This article originally appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books on February 24, 2013.
At a time when the CIA is still hiding the details of its extrajuridical drone strike assassination program from congressional watchdogs and the media, one would think it an awkward moment for Hollywood to confer Academy Awards on films that celebrate its secret agents.
But apparently not. While a robust debate has emerged about Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture, the film largely celebrates the tireless spycraft of a CIA analyst who was complicit. Meanwhile, Argo is an unqualified nod towards the CIA’s collaboration with Hollywood in liberating hostages held in Iran in 1979.
Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are only the latest film productions the CIA has influenced in the 15 years since the Agency opened its official liaison office to Hollywood. Tricia Jenkins examines the history of this version of “Hollywood confidential” in The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television. Short and dry, her book raises serious ethical and legal questions about the relationship between the CIA and Hollywood, and the extent to which we consume propaganda from one through the other.
Paul Barry, a CIA “entertainment industry liaison officer” Jenkins interviewed, says that, “Hollywood is the only way that the public learns about the Agency.”
Think about that: it’s not that Hollywood is in bed with the CIA in some repugnant way, but that the Agency is looking to plant positive images about itself (in other words, propaganda) through our most popular forms of entertainment. So natural has the CIA–entertainment connection become that few question its legal or moral ramifications. This is a government agency like no other; the truth of its operations is not subject to public examination. When the CIA’s hidden persuaders influence a Hollywood movie, it is using a popular medium to spin as favorable an image of itself as possible, or at least, prevent an unfavorable one from taking hold. If incestuous enough, Jenkins argues, these relationships violate the spirit or letter of government laws.
Take the case of Argo, an enjoyable, even inspiring film about the CIA’s role in freeing hostages from Iran, based on celebrated CIA operative Tony Mendez’s firsthand account. (Disclosure: I loved it.) As we settle into our seats, there is a 60-second background vignette noting that the US and UK “engineered a coup” against the democratically elected Iranian leader in 1953 and installed a friendly dictator who was later overthrown in the 1979 uprising, which is where the film begins. That the CIA implemented the very coup that ultimately led to the hostage taking is not acknowledged. Instead, an innocent CIA operative, played as a family man by Ben Affleck, dramatizes “how the CIA and Hollywood pulled off the most audacious rescue in history.” We are not told explicitly that the Agency precipitated the long chain of events that finally led to the hostage rescue now being so beautifully recreated on screen. As the film ends, a blurb reads that the CIA has not approved, authorized, or endorsed the production, conveying the impression of independence. Then the voice of Jimmy Carter, unidentified, is heard suggesting that history might have turned out differently if it wasn’t necessary to keep the CIA’s role secret for so long. (In the film and the real story, the Canadians provided cover for the US operation.)
A clear message of Argo is that the CIA is constrained from telling us all the good things they do in secret to keep the nation safe. According to Jenkins’s research, this is a repeated lament around the Agency that sometimes reaches the screen, as when the President in In the Company of Spies blurts out, “When the Agency is good, it’s spectacular, and no one even knows!” Argo perfectly realizes this CIA desire.
It’s hard for the public to contextualize what we’re told are the CIA’s spectacular feats; it’s relatively easy for the CIA to bury inconvenient, illegal, or catastrophic failures. For example, the producers of Argo chose not to explore why, precisely 20 minutes after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 inaugural address, Iran released all remaining American 66 hostages after a 444-day ordeal. It smelled like a secret deal, though its exact nature was buried in controversy. (Prominent in the arrangement with Iran was William Casey, the Reagan confidant who went on to become CIA director immediately after the hostage release.) The basic point, not mentioned in Argo, is that parties in the Reagan camp were pushing Iran to delay the hostage release until after Carter lost the election. If proven, that would be treasonous. In any event, the relationships evolved to be known as Iran–Contra, which would have muddled Argo’s happy message. By minimizing or ignoring the bookends of the 1953 coup and the 1980 hostage release, Argo could stand alone as a heroic feel-good tale. The rest of us still live with the real-world consequences.
Everyone from admired journalists to raving bloggers has weighed in on Zero Dark Thirty in a public debate that may have cost some Oscar nominations. Jenkins, whose book appeared before the film’s release, told the Los Angeles Times that Zero Dark Thirty “will be a key shaper of public opinion and historical memory about this event,” which assumes that the movie contains a clear message.
