Welcome to Spy Culture, the world’s leading website for open source research on state-sponsored culture and the relationships between military and intelligence agencies and the popular culture industry.
Jay Dyer joins us for this episode where we analyse the 2009 comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats, loosely based on Jon Ronson’s book of the same name. It tells the story of a journalist who is inducted into the world of psychic soldiers during the Iraq war. The movie goes on to explain some of the history behind the First Earth Battalion, an experimental Pentagon unit devoted to developing a new generation of super soldier informed by the hippy and New Age movements. We examine what the film leaves out, especially in the form of MKULTRA and similar CIA projects and experiments with similar aims, and ask whether the purpose was not to explore ‘How could love and peace help win wars?‘ but to weaponise New Age philosophy and the New Age movement.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is the final movie in the George Clooney/Grant Heslov series before they took the full plunge and made Argo with the help of the CIA. We look at whether Goats – Heslov’s directorial debut – was the final step in their long-term overture to the CIA. The fact that Goats reduces the CIA’s involvement in such projects to a single scene, and was distributed by none other than Overture Films are strong hints towards this. We also map out the evidence and implications of state sponsorship of the entire Goats project, from Ronson’s original book and documentary series through to the Hollywood version. The use of technical advisors who were part of these Pentagon units back in the 70s/80s and who were ‘reactivated’ to help fight the War on Terror implies that at least the DOD, if not the CIA, were in favour of this film. We round off by pondering the plausibility of the remote viewing phenomenon.
One of the most prominent influences of pop culture on government and on the deep state is in the use of code names. From the capture of Saddam Hussein to a counter-smuggling helicopter unit in Hawaii, from a mass surveillance program named after Blazing Saddles to Secret Service and MI5 code names taken from cartoon characters, this is a widespread and frequent phenomenon. It seems that the military and intelligence services are as obsessed with pop culture as anyone else, with both hilarious and terrifying results.
Operation Red Dawn
Following the 2003 NATO invasion of Iraq Saddam Hussein disappeared. A manhunt lasting over six months culminated in his capture in a specially-dug bunker in ad-Dawr, near Tikrit. The Special Forces-led operation leading to Saddam’s capture was code named Red Dawn, after the 1984 movie. This film had assistance from the Pentagon during the scripting phase and they offered full support to the production but director John Milius refused because it was too expensive.
Operation Fast and Furious
Between 2006 and 2011 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) ran a series of sting operations where they allowed known arms dealers to sell guns to illegal buyers with the hope of tracking them back to the leaders of Mexican drugs gangs and cartels. This was supposedly botched when the ATF lost track of the weapons. Some have tried to spin this as the ATF wilfully and deliberately armed the cartels, but the number of weapons seems too small to be significant in an arena where weapons are readily available and violence is extremely common.
The overall operation was called Project Gunrunner but one specific case focused on Jake Chambers, a straw buyer who was part of a network that would purchase guns in border states and then smuggle them into Mexico and sell them on to the Sinaloa cartel. When the ATF agents found that Chambers was also a member of a car club the code name Fast and Furious was used to refer to the case against him.
The Fast and Furious franchise has benefited from some state sponsorship. The most recent entry in the series Furious 7 was filmed on location in Dubai in a deal negotiated by Rich Klein, a DC lawyer who also works as a consultant to the entertainment industry. Even as the Operation Fast and Furious scandal began to break into the news in 2011 the fifth film Fast Five was being supported by the FBI’s Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit, and had FBI Special Agent Dale Shelton working as a consultant. It does not appear that the FBI have continued this assistance to the franchise, possibly because of the negative connotations of the brand name.
Operation James Bond
The much-disputed Operation James Bond was a WW2 project hatched by British intelligence to try to kidnap/exfiltrate Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann. In 1996 Op JB was published by John Ainsworth-Davis, who worked for British naval intelligence during the war. According to this version of events Bormann was successfully smuggled out of Germany in an effort to recover the hidden Nazi fortunes. Many have criticised this book, arguing that Bormann endured a different fate or that British intelligence may have discussed or planned such an operation but never actually carried it out. Nonetheless, the book does include a 1963 letter from none other than Ian Fleming (assistant to the head of Naval Intelligence) which broadly confirms the details of the operation.
