over whether top Pentagon officials disclosed classified information to the makers of the Bin Laden raid movie “Zero Dark Thirty” took on a new wrinkle this month.
The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight on April 16 unveiled a document suggesting greater White House involvement in influencing the filmmakers than previously known. Analyst Adam Zagorin argues that the new information supports the notion that former CIA Director Leon Panetta and Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Michael Vickers released unauthorized details of the 2011 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan, and that then acting Defense Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks allegedly doctored a report to bury that information.
Halbrooks left the watchdog’s staff on Friday, the Pentagon IG’s office confirmed to Government Executive, reportedly to take a private sector job with a defense-related law firm, according to sources who spoke on condition they not be named. (Efforts to reach Halbrooks were unsuccessful, and the Defense IG’s spokeswoman declined to elaborate.)
Vickers, a onetime prospect for CIA director, announced his retirement on March 19 and is expected to leave the Defense Department at the end of April. (Panetta, who left CIA to become Defense Secretary in 2011, retired to his California ranch in February 2013.)
The dispute over the two versions of the IG report on cooperation with the media and makers of “Zero Dark Thirty”—a never circulated draft that addresses the Panetta disclosure or a subsequent version that omitted it—caused turmoil within the IG staff. That was due both to suspicion that high-level people with White House contacts were being protected as well as technical dissents from IG investigators, sources told Government Executive.
The POGO revelation is “extraordinary because it involves a For Official Use Only document,” said a former Defense official familiar with the issue. “It’s one thing to dance around whether to release a report to the public, it’s another to dance around whether to release a FOUO report, which should have gone to all DoD leadership and the Congress.”
The new documents show the White House may have given the filmmakers more precise information on how the al Qaeda mastermind’s secret location was discovered. POGO’s Zagorin labels as “disturbing . . . the lengths to which DoD’s then-Acting Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks went to suppress details of the collaboration between Hollywood and the CIA.”
He also criticized current DoD IG Jon Rymer for backing Halbrooks. “Rymer’s support and Halbrooks’ departure likely mean a full explanation of her actions will be unobtainable,” Zagorin wrote. Among the unanswered questions: Did Halbrooks shield Panetta because she was angling for a permanent appointment to the IG position at the time? And did Panetta directly influence her decision to keep him and others out of the report when he met with her the same day the document was scrubbed?”
During her six years at DoD, Halbrooks also clashed with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, over handling of whistleblowers, an approach Halbrooks defended.
On Monday, Grassley said in a statement to Government Executive, “When I looked at the Inspector General Office’s handling of the Zero Dark Thirty report, I concluded that everything about it was detrimental to the public interest. The handling of the report wasted taxpayer money, harmed morale, and harmed the perceived independence of the inspector general’s office,” he said. “This office needs strong leadership with the courage to tell it like it is. Conducting thorough investigations and releasing reports that tell the truth are the bread and butter of every inspector general’s office. It has to happen, whatever it takes, and that might include changes in leadership and policy.”