By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Documents released by the Pentagon and CIA shed light on White House officials' interest in a Hollywood film project dramatizing the U.S. commando raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed.
The documents released to Judicial Watch, a conservative group, under the Freedom of Information Act and made public on Tuesday include emails between top Pentagon and White House officials discussing efforts to cooperate with film director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on the bin Laden raid movie.
Controversy erupted last year when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that the film was supposed to be released weeks before the November 6 presidential election. The premiere subsequently was put off until after the election, though film trailers have been released by Sony Pictures.
Some critics of President Barack Obama, including prominent Republican members of Congress, have cited the administration's cooperation with the filmmakers as part of an alleged pattern of deliberate national security leaks designed to enhance Obama's image as the election approaches. Obama has strongly denied his White House leaked sensitive classified information.
Documents published by Judicial Watch in May indicated that Bigelow and Boal, who were behind the Oscar-winning movie "The Hurt Locker," had engaged with the CIA and top Pentagon officials before getting involved with the White House.
The newly released material appears to affirm that, but also indicates that White House officials wanted to keep tabs on this and other major media projects about the bin Laden raid.
In a message to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and White House Deputy Press Secretary Jamie Smith on June 15, 2011 - six weeks after the bin Laden raid - Pentagon Public Affairs chief Douglas Wilson asked for their "guidance" on how extensively defense officials should cooperate with media projects about the raid and the Boal/Bigelow film in particular.
"Our overall engagement with Boal and Bigelow to date has been pretty general," Wilson wrote. But as the project progressed, he said, Michael Vickers, the Pentagon civilian in charge of special operations, and other top officials "would welcome guidance regarding parameters."
Wilson said that Boal and Bigelow had been working with both the Pentagon and CIA on "initial context briefing," and that Leon Panetta, then CIA chief, had given his "full approval/support" for such briefings. He also said that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates "shared ... admiration for their previous film efforts."
In response, Smith wrote to Wilson and Rhodes that she was not sure "I understood that this was as far along so would definitely be great to link up and chat soonest and get a sense of what DoD (Department of Defense) and CIA have communicated thus far."
Smith added: "Would also love to know any other folks you have heard from since we last spoke, or plan to meet with - books, docus, additional movies etc."
A minute later, Rhodes added: "We are trying to have visibility into the (bin Laden) projects, and this is likely the most high-profile one."
Wilson later advised a CIA official, and others whose identities are redacted from the documents, that the Pentagon would "arrange to bring (Boal) to WH next time he's here."
The newly released documents include internal communications between CIA officials, which appear to suggest that Bigelow met with a translator who "was on the raid," and with a person whose identity was redacted. The same memo mentions meetings the filmmakers had with other top officials including Vickers at the Pentagon and Jeremy Bash and Michael Morell, who were Panetta's chief of staff and the CIA deputy director at the time.
The CIA declined comment on the documents.
Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, said nothing in the Judicial Watch announcement was a surprise.
"Having a conversation with a journalist, author or filmmaker about what he or she is working on is possibly the most basic, mundane function of a press office, and millions of Americans, including many in government, are understandably proud of our nation's effort to kill bin Laden," he said.
In an email, Boal said that the content of the documents appeared to be "public affairs finagling ... and filmmakers trying to do their homework."
According to Judicial Watch, the newly released material "should have been produced months ago" under a court order, but the CIA claimed that the documents had been "overlooked" and were discovered last month. Jill Farrell, a spokeswoman for the group, said the delays had softened their full impact.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Stacey Joyce)
(This story corrects the spelling of Morell in the 14th paragraph)