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Note: I am very busy at the moment and will not be updating the site much in the next few weeks. Hopefully by mid-end of September I will be back with new podcast episodes, articles etc. so thanks for your patience.
In February 1975 the director of conspiracy classic Three Days of the Condor Sidney Pollack invited Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, to visit the set while they were shooting in New York. Helms went along for a day and acted as a consultant to Robert Redford, as depicted in this infamous picture. Though Helms had left the Agency, three documents from the CIA’s open source monitoring of media coverage show they were keeping an eye on developments. Statements from former CIA chief lawyer John Rizzo suggest that they may have been directly involved in the production.
The Invitation to Richard Helms
According to an interview in Jump Cut, Pollack extended the invitation to Helms, who by that point was the US Ambassador to Iran.
M: Did you have any contact with the CIA while you were making THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR?
P: There wasn’t, really. We would have welcomed it, but we knew better than to try to pursue it actively in any way. What we did was to invite Mr. (Richard) Helms to come and watch the shooting for a day, which he did. I think he enjoyed himself very much. It was a movie, finally, and not any attempt on our part to do a definitive documentary.
One of the CIA’s records is a brief article from Newsweek, including the original of the photo above. It notes:
Helms […] had accepted an invitation passed along by a mutual friend, to watch Redford film a scene in “Three Days of the Condor”. No clues as to what the once and would-be spies discussed. “At this point in time,” grinned Redford, “we are not at liberty to divulge the details.”
Who this mutual friend was is not clear but Helms did adopt a more positive approach to Hollywood than previous heads of the CIA so it could have been anyone from Jack Valenti to Jane Fonda. Sadly it almost certainly wasn’t Arnon Milchan – the Mossad spy/producer who at one time was business partners with Pollack – as he didn’t get started in Hollywood until later. A very similar article in Time (also from February 3rd 1975) uses a picture of Helms reflected in Redford’ sunglasses, noting that:
The tall man in the London-tailored suit and woolen muffler sipped his coffee and carefully observed the husky blonde in the pea jacket. Then embattled ex-CIA director Richard Helms threw caution to the wind. He stepped over to ask whether “I was encountering as many difficulties as he had been experiencing lately” explained Robert Redford.
He did not engage in shoptalk, said Redford, just chatted generally about the film.
This sort of doublespeak ‘we didn’t talk about the CIA’ versus ‘we cannot divulge what we discussed’ is quite predictable and even amusing, given that whatever they discussed it was only for a brief period. However, that the film was being produced at the same time as congressional investigations into the Agency and other intelligence services is a pertinent and provocative coincidence.
Three Days of the Condor
The third article in the CIA’s documents on Three Days of the Condor is review of the film in the Wall Street Journal some months after the pair of articles about Helms’ visit to the set. This in-depth review is very positive and dwells on the political dimensions of the movie:
But besides a realistic atmosphere and a credible hero, this thriller absorbs us on a more immediate level. By making the source of its menace a renegade operation within the CIA “Three Days of the Condor” very much addresses itself both to the headlines we’ve been reading and to growing public concern with accountability and control of secret government activities…
…At one moment in the film, a top level CIA official played by John Houseman, wearily attempting to unravel the mystery and confusion surrounding “Condor”, reminisces with a colleague about his work during the great war. “You miss that kind of action?” his colleague asks. “No” Houseman replies, “I miss that kind of clarity”.
A further indication of just how accurate Three Days of the Condor was in portraying the mid-Cold War CIA comes via John Rizzo, the former General Counsel for the Agency. In a 2007 discussion at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law (while he was still in post) he said of Three Days of the Condor:
It had the cadences of what real CIA people do, and what real CIA people are like… Even some of the scenes in the movie – a lot of the action is set in a CIA cover facility that several years later I found myself in a place that looked almost exactly like that movie. I don’t know how they did it but they managed to replicate what a real CIA cover facility was like.
Whether this is the influence of the film on the CIA or the influence of the CIA on the film is not certain, though it seems unlikely that the Agency would build or buy a cover facility (or safe house) to look like one from a popular movie. This suggests that beyond Helms’ brief visit to the set, the producers of Three Days of the Condor had some kind of assistance from the CIA.
I was recently a guest on Uncle the Podcast – my favourite up and coming comedy podcast – to discuss the 1980s arm wrestling movie Over the Top, starring Sylvester Stallone. The film is about a father who is estranged from his young son but due to the mother’s illness they are thrown back together. Stallone is a truck driver and competitive arm wrestler so we discussed various aspects of Over the Top including the lack of everyday heroes in modern films, the arm wrestling sequence and Stallone’s gimmick of flipping his baseball hat backwards when he wrestles. We also talked about ClandesTime and what I do here on Spy Culture. And remember: this is a double elimination competition.
