Is 'Zero Dark Thirty' propaganda?

I had been willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Zero Dark Thirty, the upcoming film by director Kathryn Bigelow about the pursuit of Osama bin Laden that has been the target of scrutiny for some lawmakers because of the level of access given to the filmmakers by the administration.  After all, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's last film, The Hurt Locker, was a fairly nuanced portrayal of the Iraq war, it's not unprecedented for the military and government to cooperate with filmmakers, and the movie's release date had been pushed back until after the U.S. election. The project seemed a bit more respectable than this year's glorified recruitment video Act of Valor.

But the FOIAed documents on the CIA and Department of Defense's cooperation with Bigelow and Boal released by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch today don't really make anyone look good. 

The documents follow an earlier release in May, which showed that the filmmakers had been granted access to the commander of SEAL Team Six -- though asked not to reveal his name -- and shown the facility where the planning for the bin Laden raid took place, as well as being granted interviews numerous other officials who rarely speak with journalists.  

Today's documents show officials being more than accomodating to the visitors from Hollywood, with then CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf urging colleagues to support Bigelow's film over other competing projects as "It’s got the most money behind it, and two Oscar winners on board." When Boal thanked then CIA director of Public Affairs George Little for "pulling for us at the agency," Little responded,  "I can’t tell you how excited we all are (at DOD and CIA) about the project…PS – I want you to know how good I’ve been not mentioning the premiere tickets. :)”.

There's also the matter of whether New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti violated protocol by sharing an unpublished Maureen Dowd column with Harf.

There's no evidence that classified information was shared with Bigelow and Boal, though as Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy told the Daily Beast in May, the unusual access they were given certainly adds to the perception that "The whole interaction with the filmmakers appears to be self-serving and self-aggrandizing [attempts] in an election year to glorify the administration.”

Here on Passport we've had some fun with movies like Georgia's 5 Days at War and China's Flowers of War -- ostensibly independent projects with some Hollywood names attached that were made with the "cooperation" of local authorities and, in the end, very much felt like it. Obviously, we'll find out when the movie is ultimately released, but it's starting to look like Zero Dark Thirty might be in the same genre. 


American exceptionalism, and other key lines in the GOP platform

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) may not think highly of party platforms, but a new Pew Research Center poll released Monday suggests that the American public is, in fact, more interested in the GOP platform than in presumptive nominee Mitt Romney's convention speech. When the document, which will contain many familiar talking points on foreign policy, is released this afternoon, what might garner the most attention?

As I noted last week, the platform is likely to champion a guest-worker program and "Internet freedom" for the first time. But a draft accidently posted to the Republican National Committee's website on Friday suggests another milestone as well: the first reference in either a Democratic or Republican platform to the term "American exceptionalism."

At the beginning of its foreign-policy section, entitled, "American Exceptionalism," the platform declares that the party believes not only in Ronald Reagan's vision of "peace through strength" but also in "American exceptionalism -- the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history."

Party platforms, of course, have long extolled America's special character and mission in global affairs. But, according to a search of past party manifestos, this appears to be the first time that "American exceptionalism" has been used to describe that sentiment. The term has gradually insinuated itself into political discourse over the past decade; in 2009, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to use the phrase. "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," he said, in a line that Republicans have repeatedly criticized (Obama has since emphasized his belief in the concept).

Mitt Romney in particular has embraced this theme. He's the author of No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, and he argues on the campaign trail that Obama doesn't agree with the thesis of his book. "Our president doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do," he declared in March. The big question, of course, is what exactly the phrase signifies in the context of the campaign. Is it simply a slogan? Or is it a worldview that speaks to how Romney would exercise U.S. leadership?

Here are some other surprising lines in the draft platform that you'll want to look out for as you pore over the final version of the text today:

  • South China Sea policy: The draft platform appears to break with U.S. policy on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, condemning China's "destabilizing claims" in the region even though the United States, while increasingly speaking out against China's role in the boundary disputes, officially maintains a policy of neutrality. The language is unlikely to be received well in China, where Romney has already received less than favorable coverage for his tough rhetoric on U.S.-Chinese relations.
  • Gaffe reference: The document may include the first mention of a "hot mic" moment in a party platform. "In an embarrassing open microphone discussion with former Russian President Medvedev," the section on missile defense explains, "the current president made clear that, if he wins a second term, he intends to exercise 'more flexibility' to appease Russia, which means further undermining our missile defense capabilities." 
  • European debt crisis: The platform hardly mentions one of the biggest foreign-policy issues of the day, noting only that Europe's "endurance cannot be taken for granted, especially in light of the continent's economic upheaval and demographic changes."
  • Russia: Romney raised eyebrows on the campaign trail by describing Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," but the platform doesn't go that far. After enumerating common goals, the platform urges Russian leaders to "reconsider the path they have been following: suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society; unprovoked invasion of the Republic of Georgia, alignment with tyrants in the Middle East; and bullying their neighbors while protecting the last Stalinist regime in Belarus." 
  • Fact-checking material: As with the release of any political document, there's fodder for fact-checkers. Already, some observers have taken issue with claims that the United States has not been modernizing its nuclear stockpile, estimates about the blow that reducing defense spending will inflict on the military, and the assertion that the Venezuelan government has issued "Venezuelan passports or visas to thousands of Middle Eastern terrorists offering safe haven to Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters and fundraisers." As for the last claim, the wording is nearly identical to language used by Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush, in a Washingtom Times column earlier this month.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images