Some anti-torture groups, as well as actors like David Clennon and Ed Asner, are protesting that Zero Dark Thirty portrays torture in a favorable light. (Clennon, incidentally, once played a CIA agent in The Agency, whose tagline was, “Now, more than ever, we need the CIA.”) Dick Cheney and many neoconservatives share that analysis and were therefore thrilled. It seems to me that filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow leaves the question around torture and morality (and the lack thereof) unanswered, which perhaps is her style. Compared to traditional Hollywood progressives seeking to convey a political message, Bigelow was influenced by postmodernism and semiotics in graduate school. In her earlier film The Hurt Locker, for example, it’s impossible to detect whether Bigelow was against the Iraq War or just deeply involved in the narrative arc of her characters. In a similar sense, Zero Dark Thirty is more about torture than a polemic against it.
Some will criticize her for rationalizing what she calls “dark deeds,” while others may think its about time Americans own up to the procedures which have been hidden in antiseptic terminology like “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
It should be obvious to us that torture is immoral and does not work. Other interrogation techniques are more reliable. An FBI official like Ali Soufan knew about bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed, in 2002 through informants, detective work, tailing, and surveillance techniques used with Guantanamo detainees. Then “the gloves came off” and Cheney’s “dark side” of torture and humiliation became the dominant US policy.
Bigelow leaves no doubt about her admiration of the intelligence agents “who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines […] who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.” Like The Hurt Locker, her film is a tribute to those who were motivated to defend America even when they crossed moral lines. That’s surely an appeal to understand torture even if it’s wrong, a position that crosses the line from filmmaker to storytelling advocacy.
Aside from her empathy, are Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal really inaccurate? Do we agree with Senators Diane Feinstein and John McCain in their scathing attack on the film’s accuracy and their demands, in a letter to Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton, that Sony rebrand Zero Dark Thirty as a work of fiction?
One gets the sense that the senators doth complain too much. There is more to this story. There is ambiguity in the letter itself, which says that “the CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier divulged the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.” Come again? This wording suggests that there were other detainees who divulged some information and may have been tortured. The CIA director Michael Morell added his denunciation of the film in spook-speak on December 21 by saying: “Some [evidence] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques […] [whether torture was] the only timely and effective way to obtain information […] cannot and never will be definitely resolved.” Morell won’t be questioned before the Senate committee since he’s not the nominee, but the president’s nominee, John Brennan, has testified that he’s not even sure about the actual definition of torture. And outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta, the man who carried out the killing of bin Laden, has written recently that:
Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the “only timely and effective way” to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to bin Laden.
Given such evasive official statements by officials professing to oppose torture, why are Bigelow and Boal being hammered for the ambiguity of their script?
Another attack on the filmmakers, coming at first from the Republican right but later from some on the left, is that they were in bed with the CIA in a film that would glamorize Barack Obama and the Agency. Representative Peter King, the Republican leader on homeland security, first raised the charges in early 2012. Then came internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act obtained by the right-leaning Judicial Watch.
Reading the documents, one gets the sense of a friendly, mutually supportive arrangement, though nothing sinister or startling by today’s standards. The CIA liberally exploits its “security” exemption by redacting whatever it cares to, such as two pages reporting a conversation between Michael Morrell, the deputy director, and Boal, on June 6, 2011. We learn from top Obama advisor Benjamin Rhodes that the White House is “trying to have visibility into [bin Laden] projects, this is likely the most high profile one […] and [would like] to get a sense of what they’re doing.” We discover that CIA public affairs officer George Little sends a lot of emails from a mountain resort in Sun Valley; that he thinks “the Boal-Bigelow movie is the most mature and high-profile of the projects”; that another film effort by former Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blum may not get traction. Little says that Boel and Bigelow “expressed their gratitude for our cooperation and also said good things about my soon-to-be-colleagues at the Pentagon […] Bottom line — things are on track.”
