The White House seemed genuinely taken aback this week at concerns from Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, that it may somehow have compromised national security by having a chat with Hollywood.
At issue are reports that it shared details of the May 1 Osama bin Laden raid with two award-winning producers planning a “nonpartisan” reconstruction of America’s effort to chase down “Geronimo.”
The White House called the insinuations that it breached national security “ludicrous,” saying the information given to director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal amounted to the kind of details it shares daily from the White House Press Room podium.
Nevertheless, Congressman King has called for an investigation, which has sparked speculation among conservatives that the embattled White House is colluding with Hollywood for a propaganda coup that will launch in theaters nationwide a month before the 2012 election.
“It shouldn’t have been out there that SEAL Team Six did this, and there have been so many details out there” in press accounts, King told Politico. “And now we find out they are cooperating with a movie – what are we doing?”
King’s demands to know more about the White House briefing with Hollywood take straight aim at the careful balance between realism, transparency, secrecy, and propaganda that hounds every White House at war, especially when US soldiers are still dying overseas.
The Hollywood-Washington nexus is, of course, nothing new. There’s even an entire office at the Pentagon tasked with the sole purpose of helping filmmakers to create more realistic movies. What’s more, Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal – who also collaborated on “The Hurt Locker,” which took best film at the 2010 Oscars – pushed back at the idea that their project is propaganda.
The filmmakers said the bin Laden movie will span the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies, and will describe the killing of Mr. bin Laden as “an American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan,” said Boal in a statement.
Yet King said Thursday his comments have “hit a nerve” in the White House and beyond. Some senior military officials and think-tank analysts have complained about the breadth and depth of details made public about the secretive raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which ended in the death of bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda and the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
In a letter to the CIA’s inspector general, King quoted Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen saying, “It is time to stop talking.” Mullen added: “We have gotten to a point where we are close to jeopardizing the precision capability that we have, and we can’t afford to do that. This fight isn’t over.”
The most in depth report of the bin Laden raid so far appeared in the New Yorker, where a freelancer gained deep access to operators of the raid, who helped him construct a minute-by-minute account of the event.
“Taking responsible reporting beyond limits and/or sharing hot leads with the press before the intelligence community and special forces can fully exploit these leads is troubling,” Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, wrote shortly after the raid. “Exposing tactics, techniques and procedures to the light of day before their time could end up hurting the very efforts and interests they are intended to further.”
Doug Doan, who worked for the Department of Homeland Security under the Bush administration, took a contrarian view in a response to Mr. Cilluffo’s post, hinting that the leaks could well amount to Pentagon puppetry aimed at further confusing Al Qaeda.
“When the SEALs hit bin Laden, what if they only found some dirty clothes, some overdue Netflix discs and a giant stack of ancient pizza delivery boxes?” Mr. Doan posits. “If we really got no intel of value out of bin Laden, the trick to it all would be to tell everyone that we hit the mother lode … to panic the remaining members of al-Qaeda … get them moving … and make them visible to our intel community that is homing in on them like a dog on a bone.”
As a practical matter, Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said details given the filmmakers have so far been cursory, mainly to help guide the script-development phase.
The Department of Defense (DoD) “is providing assistance with script research, which is something we commonly do for established filmmakers,’’ Lapan told reporters. “Until there is a script to review, and a request for equipment or other DoD support, there is no formal agreement for DoD support.’’