The CIA released a batch of documents detailing how their Office of Public Affairs (OPA) staff met with the film director Michael Bay and successfully leaned on him to make changes to the script to “13 Hours.”
The 2016 action thriller is the only major movie Hollywood has produced about the attacks on the United States Special Mission in Benghazi and the nearby CIA annex.
It grossed less than $70 million against a $50 million budget and is the least commercially successful film Bay has ever produced. While audiences rated “13 Hours” more highly than critics, the film’s attempt to capitalize on the politics of the Benghazi attacks largely failed.
On the night of September 11, 2012, a mob attacked the State Department’s outpost in Benghazi, setting fire to the main residence and murdering ambassador Chris Stevens, who was in town for a visit from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, as well as another State employee.
Several of the CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS)—military veterans contracted by the CIA to provide security for their bases—left the nearby CIA Annex to help defend the outpost. A few hours after they had rescued the survivors and returned to base a string of attacks hit the Annex, killing two GRS operators.
The documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that Bay first approached the CIA in early March 2015, weeks before production started.
OPA staff were initially enthusiastic, according to emails. When one CIA officer pointed out that they were unlikely to support a film based on a book containing “unauthorized disclosures” another responded, “Dude, you’re such a Debbie Downer. Waaah, waaah.”
The email exchanges highlight how OPA staff were a little starstruck, with one email commenting, “Didn’t want to let you get your Bay hopes up” and the reply coming back, “I know we’re not going to do anything, bud. Cool that we’re getting to talk to him.” Further CIA emails refer to Bay as “the man.”
CIA executive director Meroe Park said they should “stand down” from working on the film because of “her ZDT [“Zero Dark Thirty”] scars,” An OPA official responded, “I almost threw my BB against the wall,” and another replied, “I did my typical pounding of fist and guttural outburst that echoed down the C corridor.” A further email responded, “I went on a similar profanity-laced tirade.”
Park changed her mind after being assured that “the only reason we’re meeting him is to see if we can get him to remove classified info” from the script. “If we pull out, we’ll not only look bad. We’ll have zero chance of getting any of the sensitive material out of the film.”
With the okay from higher-ups, the OPA arranged for Bay to travel to CIA headquarters for a tour and a meeting to discuss his script. Bay’s assistant Elyse Klaits provided Bay and his driver’s personal details so they could be cleared by CIA security for access to the Langley campus.
The Agency’s entertainment liaison staff made it clear to Klaits that, “the purpose of the meeting was to discuss keeping certain sensitive details out of the film.” They asked that Bay bring a copy of the script for the CIA to review.
Bay traveled to Langley on March 27 and enjoyed the same tour previously given to numerous Hollywood stars including Claire Danes, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Bacon. He discussed the script with the OPA, which “flagged a number of issues for Bay, most of which he agreed to change.”
This was emphasized in a letter from Bay to the CIA a few days later. “I will follow through in implementing all of your changes,” he wrote.
Bay asked whether “Argo” had filmed at CIA headquarters (it had) and requested permission to film the Memorial Wall at Langley for the closing shot of his movie. He realized the last two stars on the wall–which memorializes CIA employees who have died in the line of duty–were for the GRS operators who were killed in Benghazi.
“I can get the Pentagon to vouch for me regarding the utmost professionalism when we shoot government assets,” Bay added. He also included a copy of the final page of his script and asked the CIA to vet it.
Here is where the relationship started to break down. CIA staff were unimpressed with the final page, saying it “contained numerous inaccuracies,” including that the GRS staff retired from the CIA when they merely resigned, and that none of them were awarded medals when in reality they were.
The OPA rejected Bay’s request to film at Langley and “told Bay that we couldn’t allow filming on campus because CIA never approved the book.”
At the same time, the OPA’s Chris White, one of their primary Hollywood liaisons, had lunch with “long-standing OPA contact” Rich Klein, a former State Department employee now working as a Hollywood consultant for McLarty Media.
