In recent months, Mark Boal, author of the screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty, has had a very Washington kind of problem: the script he wrote keeps drawing seemingly hostile scrutiny from Capitol Hill. First, it was Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, who last summer wanted to know why Boal had received such extraordinary access to the CIA and the Pentagon as he was researching the script—and whether the spies, special operators, and government officials who granted that access had disclosed any state secrets. Then, last month, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain wrote a letter to Sony Pictures, urging the studio to correct the misimpression “that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Usama bin Laden.”
Faced with this very Washington kind of problem, Boal opted for a very Washington kind of solution: he retained the services of Jeffrey H. Smith. A lawyer in private practice, Smith is not a household name. But having made a career of tackling some of the most sensitive tasks inside the national-security apparatus, he is an extraordinarily well-connected Washington insider—and someone who, time and again over the course of several decades, has been entrusted with the city’s darkest secrets.
Raised in a small town in Iowa, Smith attended West Point and went on to join the State Department as a junior lawyer in the 1970s. There, he worked with the Church Committee, which investigated the CIA’s Cold War exploits, and later became involved in arranging spy swaps. In the mid-1980s, he negotiated for the release of Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Soviet dissident. (Smith recalls meeting Wolfgang Vogel, an East German lawyer, in the bar of the Hyatt Hotel on Capitol Hill in order to talk about releasing Sharansky. The name of the bar was the Spy’s Eye. “Vogel was staying there,” Smith remembers. “He said he would meet me in the bar, and neither of us appreciated the irony of the meeting place until we got there. We had a chuckle, a good Scotch, and got down to business.”)
Smith moved in and out of government over the years—in 1992 he led President-elect Clinton’s Defense Department transition team, and in 1995 and 1996 he served as CIA general counsel—but all the while, he burnished his reputation as someone who could be confided in. “He carries himself in a way that radiates good judgment, discretion, thoughtfulness,” says Evan Thomas, former Washington bureau chief of Newsweek and a personal friend of Smith’s. John Rizzo, a CIA lawyer for 34 years before he retired in 2010, got to know Smith during the 1970s—a time when former CIA officers like Philip Agee were disclosing the identities of undercover officers. In Smith, Rizzo found a man at the State Department he could trust. “He kept all of our information very closely held,” Rizzo told me. “I was always confident that anything I told him would not be spread around.”
He also cultivated a reputation for personal loyalty. From his perch in the private sector, Smith was an early critic of the post-9/11 legal decision not to grant members of al Qaeda the protections enumerated in the Geneva Conventions. But when his friend Rizzo, who had played a role in this decision, was nominated to be the CIA’s general counsel, Smith defended him anyway. “I did disagree with him on the legality of the Bush administration interpretation of the Laws of War and the statutes governing torture,” Smith recalls. “But he held his views in good faith.” (Smith’s advocacy ultimately did not carry the day, however, as Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden ended up blocking the nomination.)
Following Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, Smith was one of several people selected by the incoming president to be briefed on the CIA’s post-9/11 black sites, renditions, and interrogation procedures. Then–CIA director Michael Hayden, who spoke to Smith at the time, recalls that he was a good listener. “Jeff was judicious, as opposed to being judgmental,” Hayden says. Unlike many in Obama’s own party, Smith urged the new president not to prosecute officials from the last administration.
It’s unclear what will be required of Smith in his latest role as Boal’s lawyer—mostly because it’s unclear whether any lawmakers will actually ask Sony Pictures or Boal to testify about the film’s secret sourcing. If it comes to that, though, Boal will be in good hands: he will have at his side Jeffrey Smith, a man who knows the government’s secrets as well as anyone.