Former CIA Director Leon Panetta revealed the name of the Navy SEAL unit that carried out the Osama bin Laden raid and named the unit’s ground commander at a 2011 ceremony attended by “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmaker Mark Boal.
Panetta also discussed classified information designated as “top secret” and “secret” during his presentation at the awards ceremony, according to a draft Pentagon inspector general’s report published Wednesday by the Project on Government Oversight.
A source close to Panetta said Wednesday evening that he was unaware anyone without the proper security clearances was present at the event, which included both CIA and military personnel.
“He has no idea who all is in the audience. He was told everyone got the requisite clearances,” said the source, who asked not to be named.
Panetta’s prepared speech was classified “secret,” according to the source. That may have led the CIA director to believe he could speak freely about the operation.
The leaked version of the report does not address whether Panetta knew Boal was present at the ceremony, held under a tent at the CIA complex on June 24, 2011. “Approximately 1,300” people from the military and the intelligence community were on hand for the event, according to a CIA press release issued the following week.
The disclosure of the IG report could undermine the Obama administration’s claims that senior officials have not leaked classified information. Last spring, Republicans publicly attacked President Barack Obama and his top aides, alleging that the administration leaked national security secrets to burnish Obama’s standing for his reelection bid.
Word that Panetta, a key member of Obama’s national security team, might have been responsible for improper disclosures without encountering any known repercussions comes as the administration faces questions over the fairness of the aggressive anti-leak investigations and prosecutions being mounted by the Justice Department.
The release of the findings in the draft report may also raise questions about why the document has been under wraps for so long, and which of its conclusions were known to White House officials prior to last November’s election.
Asked Wednesday about the report, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said he was not familiar with it and would have to get back to reporters. No further response was forthcoming by late Wednesday afternoon.
Panetta did not respond to interview requests Wednesday made through his non-profit public policy institute in Monterey, Calif. He was sworn in as defense secretary about a week after the 2011 ceremony. He left the Pentagon post in February of this year and returned to California.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who requested the inspector general’s review, said he was disturbed by the report’s findings and by the delays in its official release.
“It does raise issues about a lack of security at the CIA and at DoD,” King told POLITICO on Wednesday. “The most important issue right now is why this report was held back for so long. Inspectors general are supposed to be independent. It’s the integrity of the process. … It’s important to know where that pressure [to withhold it]was coming from.”
The congressman said he also wants an apology from Carney for statements he made in August 2011, when the press secretary called King’s claims about security breaches related to the film “ridiculous” and “simply false.”
“I would hope as we face a continued threat from terrorism, the House Committee on Homeland Security would have more important topics to discuss than a movie,” Carney said then.
After reviewing the leaked draft, King said he was writing to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the inspector general’s office to demand the immediate official release of the report.
King said he still had no official notification about the report but heard that it had been completed some time ago. “I’ve been hearing at least since January that this report was final and that it could affect some high-ranking people, some high-ranking officials,” he said.
Asked Wednesday about the reason for the delay, a spokeswoman for the IG did not respond directly.
“While we do not have a projected date of completion for the referenced report, we are working diligently to complete the project as quickly as possible,” spokeswoman Bridget Serchak told POLITICO Wednesday. She indicated release of the report was not planned in the next 30 days.
DoD has been without a confirmed inspector general since December 2011.
A separate CIA Inspector General review concluded in January found breaches of security in how the agency dealt with the Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers, King said.
”They said then that CIA did not follow its own procedures regarding security of both information and individuals,” King said. He said he was describing the unclassified findings of the report. No portion of the CIA report has been publicly released.
“The CIA continues to look at our processes to address the concerns Representative King raised,” CIA spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday.
A CIA spokesman said the agency couldn’t comment on IG reviews. The inspector general’s office also declined to comment.
It’s unclear who authored or approved the contents of the version of the DOD IG report obtained by POGO. The document says it reflects the results of “an initial review,” and notes that review did not include an interview with Panetta.
The draft report indicates that no measures were taken at the June 2011 ceremony to disguise the identities of the commandos who carried out the raid. “The special operators were all in uniform with name tapes and directed to reserved seats in the front row,” the report says.
With the unit in full view and identified by name, Panetta and other speakers at the event may have had no reason to think they needed to be discreet.
King said the bigger concern was not Panetta’s remarks, but the wisdom of inviting a filmmaker to such an event. “I’m not saying Panetta did anything intentional, but the whole operation was set in place here to be a deliberate security breach,” the lawmaker said. “Boal wasn’t there at the spur of the moment…You shouldn’t have people like that there.”
A prominent expert on classification policy said Wednesday that he can’t conceive of Panetta facing any charges in connection with the episode.
“There’s zero chance of him being prosecuted,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s not clear that [Panetta] was aware there were any uncleared people in the audience. It would not be easy for such a person to gain access…You would not expect CIA headquarters to be vulnerable to a party crasher.”
Aftergood noted that if Panetta disclosed the identities of people involved in the operation, so too did the SEAL team members who walked around with their names plastered on their chests and their faces undisguised. “Did they also violate the rules?” he said. “To take it off the end that way, lies absurdity.”
Aftergood said the incident should provide another reason for the administration to reconsider how aggressively it pursues some classified leaks. “It illustrates the different standards in effect for senior officials and low-level officials. That’s just a fact of life,” he said.
“This episode ought to imbue everyone with a degree of humility about the working of the classification system. If someone of undoubted patriotism can violate the Espionage Act, then the legal regime is clearly out of whack,” Aftergood added.
King echoed the point. “The administration has been subpoenaing reporters’ records and prosecuting people for leaks….but to then have its own people, for Hollywood purposes breaking security regulations seems to me totally wrong and indefensible.”
The report, building on documents released last year under the Freedom of Information Act, describes a broad effort by the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA to support the movie project headed by Boal and colleague Kathryn Bigelow. However, the report is less clear about how Boal ended up at the award ceremony.
A Pentagon public affairs officer told investigators that a CIA public affairs representative said that Panetta’s chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, directed that Boal be admitted. However, Bash told investigators that CIA’s public affairs shop made any such arrangements, and he was not involved in extending the invitation.
It’s unclear what Boal did, if anything, with the information he heard at the ceremony. The commander recognized by Panetta does not appear to be identified in the film.
“Boal was invited by [CIA] Public Affairs to absorb the emotion of the event,” the source close to Panetta said.
A source told POLITICO last July that the DoD IG review was essentially complete and that that the findings could be politically significant, though an IG spokeswoman said at the time that “no release date has yet been determined.”
In December, the spokeswoman told POLITICO: “The assessment report our staff is preparing in response to the congressional request from Rep. King has not yet been completed, so there is no update at this time.”