Page after page of discussions are redacted by CIA censors, including meetings with a Navy SEAL and a translator who were in the raid on bin Laden’s hideout, owing to a loophole in the Freedom of Information Act. But we learn that Morell “told them we’re here to help with whatever they need, and gushed to Kathryn about how much he loved The Hurt Locker,” revealed in the notes of Marie Harf, a CIA spokesperson. Another meeting with a top Pentagon official Michael Vickers “went very well from what I gather,” Harf writes, also revealing that she still watches reruns of The West Wing. You get the drift.
What agreements, if any, were reached in exchange for access to the key players in the bin Laden raid? It’s nowhere to be found in the documents. Instead, it sounds like a love fest — with discretion — among consenting adults.
Does it matter whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses or rejects torture, or ultimately applauds it for leading stalwart CIA heroes to our greatest enemy? Not really. In the end, perhaps the debate around the film is really just a distraction from what actually does matter: Zero Dark Thirty — by being such an entertaining, edge-of-your-seat thriller about the CIA that it would compel us to have a debate about it at all — is the greatest public relations gift a secret agency could possibly wish for. There we are, a captive audience, twisting our popcorn bags and Juicy Fruit boxes with nervous, sweaty palms while watching an obsessed, passionate, dedicated female CIA analyst named Maya, played by the beautiful and talented Jessica Chastain, dodge bullets, bombs, and boyfriends on her way to exacting bloodthirsty revenge. Is her revenge our own? By rooting for her, which we doubtlessly do, are we not rooting for the Agency she signifies? When she wins in the end, doesn’t America win too? If that’s not great public relations, I don’t know what is.
We see the same pattern play out on television time and again. Take for example Claire Danes's weird, bipolar, addicted, brilliant, and attractive Carrie in Homeland (another favorite of mine and, apparently, Obama’s). Or Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer in 24, our last great CIA hunter-killer. Or the mother of all modern spies: Jennifer Garner’s Sidney Bristow in Alias, a sight to behold as she proved one could be a graduate student in literature, a trained ninja acrobat, a mistress of disguise, and possess a wardrobe to die for, all in the pay of the CIA.
Jenkins reminds us that Chase Brandon, the CIA formal liaison to Hollywood, worked as a technical consultant on Alias during its first season. In 2004, the actress Jennifer Garner filmed a recruitment video for the Agency, saying on camera that the CIA needed smart, patriotic, courageous people of integrity, “the kind of people who have always worked for the Agency.” Speaking in the climate of 9/11, Garner said the CIA sought “creative, innovative, flexible men and women from diverse backgrounds” who wanted to “make a difference in the world and here at home.” Did the CIA draft her script, or did she actually believe those lines?
Like millions of others, I would have followed Jennifer Garner anywhere but there. This was the precise moment when the intelligence about Iraq was being bungled deliberatively, when the gloves came off, and when secret agents were rounding up, rendering, killing, or torturing detainees in “black sites” around the planet. Garner was a poster girl for an Agency that deceived her. Alias was drawing 10 million viewers per episode. In its press releases that accompanied the Garner recruiting ad, the agency said Garner lent “a human touch to the message we’re trying to convey.”
Jenkins is clear that the CIA doesn’t always get its way, even with shows like Alias. It’s complicated, if only because brainwashing usually runs afoul of a skeptical public and press. (The CIA, Jenkins writes, wasn’t happy with The Good Shepherd or Syriana.) But that hasn’t stopped the Agency from trying, at taxpayer expense. Jenkins documents how the CIA has been influencing Hollywood for years, formally accelerating the effort in the 1990s when the Cold War ended, shocking spy scandals were unfolding, the mission was uncertain, and recruitment was down. In Jenkins’s account, the CIA needed a remake, and only Hollywood could supply it.
By 2007, the CIA’s attorney, John Rizzo, was bragging that the Agency “has a very active” Hollywood network. Actors like Mike Myers, the goofy spy of Austin Powers fame, were visiting CIA headquarters to express gratitude, and Kevin Bacon and his brother Michael were signing autographs and saying things like, “We don’t know exactly what you people do, but we’re really glad you’re doing it.” The Sum of All Fears, in which a nuclear bomb goes off in Baltimore, was described by the CIA’s Chase Brandon in a Paramount Pictures press packet as a film “of remarkable accuracy and drama, which made the Agency more consequential than ever.”
