Former Pentagon chief Leon Panetta

Multiple national security leaks by US officials occurred during the production of the Oscar-nominated film, Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatized the hunt for Osama bin Laden that ended in his execution. But, when the Pentagon Inspector General’s office investigated what had happened, the office found then-Pentagon chief Leon Panetta had mishandled classified information.

A candidate to replace CIA director David Petraeus, who worked in Panetta’s office as a top adviser, Michael Vickers, was found to have provided filmmakers with the “restricted name of a US Special Operations Command officer who helped plan the May 2, 2011, raid on bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan,” according to McClatchy. The draft report from the IG’s office had the potential to be politically sensitive if released.

Now, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has published a report by Adam Zagorin that indicates that Dan Meyer, a Pentagon employee, provided the unclassified report drafted by the IG’s office to Congress.

Zagorin wrote that the IG’s office asserted in a document that Meyer, who “now holds a sensitive post in the intelligence community,” engaged in an “unauthorized disclosure.”

POGO revealed the IG’s office had a report it had planned to release in late 2012, which discussed Panetta’s role in leaking classified information, but had decided not to release it. A version of the report was posted to the Internet by POGO, and the IG decided to investigate leak investigators.

“In the course of the probe, Meyer acknowledged giving a draft to a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer and to the chief of staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to the IG memorandum and people familiar with the matter,” reports Zagorin.

A memo from Deputy Chief of Staff Brett A. Mansfield of the IG’s office referred to this “unauthorized disclosure” and contended, “In general the OIG does not provide draft reports to outside stakeholders to include members of Congress and their staff.”

…Meyer was “reminded of his responsibility to ensure the protection of sensitive information to include information marked For Official Use Only (FOUO),” a designation commonly employed to keep various kinds of unclassified material from public release. It says that “the lack of FOUO markings does not make information automatically releasable”—implying that releasing information to Congress is not an official use. It discusses restrictions on “draft and pre-decisional information.” And it says that the only people who had the authority to approve Meyer’s disclosure to Congress were the Inspector General or a particular subordinate…

In other words, only the IG’s office, which had effectively decided to suppress the investigation into Panetta and others involved in Zero Dark Thirty leaks, could only inform Congress of the outcome of an investigation, which it decided it did not want anyone outside of the office to know anything about.

Marisa Taylor and Jonathan Landay of McClatchy previously reported in December 2013 that the leak investigators had become targets of the probe. The office was no longer interested in holding Panetta or Vickers accountable but wanted to know how POGO and McClatchy had obtained information on what had been in the draft report.

On June 24, 2011, Panetta was at an awards ceremony at CIA headquarters where he said of the bin Laden raid, “In a sensitive operation like this, one leak – one leak – would have undermined the entire operation.” Those who were part of the raid sat in the front row with name tags and heard him say it was a “tribute” to them that information had been kept secret.

The screenwriter for Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal, was the only one without a top secret security clearance. Somehow he was in attendance. And Panetta leaked “classified NSA intelligence and top-secret military information, including the protected identity of the ground commander of the Navy SEAL unit that staged the bin Laden raid.”

Findings on Panetta were “sanitized” from the final version of the report. So, too, were findings on Vickers. “Several current and former officials” who were “familiar with the investigations saw the excising of the findings on Panetta and Vickers from the final Pentagon Inspector General’s Report” as part of an effort to shield senior officials.

CIA Inspector General David Buckley had also “recused himself from the matter for unknown reasons.” He attended Panetta’s speech at the awards ceremony. For whatever reason, all he decided to do about the leaks is review policies for working with the “entertainment industry.”

This is the vaunted office in government agencies that officials in government like to say whistleblowers should turn to when they need support. It probably is not supposed to investigate employees, who make disclosures to Congress because they think a situation deserves further oversight, but in the case of the Zero Dark Thirty leaks, that is what happened.

Zagorin concluded, “At a time when the government [had] been cracking down on whistleblowers and national security leaks, the Zero Dark Thirty case showed a security lapse at the highest levels of the CIA. It showed members of the Obama Administration going to substantial lengths to help the makers of a Hollywood movie about a national security success. And it showed the Pentagon’s Inspector General, an internal watchdog, sparing leaders at the Pentagon from the public accountability that could result from a potentially damaging report.”

Indeed, what makes it worse is what former CIA officer and imprisoned whistleblower John Kiriakou articulated in his recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

…US District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled in my case that evidence of the accidental release of national defense information was inadmissible, and she added that the government did not have to prove that a leak of classified information actually caused any harm to the United States. In other words, the act of disclosing the kind of broad information covered by the Espionage Act is prosecutable regardless of outcome or motive.

The sensitivity of what Panetta revealed is not in question. The spokesman for the former CIA director said Panetta assumed that everyone present at the time of the speech had proper clearance for such a discussion. When the transcript of the speech was released, more than 90 lines had been redacted, implying that Panetta had disclosed a great deal more classified information than the name of an operative…

Yet, Panetta has faced no repercussions for what he did. “What does that say about justice in America or White House hypocrisy?” Kiriakou added.

It is worth noting, as McClatchy highlighted, that “disclosures by lower-level officials have been vigorously pursued. For example, seven Navy SEALs were reprimanded for disclosing classified material to the makers of a military video game.” A record number of intelligence employees, including Kiriakou, have been pursued for leaks under the Obama administration.

Those with favorable odds in the game of politics, such as Panetta or Vickers, however, have fared well and escaped even the most half-hearted attempts at accountability.

Finally, the CIA was able to turn the filmmakers into willing propagandists. The government never had to worry about how the leaked information would be used because the filmmakers would tell the story they wanted to be told to Americans. However, what POGO, McClatchy or Congress will say to the American people could divert from the preferred script. Which is why the Senate has had to deal with a CIA interfering in its efforts to produce and release a comprehensive study on torture and why the Obama administration has been responsible for such a clampdown on national security leaks that do not benefit the administration.