CIA Slammed for Sloppy Dealings With Hollywood After 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Columbia Pictures
Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

The CIA changed the way it works with Hollywood after questions arose about access provided to 'Zero Dark Thirty' filmmakers, who bestowed officers with gifts ranging from pearl earrings to expensive tequila.

The CIA's cooperation with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal in the making of their Oscar-nominated Osama bin Laden film Zero Dark Thirty led to at least three internal investigations, resulting in an overhaul of the clandestine agency's relationship with Hollywood.

At the time of the movie's release in December 2012, the Obama administration was widely criticized for the assistance provided to Boal and Bigelow in researching the film. But the full extent of those dealings weren't disclosed until Wednesday, when VICE published a wide-ranging article drawing from internal CIA reports, which were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to the reports, the money spent by Bigelow and Boal on gifts and meals for CIA officers triggered an ethics investigation, although the Justice Department ultimately declined to pursue formal charges. A second investigation focused on the circumstances by which Boal was invited to attend a top-secret ceremony honoring those who helped orchestrate bin Laden's death, where then-CIA director Leon Panetta gave a classified speech. A third addressed the CIA's relationship with Hollywood.

The results of the third probe, released internally in December 2012, just as Zero Dark Thirty hit theaters, concluded that the CIA's Office of Public Affairs didn't keep proper records of which movies and TV shows the agency was consulting on.

The report also found that the CIA needed to do a better of job of determining how much manpower it spent on Hollywood projects, including whether the agency should be reimbursed for its efforts. Furthermore, the report elaborates, "OPA and CIA employees have not always complied with agency regulations intended to prevent the release of classified information during their interactions with entertainment industry representatives."

From that point forward, the CIA created a centralized record-keeping system for requests from Hollywood, among other measures. It's unclear whether this has had a chilling effect on subsequent film and TV projects seeking help from the agency.

The documents uncovered by VICE also offer an inside view of the relationship forged by Bigelow and Boal with at least six counterterrorism officers over the course of a year.

The documents show that Bigelow met repeatedly with one officer, who was the inspiration for Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty, and gave her a pair of Tahitian pearl earrings as a thank-you gift during a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. During a separate encounter at the Soho House in Los Angeles, Bigelow reportedly offered to host a private screening of the film at the exclusive club. The officer was allowed to keep the earrings, valued at no more than $200, but declined the screening invite after checking with CIA public affairs.

According to VICE, Boal and Bigelow offered their subjects gifts ranging from hotel lunches to a ticket for a Prada runway show to a bottle of tequila priced online at $169.99. Some officers reaccepted the gifts and meals, while others did not. One CIA officer mailed Boal's and Bigelow's production company a $500 check for the meals she was treated to after the CIA inspector general's office launched its investigation.

Boal's appearance at the classified awards ceremony in June 2011 is a particular point of contention. Panetta told investigators he had no knowledge of Boal’s attendance, even though his office would have had to approve the screenwriter’s invitation, according to VICE. Panetta further said he could not identify Boal because he had never met the screenwriter, despite being seated at the same table as both Boal and Bigelow at the May 2010 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. 

The CIA's inspector general's office was unable to confirm who authorized Boal's invitation.  

The inspector general did, however, identify several potential criminal violations of federal law, including Panetta's unauthorized disclosure of classified information to Boal at the June 2011 ceremony. The inspector general also identified a potential violation of federal laws concerning bribery of public officials and witnesses by Bigelow and Boal, but when the cases were referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, the department declined to prosecute in favor of administrative action by the CIA. 

Zero Dark Thirty takes place in the time following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and centers on the CIA's hunt and eventual assassination of known al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The film was nominated for a best picture Academy Award, with Boal getting a nom for best original screenplay.

The beginning of Zero Dark Thirty touts that the narrative is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” An assertion that sparked controversy on Capitol Hill, due to the film’s depiction of the CIA’s use of torture to extract information from detainees. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was the chairwoman of the Senate's intelligence committee and was in charge of the Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s torture program, wrote a letter to Zero Dark Thirty’s distributor Sony Pictures, calling the film “factually inaccurate.”

The CIA has a long history with Hollywood, dating back to the 1950s when a CIA think tank negotiated the film rights to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” believing that the film’s production would be a way to fight communist ideology in Red Scare-era America.

In 1996 the CIA hired Charles Brandon, the cousin of Men in Black actor Tommy Lee Jones, to be its Hollywood liaison. The CIA has worked on a number of TV shows, including Alias, 24 and Homeland. During her run on Alias, actress Jennifer Garner even made a recruitment ad for the agency. 

In the cases when the CIA is portrayed unfavorably, movies can be produced with help from former agents, an action largely not approved by the CIA. This was the case with George Clooney’s 2005 film Syriana, where Clooney’s character Bob Barnes, a CIA officer tasked with assassinating a Middle Eastern leader, is based on real-life ex-CIA agent Bob Baer, who consulted on the film. 

Currently on the CIA’s website, the Office of Public Affairs offers the assistance of its Entertainment Industry Liaison, which can “give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development,” by “answering questions, debunking myths, or arranging visits to the CIA to meet the people who know intelligence — its past, present, and future.” 

A copy of the OPA's "Management Guidance on Contact with the Entertainment Industry and Support to Entertainment Industry Projects” can be formally requested under the FOIA.

Bigelow, Boal and the CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from THR

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