Karma Police/Blazing Saddles
Two GCHQ mass surveillance programs also took their names from popular culture – Karma Police and Blazing Saddles. These programs were used, sometimes together, to analyse data that came from surveillance on internet radio stations. A sample of three months of data from August to October 2009 was analysed by GCHQ to see who was using radio on the internet (aside from Mark Cuban). Even this small selection from the available data represented 6.68 million unique events originating from over 224,000 IP addresses.
Karma Police was built in 2007 and 2008 with the aim of identifying ‘every user visible to passive SIGINT with every website they visit, hence providing either (a) a web browsing profile for every visible user on the Internet, or (b) a user profile for every visible website on the Internet.’ Exactly what Blazing Saddles was for is not clear from the available documents, but it did provide ‘bulk SIGINT data’ which was used so that GCHQ could ‘understand more about the listeners of any one particular radio station’ by understanding more about ‘any trends or behaviors’. The fact that the American spelling of the word ‘behaviours’ is used in the document does beg the question of whether these GCHQ files are authentic, or simply edited for US consumption when they were shared with the NSA.
Secret Service Code Names Taken from Movies
Not wanting to be left out of the fun, the US Secret Service has a habit of using designations for the people they’re protecting that are taken from movies and TV. Some of the funnier and more interesting ones are:
Rawhide – Ronald Reagan
Smurfette – Karenna Gore
Zorro – Antonio Banderas
Peter Sellars – Meghan McCain
Popeye – John Sidney McCain IV
Pebbles – Bridget McCain
Dumbo – Bert Lance
Hawkeye – Zbigniew Brzezinski
It’s particularly funny that Reagan would choose the name of a film that he never appeared in, simply because he liked Westerns and the vision of Americana they offered. This is especially ironic given that Reagan was not an anti-government brave lone gun slinger type, but spent the whole of WW2 making military propaganda movies and then became an FBI informant snitching on suspected Communists. It is also amusing listening to the Secret Service tapes from the day Reagan was shot, where they keep repeating (wrongly) ‘Rawhide is okay’.
The Pirates of the Caribbean
The US Marine Corps maintain a base in Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii, the home of the Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 47. Detachment Three of this squadron are known as the Pirates of the Caribbean – an ironic title for three reasons: (1) They are actually used in counter-piracy and counter-smuggling operations, (2) They are based in Hawaii, thousands of miles from the Caribbean and (3) because the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film was partly shot at their home base in Kaneohe Bay. The theme song from the films is even part of the repertoire of the USMC Band.
Mutt and Jeff
These were two Norwegians who were recruited by the Nazis during WW2 and sent to Britain to spy and carry out sabotage attacks. Upon landing in the UK they turned themselves over to the authorities and became double agents, sending back chicken feed and disinformation to their handlers. The Double-Cross System was so effective that the entire Nazi spying apparatus in the UK was either captured or turned, helping to deceive the Axis powers about the Allied fightback in Europe. The Norwegian duo were code named Mutt and Jeff after the popular comic strip characters of the time. The reason for this was simple – one was taller and slender and the other was shorter and stocky.
The case of Mutt and Jeff and its implications for the relationship between the intelligence services and popular culture will be the subject of a future episode of ClandesTime.
The Stepford Bombers
Perhaps the strangest and most disturbing use of pop culture in creating a code name is the Stepford Bombers – MI5’s code name for the alleged suicide bombers who attacked London on 7/7. Two of the supposed bombers – Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer – came to the attention of MI5 and Special Branch multiple times in the years before the bombings in 2005. Each time information was not passed on, investigations were halted due to mysterious database glitches, obvious connections weren’t followed up and either this was a total pig’s breakfast or the cover for a much more nefarious plot.
Calling the suspects the ‘Stepford Bombers’ only heightens suspicions. There is no real town called Stepford or any other reference to a place called Stepford outside of the novel and film adaptations of The Stepford Wives. The book and films tell a story of a secret society who convert their wives into robots to make them ‘perfect’ and totally compliant. The implication that the alleged 7/7 bombers were under the control of a secretive group is presumably a deliberate one on the part of MI5, either rubbing our faces in it or enjoying a sick in-joke at our expense.
