Panetta Inadvertently Reveals Secrets of bin Laden Raid to “Zero Dark Thirty” Screenwriter Mark Boal

As many of my colleagues at the Center for Policy & Research know, I am a big fan of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty. Billed as a film about “The Greatest Manhunt in History,” the film chronicles the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, centered around the efforts of a female CIA operative named simply “Maya.”

While the film was allegedly based on a true story, newly declassified documents show secret information about the raid that killed bin Laden may have inadvertently been revealed to the film’s scriptwriter, Mark Boal. The documents reveal that former CIA Director Leon Panetta gave a speech about the raid that killed the al-Qaida leader at the CIA’s headquarters, discussing secret information about the mission, while Boal was in the room.

When asked about the incident, Panetta said “I had no idea that individual was in the audience.” His spokesperson says Panetta had assumed that everyone in the room had the proper security clearance to hear the speech.

Interestingly, a recent article on Politico reveals that the incident has caused the CIA to overhaul their policies and procedures with regards to how they assess and respond to requests by the entertainment industry, in an effort to ensure that the incident is not repeated.

While this may seem like an isolated slip-up, it brings to light larger questions about government transparency. How much information should be public knowledge? What is the value of keeping the circumstances of the raid that killed bin Laden a secret? Was any harm done by Boal’s integrating the knowledge gleaned from Panetta’s speech into the Zero Dark Thirty¬†screenplay? Interestingly, there are no cut and dry answers to these questions, but they force us to consider the intersection of government transparency and the media, and the potential problems that could arise from widespread dissemination of classified information through the entertainment industry.

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research



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