McLarty is an inside-the-beltway law firm that used to be one half of Kissinger McLarty Associates. Klein was working as a consultant on “13 Hours” so, “White told Klein that CIA representatives had met with Bay to ask him to keep uncleared information from the book out of the movie.”
As the relationship with Bay was turning sour, it looks like the CIA tried a backdoor approach to getting the script rewritten to meet their demands.
The emails show that they also continued to discuss the “language” and “verbiage” in the script with Klaits.
When I asked the CIA to clarify these emails, they refused, responding, “We do not have anything beyond what you received via FOIA.”
The documents do not provide any specifics on what they changed or removed from the script, except that they wanted the names of CIA officers at the Annex changed to protect their identities. But a comparison of the film to the original book by Mitchell Zuckoff reveals several key aspects of the story that did not make it into the finished movie of “13 Hours.”
The film makes no reference to an intelligence cable in the days before the assaults in Benghazi that warned of attacks on U.S. government targets or to the fact that guards from the 17th February militia employed to protect the Special Mission vandalized the compound in the weeks before it was attacked.
The CIA knew that Ansar al-Sharia, a fundamentalist anti-American militia that was ultimately blamed for the attacks, had a base near the compound.
Similarly, Ambassador Stevens sent a cable in the morning on September 11, 2012, warning about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi and that the leaders of local rebel militias were turning against the U.S. government Neither of these details were mentioned in the film.
There are fleeting references to the fact that the Benghazi outpost was known to be a soft target. Numerous requests to improve the physical security and hire more guards were made, but these are overshadowed by a typical Michael Bay orgy of explosions and gunfire.
Nonetheless, the ending of the film does include the changes the CIA asked for, saying that the GRS operators were awarded medals and that they resigned, not retired, from working for the Agency.
By far the most controversial aspect of the script–and almost certainly one the CIA tried to change–is that the CIA station chief at the Annex (known only as “Bob”) ordered the GRS operators to “stand down” rather than immediately respond to the attack at the Special Mission compound.
According to the book, such stand downs were fairly common practice when the GRS operators got into confrontations with local militias, as Bob worried about revealing the CIA’s secret presence in Benghazi.
The House Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that this stand down order never took place, though the appendices to the report make clear that the GRS operators all agree that there was such an order.
When the operators left the Annex, according to the House report, they did so without Bob’s permission, implying that there was a stand down order and the operators grew sick of waiting and eventually disobeyed the order.
In the wake of the attacks, the White House and State Department made a series of contradictory statements, initially saying the event was part of a string of protests against the YouTube film “Innocence of Muslims.” The story became that this was a random attack that had nothing to do with the 9/11 anniversary, before settling on the narrative that it was a planned anniversary attack by Ansar al-Sharia.
As a result of these shifting official narratives, Benghazi became synonymous with corruption and lies in President Barack Obama’s administration, and the film’s release in the summer of 2016 was deeply politicized.
The marketing was designed to appeal to conservative audiences with preview screenings set up in red states, promotional adverts running during the Republican primary debate, and lead actor John Krasinski giving interviews to right-leaning media.
The release of “13 Hours” saw a response from the CIA, when Bob gave an interview criticizing the movie and denied that he had given the stand down order.
Though the CIA are thanked in the credits, agency spokesman Ryan Trapani tried to distance them from the film, saying, “No one will mistake this movie for a documentary. It’s a distortion of the events and people who served in Benghazi that night. It’s shameful that, in order to highlight the heroism of some, those responsible for the movie felt the need to denigrate the courage of other Americans who served in harm’s way.”
Zuckoff, who co-wrote his book with several of the GRS operators from that night, contradicted this, commenting, “I think the movie does an excellent job capturing the heroism and the sacrifices of the men I had the privilege to write about in the book.”
Despite the politicized marketing campaign and the controversy, which contributed to the buzz around the movie, “13 Hours” was a critical and commercial flop.