WASHINGTON - Pentagon investigators concluded that a senior Defense Department official who's been mentioned as a possible candidate to be the next CIA director leaked restricted information to the makers of an acclaimed film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and referred the case to the Justice Department, according to knowledgeable U.S. officials.
The Justice Department received the case involving Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers in September, but so far it's declined to launch a criminal prosecution, said two senior U.S. officials who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The case involved a determination by investigators of the Pentagon's inspector general's office that Vickers provided the makers of the film "Zero Dark Thirty" with the restricted name of a U.S. Special Operations Command officer who helped plan the May 2, 2011, raid on bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan, one official said. The identities of special forces personnel can be classified in certain circumstances and making them public is against the law, according to experts.
Vickers, a former Army special forces operator and onetime CIA paramilitary officer, is the top intelligence adviser to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and oversees the Pentagon's vast intelligence operations. He's been frequently mentioned as a candidate to replace retired Army Gen. David Petraeus as CIA director.
"Mike Vickers is an outstanding defense and intelligence professional, and is well respected inside the Department of Defense and the intelligence community," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
It was unclear whether the Justice Department review could hurt Vickers' chances of being nominated to the CIA post. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
"When it comes to even the slightest hint that there may have been an unauthorized disclosure of classified information, there's actually little choice but to contact Justice," a senior defense official said. "That doesn't mean they will do anything with it. This is a routine practice."
The Pentagon inspector general's office is continuing to examine whether there were any other leaks of restricted information to the makers of the film. In a Dec. 4 letter denying a McClatchy Freedom of Information Act request for the findings, the office said the material was "currently part of an open investigation." A spokeswoman said Monday that the report "has not yet been finalized and issued."
Even though the inquiry was launched at the request of Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, the Defense Department Inspector General's Office hadn't informed King or any other lawmaker of its findings by midday Monday, a politically risky decision that could ignite charges that officials were trying to protect President Barack Obama during his tough re-election battle.
King told McClatchy that the delay in notifying him "raises the question" of whether officials were trying to put it off for political reasons, but he wanted to see the full report before drawing any conclusions.
"I'm not looking for anyone to be indicted," he said. "But the IG does not make referrals to the Justice Department as a matter of routine. To me the fact that any information at all would be given to Hollywood producers by this administration is disgraceful."
"If it's wrong enough or questionable enough for the IG to refer it to the Justice Department, that means it shouldn't have been done."
The film, by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, originally was set for release just weeks before the Nov. 6 election. But it was delayed amid Republican complaints that it could bring Obama votes by glorifying the bin Laden operation. The premiere was held last week and the film is due for a limited public release on Wednesday.
The senior defense official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly, wrote in an email that Pentagon officials don't think the case "will amount to anything." He pointed out that the Pentagon deemed as "unclassified" a transcript of a July 15, 2011, conversation among Vickers, Bigelow and Boal in which Vickers identified the U.S. special forces planner by name as someone who could be made available to brief the filmmakers. The transcript was released to Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog organization, in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The investigators found no evidence that White House officials were involved in any leaks of classified materials to the filmmakers, according to U.S. officials familiar with the findings. They reached that conclusion, however, without interviewing any White House officials or Panetta, who was the CIA director at the time of the bin Laden raid. Panetta reassured Congress in June - before the investigators reached their findings - that no classified information had been released to the filmmakers.
A second U.S. official blamed bureaucratic hand-wringing for the delay in notifying King, not an orchestrated effort to protect the White House.
"This does not appear to be a cover-up or a wag-the-dog media stunt," the U.S. official said. "Rather, this is about who gets to break the law and leak information for their own benefit."