By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration arranged for two Hollywood filmmakers to get special access to government officials involved in the commando operation that killed Osama bin Laden, according to a conservative legal group that posted internal government documents on its website Tuesday.
Judicial Watch posted what it said were 153 pages of Pentagon documents and 113 pages of CIA documents about the film project. The group said it had obtained the documents through a lawsuit it filed under the Freedom of Information Act, which can be used to force government agencies to release some undisclosed information.
Among the disclosures were that the filmmakers had access to top White House officials, were given the identity of a SEAL team member involved in the raid and taken to the top-secret "vault" where the raid was planned.
The group said the documents lay out contacts between White House, CIA and Pentagon officials and Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and screenwriter of "The Hurt Locker," a 2008 film about the Iraq war that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The film project, titled "Zero Dark Thirty" about the May 2011 raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, became a focus of controversy last year when a New York Times columnist reported that its producers planned to release it weeks before the November 6 election in which President Barack Obama is seeking re-election. That has been pushed back to December.
Neither the CIA nor the Pentagon disputed the authenticity of the documents. A spokesman for the National Security Council said the White House would have no comment on the documents beyond those issued last August by presidential press secretary Jay Carney, who said the White House had not given the filmmakers classified information.
The CIA and Pentagon said there was nothing unusual about their dealings with the filmmakers.
"The CIA has been open about our engagement with writers, documentary filmmakers, movie and TV producers, and others in the entertainment industry," said Jennifer Youngblood, an agency spokeswoman.
She added: "Our goal is an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, their vital mission and the commitment to public service that defines them. The protection of national security equities is always paramount in any engagement with the entertainment industry."
Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "The Department of Defense, as well as other agencies and departments, regularly engage with the entertainment industry to inform projects ranging from books to documentaries to feature films.
"Many individuals in the industry expressed interest in developing projects on what can only be described as one of the top intelligence and military successes of a generation," Little added. "Our engagement on these projects was driven by a desire to inform, not by timing."
SEAL TEAM MEMBER REVEALED
In a statement posted on its website, Judicial Watch said the documents indicate that the Pentagon granted Bigelow and Boal access to a "planner, Operator and Commander of SEAL Team Six," the Navy commando unit that carried out the raid during which bin Laden was killed in Abbotabad, Pakistan, where he apparently had lived for years.
Among the documents the group said it obtained is a transcript of a July 14, 2011, meeting with Pentagon officials in which Bigelow and Boal indicate that Boal met with White House National Security Council official Denis McDonough and chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to discuss the film project.
According to Judicial Watch, the transcript quotes Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's intelligence chief, giving the filmmakers the identity of a senior SEAL team member involved in the raid on the condition that "you not reveal his name in any way as a consultant, because ... he shouldn't be talking out of school."
The group says that it also obtained an internal CIA email that indicates Bigelow and Boal were granted access to "the vault," a CIA installation where some of the planning for the bin Laden raid took place.
However, the group says that other correspondence released by the government indicates that although they were helping the filmmakers, Obama administration officials otherwise sought to limit media access to those involved in the bin Laden operation and other counter-terrorism insiders.
Judicial Watch says that it has a June 13, 2011, email in which Vickers advises Douglas Wilson, the Pentagon's public affairs chief, that the Defense Department "would like to shape the story to prevent any gross inaccuracies," but it did not "want to make it look like the commanders think it's okay to talk to the media."
Judicial Watch said another Pentagon email describes how a representative of the Glover Park Group, a Washington lobbying firm with close ties to the Democratic Party, helped arrange the filmmakers' access to administration officials.
The Glover Park group had no immediate comment.
FILM'S RELEASE DELAYED
Judicial Watch said it launched its investigation of the Obama administration's dealings with the filmmakers after seeing press reports suggesting that the administration might have leaked classified information as source material for the film.
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote last year that the movie was scheduled to open on October 12, just more than three weeks before the November 6 presidential election.
After Dowd's column appeared, U.S. Representative Peter King, the outspoken Republican who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, asked the Inspectors General of both the Pentagon and CIA to investigate the administration's dealings with the filmmakers, suggesting in a letter that he was concerned about leaks of classified information.
At the time, White House spokesman Jay Carney rejected King's suggestion that security had been compromised as "ridiculous" and denied the White House had disclosed any classified information to the filmmakers.
The movie is being filmed in India and Jordan and stars Chris Pratt, Jessica Chastain and Joel Edgerton, according to movie website IMDB. With release scheduled for December 19, the movie is produced by Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle Corp chief Larry Ellison, and backed by Sony Pictures.
Media reports have said the release was delayed until after the presidential election to prevent the project from being associated with partisan politics.
As the presidential campaign has heated up, some Republicans have accused Obama and the White House of exploiting the bin Laden raid and other counter-terrorism successes for political purposes.
(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)