National Security

Sen. Grassley: Pentagon officials botched investigation of bin Laden raid leak

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, February 7, 2013
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, February 7, 2013 MCT

Two top officials in the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office bungled an investigation into allegations that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other defense officials leaked classified information to Hollywood filmmakers, a senior Republican senator is charging.

The investigation produced “a second-class report that wasn’t worth the paper on which it was written,” Sen. Chuck Grassley asserted in a scathing Nov. 17 letter to John Rymer, the Defense Department’s inspector general. “The . . . project was an unmitigated disaster spawned by a series of top-level missteps and blunders.”

In the end, Grassley noted, no one has been held responsible more than two years after the leaks to the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a blockbuster film depicting the May 2, 2011, Navy SEALs raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

The Pentagon investigation “was wasteful of taxpayers’ money and harmful to the perceived independence of the IG’s office,” Grassley wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy.

The handling of the case highlighted an apparent double standard in the way the Obama administration has dealt with leaks. While no one has been held responsible for the “Zero Dark Thirty” disclosures, the administration has aggressively pursued lower-level leakers and journalists.

Grassley’s charges were based on an inquiry by his staff into the leak investigation that was overseen by Lynne Halbrooks, the principal deputy Pentagon inspector general who was serving as acting inspector general at the time, and James Ives, a deputy Pentagon inspector general.

The staff cited possible misconduct by the pair that included discussions that Halbrooks held with Panetta and his aides about the investigation while it was still underway. Moreover, the public release of the final report was held up until after Panetta resigned on Feb. 27, 2013.

The delay created “the perception that the report process was slowed by PDIG Halbrooks and others working at her direction to shield DOD officials from scrutiny and perhaps to bolster” a bid by Halbrooks to permanently win the post in which she was temporarily serving, said the staff’s findings.

Halbrooks’ discussions with Panetta and his former chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, about the investigation of which they were both targets, “continues to be a source of concern and deserves further review,” said the findings, which were appended to the letter to Rymer.

In a Nov. 24 response, Rymer acknowledged that the investigation into the allegations against Panetta and other senior officials “could have been better.”

Rymer, however, denied that Halbrooks and Ives acted improperly, saying that they’d conducted “a thorough and impartial review.” Moreover, there was no evidence that Halbrooks intentionally delayed the release of the final report to enhance her prospects for promotion, Rymer said.

The investigation examined allegations that classified and sensitive information was leaked to Kathryn Bigelow, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the screenwriter, Mark Boal.

An initial version of the findings concluded that while serving as CIA director – the post he’d held before moving to the Pentagon – Panetta disclosed classified information to Boal, the only person without top-secret clearance who attended a June 24, 2011, ceremony at CIA headquarters honoring the SEAL team that killed bin Laden.

In his speech to the gathering, Panetta cited classified National Security Agency intelligence and top-secret military information, including the protected identity of the SEAL ground commander, according to the draft report, which was completed in late 2012 and leaked to a nonprofit government watchdog organization in June 2013.

Those findings, however, were sanitized from the final version of the report that was released to the public later that same month. Instead, they were declared top secret and sent to the CIA Inspector General’s Office, which to this date appears to have taken no action beyond reviewing policies on dealing with filmmakers.

Grassley’s staff found that Halbrooks and Ives failed to properly supervise the preparation of the report, and that the delays in releasing the final version until after Panetta’s resignation combined with Halbrooks’ “contacts with the targets of the investigation raise issues about IG independence.”

The staff cited one meeting that Halbrooks held with Panetta on Dec. 18, 2012, the day after McClatchy reported that protected information was provided to Bigelow by Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and that the leak had been referred to the Justice Department, which declined to launch a criminal probe.

Halbrooks admitted in an interview with Grassley’s aides “to broaching the topic of the report because of a McClatchy news story,” the staff said. “She could not remember in detail what was discussed.”

The contacts with Panetta and the delays in releasing the public version of the report may have prompted an unidentified whistleblower, concerned about a possible coverup, to leak the draft report to the nonprofit watchdog organization, the staff said.

The delays in the final report’s release remains “unexplained,” the staff concluded.

Grassley’s staff also alleged that Ives’ experience meant he was “not well-qualified” to oversee a leak investigation involving senior officials.

Finally, the staff said, Halbrooks unfairly targeted an official in her office in an attempt to root out the whistleblower who leaked the draft report to the nonprofit watchdog organization.

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