The star of The Sum of All Fears, Ben Affleck, whose hero as a young man was Howard Zinn, eventually married Jennifer Garner and brought Argo to the screen. As venerated representatives of the New Hollywood, Affleck and Garner may unwittingly have done more to save the CIA’s image than the entire Republican Party. True, their plots include duplicitous and destructive agents at times, but their credibility depends on a certain balance. The overall effect has been to usher a new brand of hip and sexy spooks into the post-9/11 world.
I sometimes fantasize at the service I could perform as a CIA analyst, perhaps as an ombudsman: the cranky dissenter who offers a last warning before the latest unbalanced white paper goes flying over to the White House.
Hollywood is full of very smart people, who by their nature are resistant to anyone trying to control them, whether it be CAA or CIA. They won’t yield easily on creative control of their scripts and productions. Some may embrace the CIA ideologically, but most see the Agency as an interest group to be negotiated with, to hang out with, to tour, to bring in to get the feel of the place, shoot an interior, size up the personality of an agent, hear a story or two. A collaboration results between masters of illusion on both sides. Odd, that they wouldn’t consider that the CIA is a particular kind of interest group whose main mission is deception.
But the two sides are not equivalent, and the audience needs to know the difference. Hollywood and government policymakers consider labeling the sources of their product to make the audience beware what’s being sold. We have labels for tobacco products and all kinds of across-the-counter brands. Why not require a label stating, “The Central Intelligence Agency provided input and resources to this film. The CIA [or Pentagon] required certain alterations in the script. The final product was controlled by the film’s producers.”
Impractical or unreasonable? If you expect disclosure of the names of screenwriters or sources of a movie script, if “based on a true story” is inserted in many a film, or for that matter, we disclose where the ingredients of food were grown, why not disclosure of any CIA role in contributing to a film?
Jenkins makes two proposals, which some day may be heard in a courtroom or legislative chamber.
First, she cites respected University of California, Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who says the Constitution forbids “viewpoint discrimination” by public agencies. So does noted First Amendment defender Floyd Abrams. They argue that a government body cannot selectively provide taxpayer-supported services to projects they favor while refusing those same services to other parties. The Agency cannot open its doors to Jon Voight and shut them to Michael Moore. No one has litigated the question, Jenkins surmises, because small independent producers can’t afford the costs. It’s hard to get submarines, shooting locations, technical consultants, or extras, all free of charge.
Second, laws going back to the 1950s prohibit government agencies from using appropriated funds for covert and self-aggrandizing communications that amount in puffery or propaganda (those are the literal terms used). The author of the law, the late Senator Harry Byrd, demanded “more news and less bull from the federal publicity mill.” The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has defined a covert communication as one that is false or misleading about its source. According to Jenkins, no one has ever asked the GAO’s expert on propaganda to investigate the CIA’s or Pentagon’s entertainment liaison programs.
But Jenkins notes a 1987 case in which the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, then controlled by the fiercely right-winger Otto Reich, was investigated by the GAO for paying consultants to write op-ed pieces in support of Central American policy. The Reagan administration was found guilty of using appropriated funds to influence public opinion in the US without newspaper readers knowing that the content was shaped by the State Department.
Jenkins is under no illusion that these proposals are going anywhere soon. The “war on terrorism” provides a claustrophobic climate in which an expanding arsenal of national security laws will offer script material for years to come. This previous deference towards the CIA in Hollywood did fray during the years 1965–1975, which culminated in the congressional Senate’s Church hearings led by Senator Frank Church into CIA assassinations and other wrongdoing.
But the tides ebb and flow. The US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the secret drone attacks on Pakistan, revelations of black sites, kill lists, and domestic spying have prodded the conscience of many an artist. The evidence in Jenkins’s book that CIA liaisons serve as production advisors is sure to start candid and searching conversations in the creative community. One can only hope so.
While these movies may bring relief and a surge of self-congratulation to the American audience, they do little, if anything, to prevent the festering causes of terror and war. Meanwhile they help shield secret agencies from the sharpest possible scrutiny. The question raised by Jenkins’s book is an unsettling one: should the CIA be authorized to target American public opinion? If our artists don’t confront it more directly, and soon, the Agency will only continue to infiltrate our vulnerable film and television screens — and our minds.
*While no one would be interviewed on the record for this article, the author spoke to several sources involved in productions that included CIA collaboration.