Adding to the British government departments who have provided assistance to the James Bond franchise, the now defunct Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have released documents on the filming of a scene for Skyfall at their headquarters in Whitehall. The Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and MI6 themselves have all aided the Bond film series in one way or another over the decades, and though it only existed for 8 years the DECC can now be added to that illustrious list. Skyfall seems to be one of only two films allowed to film at the DECC building – the other was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. This was one of several locations used for Skyfall that are either owned by the government or are sites of political importance.
Skyfall filming locations
Unlike Spectre, which was a tedious trail through exotic locations with a bit of torture thrown in just to keep you awake, Skyfall‘s locations provide decoration and context for the story rather than the other way round. Several are either on government property or have geopolitical significance, and some have been used before either in the James Bond books or the movies.
1) In the opening chase sequence Bond starts out in Istanbul but then the train he’s half-destroying moves into the Turkish countryside. Bond is shot and killed and falls down into a valley as the train goes over a bridge. This takes place on the Varda Bridge outside Kiralan, which was built by Ze Germans in 1912 as part of a railway connecting Berlin to Baghdad. After the Ottoman Empire was ditched by the British in the late 19th century they turned to Germany to form a new alliance. This railway, the Orient Express (a major setting for From Russia with Love) and the lasting connection between Germany and Turkey – as well as some of the sparks of WW1 – are the legacy of this relationship.
2) Back in London, M is called to a meeting with Mallory who tells her she is resigning. This takes place at 10 Trinity Square, a building opened by then Prime Minister Lloyd George in 1922 as the headquarters of the Port of London Authority. After a period as the headquarters for an insurance company it is now being developed into a luxury hotel and private members club.
3) After visits to the Old Royal Naval College, Shanghai and Hashima Island, Bond ends up as his historical family home – the Skyfall Lodge. This is an entirely fake building supposedly set in Scotland but actually purpose-built out of plywood on Ministry of Defence land on Hankley Common near Elstead in Surrey. Hankley Common was also used for The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day.
4) The very end of the film sees Bond reflecting on M’s death while stood atop a building looking out over Whitehall. In the background is Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In the foreground is the old War Office building which is still owned by the Ministry of Defence (though it’s leased out for 250 years to a hotel conglomerate) and which served at the MI6 headquarters in A View To A Kill, Octopussy and Licence To Kill. This rooftop is the headquarters for the DECC.
The DECC Documents
When I asked the DECC for records on the filming of Skyfall at their headquarters they responded with five documents but refused to release the information on how much the producers paid for all this. Their response letter states:
Some of the information we hold is exempt from disclosure, as the information is commercially sensitive. This is because the information falls within the exemption under section 43(2) of the FOI Act which states that information is exempt if its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice commercial interests.
The Department’s commercial interests would be prejudiced in that by revealing how much it received in income from hiring its premises or the insurance conditions under which it was prepared to hire its premises would make it more difficult to conduct negotiations and achieve value for money when letting similar future contracts. Commercial companies would know how much the Department might be prepared to accept for the hire of its premises or the terms of hiring and this might lead to the Department receiving less income than it might otherwise have done.
This is sneaky, as it enables government departments to milk the entertainment industry by not revealing information on how much it costs to access their locations for shooting a film. Once more this shows how the governments involved in the industry are not playing fair and are motivated by what they can get out of it, whether that be financially or in terms of propaganda value.
The documents also reveal that in order to get the desired shot the crew had to use a scaffold to raise the effective height of the roof three feet. They also had to permanently relocate an aerial used to send a live feed to the House of Commons – which was done at the production company’s expense. What is in the redacted portion of this paragraph I cannot guess. If it was simply ‘access fee’ or similar words then they wouldn’t need to be redacted. However, aside from security staff and moving the aerial there is nothing apart from access to the rooftop and some others rooms in the building (for a green room, etc.) there is nothing that the DECC could reasonably be charging for. So what is this redacted part of the fee?
Today we take a look at the documentary series A Very Heavy Agenda by Robbie Martin, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. This is a very in depth conversation where we get into numerous elements covered in Robbie’s documentary including: the Kagan family, what the neocons have been up to during the Obama administration and leading into the current presidential election, the philosophy and strategy of neoconservatism and the geopolitics of NATO and Russia. Robbie’s documentary series is an excellent watch and extremely informative so if you enjoy this conversation then don’t miss it.
The Battle of Algiers was a groundbreaking film when it came out in 1966, not just for its depiction of the Algerian War against French occupation but for its quasi-documentary realism and its morally neutral approach, showing both sides committing atrocities. Because of this realism it is a cinematic training manual in guerilla warfare including terrorist tactics and in state repression including torture. Both are portrayed as horrible, but the inevitable results of the war for independence, itself the inevitable result of colonialism. In the decades since its release The Battle of Algiers has been used as a training film by organisations ranging from the Black Panthers to the Department of Defense. One document sheds new light on this special screening at the Pentagon.
