Hollywood has become the public's "account of record" for Operation Neptune Spear.

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 410
Posted – January 17, 2013


Washington, DC  The poster for the blockbuster movie Zero Dark Thirty features black lines of redaction over the title, which unintentionally illustrate the most accurate take-away from the film - that most of the official record of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is still shrouded in secrecy, according to the National Security Archive's ZD30 briefing book, posted today at www.nsarchive.org.

The U.S. government's recalcitrance over releasing information directly to the public about the twenty-first century's most important intelligence search and military raid, and its decision instead to grant the film's producers exclusive and unprecedented access to classified information about the operation, means that for the time being – for bad or good – Hollywood has become the public's "account of record" for Operation Neptune Spear.

As often happens when the government declines on secrecy grounds to provide an authoritative account of a controversial event, leaked, unauthorized and untrustworthy versions rush to fill the void. In this extraordinary case, a Hollywood motion picture, with apparent White House, CIA, and Pentagon blessing and despite its historical inaccuracies, is now the closest thing to the official story behind the pursuit of bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty 's screenwriter, Mark Boal, has claimed that the film is "a movie not a documentary" and should not be treated as history.

But the U.S. government's widely reported support and its official silence about the raid have made Zero Dark Thirty (the military designation for 12:30 AM) more than a mere thriller. Today, in an effort to balance the record, to the extent currently possible, the National Security Archive has collected, posted, and analyzed in one Electronic Briefing Book all of the available official documents on the mission to kill the notorious al-Qaeda leader. The documents include:
  • The earliest known official document mentioning Osama bin Laden, a 1996 CIA biographical sketch and his FBI "Most Wanted Fugitive" poster which spelled his name "Usama," but included his now ubiquitous mug shot.
  • A leaked memo from Guantanamo Bay, describing the "Autonomy of a lead" and how the CIA determined that Abu al-Kuwaiti, once Khalid Sheikh Mohammad's courier in Kandahar, may have escaped Tora Bora with bin Laden, and continued to deliver his messages.
  • The National Geospatial Agency's satellite images of the Abbottabad compound pre- and post-construction and the DOD's official conceptual illustration of its floor plan.
  • The color cards, carried by Navy SEALs as they raided the Abbottabad compound, depicting bin Laden, his courier al-Kuwaiti, and their families.
  • A FOUO manual from the Center for Army Lessons Learned describing the methods U.S. soldiers employ during "tactical site exploitation," such as the raid on bin Laden's compound.
  • West Point's release of selected translated "Letters from Abbottabad" that include letters bin Laden wrote to his top lieutenants while in hiding.
  • The only documents about the raid released in response to a FOIA request, including a 2:02 AM email - stating simply, "Sir, FEDEX delivered the package." - that confirmed that bin Laden's body had been transferred to the USS Carl Vinson somewhere in the North Arabian Sea.
  • Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers, one of several senior officials who provided cooperation to the Zero Dark 30 film team.
  • The six official White House, Department of Defense, and Department of State briefings describing the contradictory initial accounts of the raid, including the oft-repeated but incorrect statement that bin Laden had used one of his wives as a human shield.
  • A Congressional Research Service report based on open source intelligence describing how President Obama conducted the covert action in accordance with legal requirements.
  • Emails and memos, released in response to a Judicial Watch FOIA request, detailing director Kathryn Bigelow's and screenwriter Mark Boal's extensive access to CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, DOD Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, and five CIA and military operatives involved in the raid, whose identities remain concealed from the public. The documents say Bigelow and Boal's work received the "full knowledge and full approval/support" of CIA Director Leon Panetta.
  • The dramatic 16-page transcript of Vickers’ interview with Bigelow and Boal on July 15, 2011, in which the DOD Under Secretary describes in detail the planning for the bin Laden mission and the intelligence uncertainties (40 percent, 60 percent, 95 percent) about bin Laden being at the compound.
  • Court proceedings detailing the U.S. government's ongoing fight to keep photos of the deceased Osama bin Laden from the public domain.
  • Letters from Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin asking Acting CIA Director Michael Morell to clarify the CIA's cooperation with the filmmakers and his statement to CIA employees that some information regarding Osama bin Laden's location "came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques."
Until the White House, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency declassify – or Congress demands – their accounts and documentation of Operation Neptune Spear, the official documents presented here – supplemented by leaks, unauthorized disclosures, and this film – will be the public's attenuated record of the hunt for, and death of, Osama bin Laden.

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If you sit by a river long enough, you'll see the body of your enemy float by.
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