CIA Emails Reveal Winners and Losers of National Security Access

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For everyone who didn't get special access to information about the Osama bin Laden raid, today was a little bit discouraging as new e-mails revealed CIA officials gushing over Hollywood filmakers at the expense of trained reporters and documentarians.

The filmmakers given top notch access have been known for months: Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team behind the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker and the upcoming film on the mission to kill bin Laden Zero Dark Thirty. But we never got to see who was vying with them for access to details on the bin Laden raid, a group that includes former New York Times reporter Howard Blum, the History Channel and The BBC. Typically, details about deliberations over who wins and who loses in the competitive game of CIA access remains a secret, but thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, those conversations became public today. 

From the outset, CIA, White House, and Pentagon officials began discussing the various Osama bin Laden projects with a slight degree of favoritism toward Bigelow and Boal's film. But pretty quickly the Oscar-winning pair blew away the competition and a highly-cordial subject-filmmaker relationship ensued.

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Below, in a June 15 2011 e-mail from then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson to national security adviser Ben Rhodes, White House Deputy Press Secretary Jamie Smith and a redacted name, you can see the government flaks are pretty excited about the Bigelow project:

The e-mail essentially sets up the competition for access. The reference to a History Channel documentary was no doubt a nod to the cable network's Sept 4, 2011 documentary Targeting Bin Laden, which while boasting interviews with President Obama and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was scant on new details about the mission and failed to make a big splash. The BBC's The Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, meanwhile, offered fewer top officials (though it did include the head of the CIA's counter terrorism unit, Cofer Black) and was mostly ignored. As for Howard Blum, who's authored several best-selling nonfiction books, his project has yet to come to fruition. And indeed, you can tell the Obama administration officials grew weary of him.

"What is our colleague's obsession with howard blum?" writes CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf. "I know we don't 'pick favorites' but it makes sense to get behind the winning horse... Mark and Kathryn's movie is going to be the first and the biggest. It's got the most money behind it, and two Oscar winners on board." Hitting the message home, Harf zeroes in on who should really be getting the close access:

Meanwhile, Boal, Bigelow and the government flaks developed quite the chummy rapport. In a July 20, 2011 email, Boal thanks then-CIA Director of Public Affairs Goerge Little for "pulling for him" while he was trying to get access. "It made all the difference." Little's response is classic:

Others seemed to be pretty head-over-heels with the pair as well, like one official identified as "Mr. Morell," who we presume to be CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell. In an internal e-mail, an official says Morell "gushed to kathryn about how much he loved 'the hurt locker' and told Bigelow "we're here to help with whatever they need." From a journalist's perspective, that kind of obsequious service is rare to come by.

Now, obviously, the job of any good PR person is to advantageously give privilege to some media outlets over others. That's why The New York Times is going to get better White House access over your hometown paper every day of the week. Still, there's something a little unsettling about Hollywood getting preferred access over journalists and documentarians, who, let's face it, can rarely compete with Tinseltown when it comes to glitz, glamor and prominence. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.