The Battle of Algiers
The film’s newsreel style is so realistic that it had to include the disclaimer at the beginning saying this is a work of fiction based on real events, not actual footage of real events. Despite this it is easy to be drawn in and to believe what you’re seeing either did really happen or at least could have happened. The torture scenes especially are so graphic that they were censored out of some versions of the film. As AV Club note:
Not surprisingly, the history of the film has been a tumultuous one, setting off such a crisis in France that the authorities banned it for several years and other countries trimmed scenes depicting the systemic torture of National Liberation Front (FLN). Much like similar scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, the torture in The Battle Of Algiers rattled a nation that didn’t care to grapple with the atrocities committed in its name.
The flipside of this is that the film makes for great instructional material for those teaching insurgency and counter-insurgency methods. As the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs says:
The film has been used to train members of the Black Panthers and Argentine intelligence units. It has been speculated that Palestinian terror groups and al Qaeda may also use Pontecorvo’s film as a guide.
In 2003, The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in order to offer some insight into the challenges surrounding the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Thus, while director Gillo Pontecorvo intended the film to be political, to be a piece of anti-colonialist art, it has become something quite different. In some ways it has encouraged the very actions that Pontecorvo portrays as the horrible but inevitable results of colonial rule.
The Screening of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon
On August 27th 2003 (only months after the invasion of Iraq) the Pentagon arranged a special screening of the movie at the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. A flier distributed before the screening read:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
According to the NY Times:
The Pentagon’s showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film — the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq.
It appears the purpose of the screening was to provoke a discussion about how useful torture and other state methods of repression would be in Iraq. Over a decade later, despite the widespread use of torture and other vicious methods, the Iraq insurgency has grown into ISIS. I guess that means the answer to the question of how useful or effective these means are in counter-insurgency is ‘not very’.
The Roger Beaumont email
In 2015 an email was released that was sent from Roger Beaumont to someone at the Pentagon (I assume, since the email was released by the Pentagon). According to a brief bio of Beaumont:
ROGER BEAUMONT has taught history at Texas A&M since 1974. He served two tours of active duty with the army as a military police officer. A cofounder and former North American editor of Defense Analysis, Beaumont was the first historian named as a Secretary of the Navy Fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The email reads:
While a 1st Lt, Military Police Corps, 32nd Infantry Division, Wisconsin National Guard Division, when it was mobilized 1961-62: During Survival Escape and Evasion training, following the procedure of our host unit at Port Lewis , the 4th Infantry Division, our MPs were used to guard and harass troops in a fake PoW cage. In their attempt to make things “realistic” our lads became a bit too zealous, and officers from other units and our MPs complained, I met with division chief of staff, and it was stopped. When the Stanford experiment results were published a decade or so later, I was not surprised.
At Fort Irwin, while I was Acting Provost Marshal in the “Exercise Bristle Cone” maneuvers – 1962 – I received a command letter from a four-star general asking for details on reports that Military Intelligence interrogators (Reservists called up from the Washington, D.C . area) had roughed up Aggressor PWs and taken away their outer clothing and sleeping bags when they put them out in our compound on a cold desert night. Our MPs had given the “PWs” their sleeping bags – fortunately.
These and other experiences, including the day-to-day leadership challenge of keeping police discretion on a tight leash, heightened my sensitivity to these issues. Many years later, when I had gained some reputation as a military historian, in full expectation that difficulties along these lines would arise in the future, I wrote two pieces on the subject:
“Preventing Atrocity in Low Intensity Conflict, MILITARY REVIEW 63:11 (November
“Thinking the Unspeakable: On Cruelty in Small Wars, SMALL WARS AND INSURGENCIES 1:1 (April 1990)
Reportedly they showed ‘The Battle of Algiers’ in defense circles before the Iraq War to sensitize them to these very pitfalls. Did they use it as a training film?
There is much about this email that is interesting, not least the ease with which soldiers slip into ‘abuse mode’ even during training exercises. This is not surprising, the entire military doctrine of human history is about dehumanising the enemy but also dehumanising oneself, turning even ‘our’ soldiers into proto-sociopathic beings. Like Beaumont, the Stanford Prison Experiment is not particularly surprising to me.
As to Beaumont’s question at the end – whether the Pentagon used The Battle of Algiers as a training film – while they weren’t explicitly doing this (at least as far as we know) they were in effect doing this. This is different to the film’s use by Argentine intelligence and the Black Panthers – they were studying the techniques used by the warring parties. The Pentagon appear to have been using the film to encourage the idea among those determining policy and strategy for the Iraq war that torture was a viable option.