Pentagon Civil War Over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Revealed by Internal Report

Pentagon Civil War Over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Revealed by Internal Report

A newly released report from the Department of Defense’s inspector general reveals that there was a fight within the Pentagon over whether to cooperate with filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicled the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

According to the report, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers led the effort to secure cooperation for the filmmakers, but other senior Pentagon officials remained deeply skeptical of the collaboration. Phil Strub, the department’s director of entertainment media, told investigators that he wasn’t eager to assist the filmmakers because he had been unhappy with Bigelow and Boal’s portrayal of the military in their Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker — an intense depiction of the rush of combat, told through the eyes of a bomb-disposal technician.

But Strub’s concerns were overruled by his superiors. "I wasn’t given the choice of whether to authorize it or not," he told investigators, "I mean, these senior people do whatever they want."

Though Zero Dark Thirty would be criticized for its heavy-handed portrayal of U.S. interrogation tactics, the film was arguably the greatest PR coup in recent Pentagon history. After the nearly nine-year occupation of Iraq and the quagmire in Afghanistan, the U.S. military had had few decisive victories it could publicly tout in the war on terror. The raid that killed bin Laden finally handed it a clear and spectacular win. But the men behind that raid were far more reluctant to have that story told than the head honchos at the Pentagon.

The report dispels accusations that Bigelow and Boal were allowed to meet a special operations planner, and it indicates that U.S. special forces were loath to cooperate with Bigelow and Boal. Admiral Bill McRaven, the brains behind the raid that killed bin Laden and now the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told Vickers at the outset that he wanted no part in the project. Shortly thereafter, SOCOM’s public affairs officer informed Strub in an email that "there was already too much information released concerning the bin Laden raid" and that SOCOM "has obvious concerns about DoD providing any support for this effort."

Despite this reluctance, Vickers pressed ahead and granted Bigelow and Boal wide-ranging support. Together with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, Vickers worked to smooth the way for a project that had the potential to be a public relations bonanza for the Pentagon. Wilson told investigators that Bigelow and Boal’s "previous experience with [Strub] had been mixed and I wanted [Bigelow and Boal] to know, look, you know, if you’re — if you’re having problems getting answers or things like that, let me know and, you know, we’re not going to put walls up here." Wilson also tried to overcome resistance to the project within the special forces community, telling Boal and Bigelow in an email that he would "work to unclog the SOCOM pathway for you."

But despite Vickers and Wilson’s insistence, Bigelow and Boal never got the briefing from the SOCOM planner that they had sought. Instead, they got something better: a public viewing of the SEALs responsible for killing bin Laden.

Boal attended an awards ceremony — held June 24, 2011, at CIA headquarters — for individuals involved in the bin Laden raid, as did several of the special operators involved in the mission. Despite the fact that protecting these men’s identities was a "top priority," according to the report, the SEALs were seated prominently at the front of the ceremonies, complete with name tags on their chests.

At the end of the event, Boal even met McRaven, who told investigators that "somebody brought somebody up to me and said this is Mr. so-in-so. He’s the same guy who did The Hurt Locker, and of course I was admittedly a little surprised."

The IG report was produced in response to questions from Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York. Those questions hinted at suspicions that the White House had been involved in generating support for the project within the Pentagon. The report found no evidence to support those allegations, which insinuated that the White House had done so for the president’s political benefit.