The Navy’s special warfare command granted permission for two SEALs to advise filmmakers for an upcoming movie about a doomed commando mission in Afghanistan.
The Hollywood job was accepted at about the same time the Navy punished several SEAL Team 6 members for sharing purported classified information as consultants for the development of a video game.
To some in the military community, the Pentagon is sending mixed signals to troops.
Special operations commanders and some members of the Obama administration are courting the media with details about secret missions, such as the SEAL raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, to fit a political or public relations agenda, critics say.
“The administration is guilty of a double standard when it comes to our special operations forces,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and an analyst for the Family Research Council.
“For example, it is convenient that our SEALs’ combat successes are spun to advance President Obama’s political agenda, such as making him look like a hero vis-a-vis the Osama bin Laden takedown,” Mr. Maginnis said. “But when a few SEALs do something, like help with a video game, they are roundly castigated.”
Military officials say the difference is that the release of the bin Laden mission was approved, but the seven SEALs who worked on the video game had no authorization. They confirmed that two other SEALs worked as movie consultants last month while on leave.
Asked whether the superiors reviewed the information that the SEALs shared, Army Col. Edward Nye, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), said: “The bottom line is the movie is approved for support from [the Office of the Secretary of Defense]. SOCOM also supports the film and has authorized its components to do the same.”
Col. Nye said the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs approved the SEALs to act as advisers on the movie, “Lone Survivor,” which is to be released next year.
Technical advice “would be within the bounds of the approved script” and under the supervision of an official from the public affairs office on the movie set.
Kenneth McGraw, another SOCOM spokesman, said the SEALs provide information about “physical conditioning and training about how to shoot, move and communicate like a SEAL.”
He added that the seven SEALs who worked on the video game “Medal of Honor: Warfighter” received “nonjudicial punishment” because their activities were not approved by the Defense Department.
“They divulged classified information and used government equipment without authorization,” Mr. McGraw said. “These are apples and oranges cases.”
‘A delicate balance’
“Lone Survivor” is being shot in New Mexico with actor Mark Wahlberg portraying Marcus Luttrell, a former SEAL who wrote a best-selling book about the botched 2005 mission to kill a notorious Taliban leader in eastern Afghanistan.
The book relates the encounter between a group of local Afghan shepherds who stumbled across the four-man SEAL team as it was preparing its mission.
The SEALs debated what to do with the shepherds but then decided to let them go under U.S. military rules of engagement. Hours later, the SEALs found themselves surrounded by Taliban, apparently alerted by the shepherds.
Only Mr. Luttrell survived the firefight by being rescued by sympathetic villagers.
In addition to “Lone Survivor,” the Pentagon has granted help for another in-production movie, “Capt. Phillips,” about the 2009 SEAL killing of Somali pirates and high-seas rescue of merchant ship captain Richard Phillips. The Navy provided filmmakers with three warships — a destroyer, a big-deck amphibious ship and a frigate — to replicate the operation off the Somali coast.
“We have a broad criteria to evaluate whether or not we should provide support,” said Philip Strub, the Pentagon’s point man for dealing with Hollywood. “It is very broadly whether we see a given production as an opportunity to inform the American public about the U.S. military and, or, if such a production might be of some benefit to recruiting and retention programs.”
The heroics of “Lone Survivor” fit that model. In all, least five men from the SEAL community, three retired and the two active sailors, helped during taping, which wrapped up shortly before Thanksgiving.
Two recently retired SEALs helped with tactics.
Mr. Strub, who worked with on-the-ground commanders to give advice for the classic special operations movie “Black Hawk Down,” routinely reads scripts and then consults with various military commands to determine whether the story line is a good public relations fit for the armed forces.
“The director has his actor do ‘X’ and wants technical advice about is the ‘X’ accurate,” he said. “You can imagine, just the simple thing of trying to put a ‘hide’ together as the SEALs did in Afghanistan, you’ve got to have somebody who knows how to do that sort of thing. And it’s surely not going to be the actors or director.”
The “hide” refers who how SEALs remain concealed as they conduct a reconnaissance mission — in this case to identify the most-wanted Taliban.
The two active-duty SEALs gave advice on handling weapons and how the warriors move over land. Bringing active SEALs to a movie set has its risks.
“It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, because they have plenty of other things to occupy themselves than making movies and TV shows,” Mr. Strub said. “But by the same token, we want to try to get things as realistic as possible and still keep it unclassified. It’s obviously very helpful to have somebody there who can provide the technical advice and to know just how much technical advice can be provided and still remain in the unclassified world.”
‘Zero Dark Thirty’
The Obama administration seems to have a love affair with Hollywood and with the disclosure of details on SEAL missions, critics say.
Earlier this year, two SEALs had roles in the action movie “Act of Valor.”
A long article in The New Yorker magazine, for example, quoted White House officials anonymously and by name.
The CIA opened its doors to a director and scriptwriter for their upcoming movie on bin Laden’s death, “Zero Dark Thirty.” The movie’s release date initially was scheduled before the election but was moved later to Jan. 11.
In August, the watchdog group Judicial Watch released a series of internal administration emails detailing the White House’s cooperation on “Zero Dark Thirty.” The group obtained the emails via the Freedom of Information Act.
The CIA provided the moviemakers with briefings about the raid, a replica of the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and access to a CIA official on the raid.
“Told them we’re here to help with whatever they need,” a CIA public relations official said in an email after a meeting that included the movie director, the screenwriter and a senior spy.
Attitudes changed when Matt Bissonnette, a former SEAL and a leader of the bin Laden assault, released his unauthorized book, “No Easy Day,” in September. He used the pen name “Mark Owens.”
At the time, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Mr. Bissonnette had “a clear and unambiguous obligation to consult with us prior to publishing, and he did not.”
“He also had a clear and unambiguous obligation not to disclose classified information, and he did,” Mr. Whitman added.
Mr. Bissonnette’s attorney denied that his client revealed classified information.
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