The widely-celebrated and iconic 2012 film, Zero Dark Thirty, which detailed “the most classified mission in history” — one the U.S. government reported resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden — was developed and manipulated by the CIA, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Vice News. The report also shows the CIA provided classified information to the filmmakers. Over one hundred pages of documents reveal a symbiotic relationship between the high-powered film producers and intelligence officials and raise particular questions about the depiction of torture in the film — which was heavily criticized for insinuating “enhanced interrogation techniques” were essential in tracking down Osama bin Laden.
The documents reveal that throughout the filmmaking process, filmmaker Mark Boal was in close contact with Leon Panetta, who was the head of the CIA when the film went into development and production. The documents include two reports, “Alleged Disclosure of Classified Information by Former D/CIA [Director of CIA]” from March, 2014 and a September 2013 report from the Inspector General’s office called “Potential Ethics Violations Involving Film Producers.”
The relationship between Boal and fellow filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, who made The Hurt Locker in 2009, began a year before the raid on bin Laden in Pakistan, when the pair sought to make a film titled Tora Bora about the CIA’s failure to capture him. However, bin Laden died, nullifying the film’s premise. Only days after Obama announced bin Laden’s death in May of 2011, Boal was in contact with Panetta in the hopes of making a film about the killing. According to Vice News, “Less than three weeks after bin Laden’s death, Boal and Michael Feldman, a public relations representative for Tora Bora, met with CIA officials to discuss the new project.”
Further, “…the CIA gave Boal access to CIA personnel and facilities less than a month after bin Laden was killed in order to ‘further his research’ for the ZDT screenplay.” Boal was even invited to a CIA award ceremony around the same time, though the Inspector General’s report seemed unclear as to who had invited him — the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs or Panetta himself. Panetta denied any knowledge of his presence and said he would have been unable to recognize Boal, even though he sat at the same table as Boal and Bigelow at the 2010 White House Correspondents dinner and instructed them to contact him when they were ready to make Tora Bora.
The CIA ethics report confirmed that “The [bin Laden] operation team provided the filmmakers background on the intelligence portions of the [bin Laden] raid.” Boal and Bigelow made multiple visits to CIA headquarters in Langley, VA and also met with officials in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. One official claimed Boal “needed to talk to Agency officers as part of the project to get a feeling of what it was like to hunt [bin Laden].”
The developing script for Zero Dark Thirty was continuously reviewed by CIA agents. Boal “‘[read] his script over the telephone’ to public affairs officers on October 26, November 1, November 18, and December 5 ‘so that [public affairs] could determine if the script inadvertently exposed any sensitivities.’” While some technical changes included removing a dog from an interrogation scene and cutting scenes of drunken parties for “accuracy,” more serious manipulation appears to have transpired.
According to Vice News, “Other concerns were raised about detainee debriefing scenes that depicted captives being ‘punched and kicked.’” Further, according to the documents, as well as a memo released in 2013 that also indicated the CIA’s involvement in the film, “It appears that an early version had Maya [the protagonist CIA agent] participating in the torture. But during their conference calls, the CIA told Boal that this was not true to life.”
Others have begged to differ, arguing the bigger picture was intentionally deceptive.
Former counterterrorism official for George W. Bush, Richard Clarke, said “The movie left the American people with the impression that torture worked and that without it we never would have been able to trace the trail back to Abbottabad and to find bin Laden.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein — an authoritarian lawmaker who has personally squared off with the CIA — actually walked out of a screening of the film because it depicted torture as essential to finding bin Laden. “I couldn’t handle it because it’s so false,” she said. Senator Mark Udall, who was a member of the intelligence committee, called the film “…a form of propaganda, so that the general public believes this is what happened when in fact the facts don’t prove that to be the case.”
While the CIA manipulated the narrative of the film, the filmmakers also managed to manipulate CIA agents. The released documents reveal Bigelow and Boal took agents out to expensive dinners, sometimes totalling over $1,000. Boal told one of the agents on whom “Maya” was based that he could get her tickets to a Prada fashion show. She declined, but that didn’t stop Boal from attempting to have her to sign a release form so he could not be sued for his depiction of her. Another officer “relaxed” at a Malibu beach house with Boal, though the agent claimed he paid for his own trip and notified the agency about where he was going.
Other gestures were not as genuine. The filmmakers allegedly gave agents a bottle of tequila they said was “worth hundreds of dollars,” but upon doing (super-secret-special ops) research online, the agents found it was worth $169.99, at best. Bigelow gifted an officer black Tahitian pearl earrings, but when they were turned over for investigation into possible ethics violations, they were judged to be fake.
These incidents prompted the investigations into ethics violations, as well as potential inappropriate leaks of classified information. Contact between CIA officials and Boal and Bigelow was eventually broken over these concerns, but the Department of Justice failed to act upon urgings from the CIA that Boal and Bigelow be investigated for ethics violations. Of course, the CIA was not investigated, either.
While the government is no stranger to pushing narratives through cinema, the story of Zero Dark Thirty is particularly jarring because Osama bin Laden was, for years, a foundational tenet of the adventurist war on terror. The filmmakers could have depicted the government’s inability to find him for a decade (granted, this was Boal and Bigelow’s intention, though they still sought the CIA and Panetta as their source of information). They could have investigated and told a story about the murky circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death. They could have explored the fervent war hysteria of the American populace, spurred by perpetual propaganda from the establishment pitting Osama bin Laden as a bogeyman warranting total imperialist intervention. Instead — with box office revenue over $130 million worldwide — they added to that fanaticism with the help of the government that created it.