Aaron Franz joins us to discuss the 2002 biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which tells the story of game show producer and host Chuck Barris. Barris claims that while becoming a TV star he was recruited by and worked for the CIA as an assassin, killing a total of 33 people. In this episode we analyse this claim, which has been dismissed by the Agency as a ludicrous fantasy. We examine Barris’ true life history, focusing in on his marriage to Lyn Levy – the daughter of one of the founders of CBS – and his incredibly selfish relationship with their daughter Della. None of this appears in the film so taking this into account we consider whether Barris was a CIA assassin, a psychopathic fabricator or an emotionally warped narcissist (or all of these things rolled into one). If Barris truly was a CIA agent then what was his job? Was he an assassin, or did they employ him to ‘slay the audience’ by developing the prototypes for reality TV?
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is also notable for being George Clooney’s directorial debut, and a production that languished in development hell for years before he became involved and began pulling strings to ensure the film got made. We consider whether the movie was one of Clooney’s attempts to gain the attention and approval of the CIA, and whether he too thought that Barris’ TV career was the real mission for the Agency. We examine Clooney’s self-appointed role as Chuck’s ‘defence lawyer’, his obsession with goats and why he employed theatrical visual tricks throughout the production. We round off comparing Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to The Recruit, as both films show The Farm (the CIA’s semi-secret agent training facility) and portray the protagonist being inducted and initiated into that covert world.
While the CIA have been assisting films such as Scorpio for decades they maintain very few records of their involvement in these productions, making it difficult to know how influential the Agency is in this arena. A different but somewhat fruitful angle of inquiry is in the CIA’s records of the media discussion of spy books and films in the form of reports, reviews, ratings and discussions. Files resulting from their open source monitoring of this media coverage shows that spy fiction is a topic the CIA have obsessed over throughout their existence.
Scorpio is a relatively unremarkable 70’s spy thriller that does little to stand out in a period that includes controversies like Executive Action and masterpieces like Three Days of the Condor. However, it was the first movie to be granted permission to film at CIA headquarters in Langley. In spite of the script not portraying the Agency very well and screenwriter Gerald Wilson being a suspected communist, Richard Helms gave the OK for filming. According to TCM:
CIA director Richard Helms approved the clearance of Winner and his 200-man crew, for whom he allotted CIA identity badges that were nearly identical to the real thing.
While they were shooting in and around Washington DC director Michael Winner was staying at the Watergate hotel, at the same time that the ‘Plumbers’ broke in on behalf of the Nixon White House. This is likely just a coincidence, but given that the Plumbers were mostly former CIA men who were being run by an Agency supervisor named John Paisley, one wonders if there is more to it. The producer of Scorpio was Walter Mirisch, who some have speculated was involved with the CIA and was certainly an associate of Gary Devore.
The CIA Spying on Scorpio
There some documents on the CIA’s CREST database that mention Scorpio that I have requested, and the film was mentioned in the farewell address of Vernon A Walters – a 35 year CIA veteran who rose to Deputy Director and was Helms’ temporary replacement for a couple of months in 1973. One document I do have on Scorpio is a transcript of a radio interview about the filming of the movie. WWDC Radio sent Betsy Ashton to the on-location filming in Georgetown to interview Michael Winner and other members of the crew.
The transcript of the show was sent to the CIA’s Public Affairs Staff by Radio TV Reports Inc. – a media monitoring/archiving company who were used regularly by the CIA during this period. They also provided transcripts of media broadcasts to British Information Services, the information department of the British consulate in New York. Other transcripts from Radio TV Reports in the CIA’s records include TV items about Reinhard Gehlen, the CIA losing one of their Air America planes over Laos and Alfred McCoy’s book about Air America being used by the CIA for drug trafficking.
By comparison, a radio report about the filming of a Hollywood movie might seem quite trivial, but clearly the CIA were concerned enough to order a copy of the transcript from Radio TV Reports. The content of the radio piece was relatively humdrum, with Winner explaining that they were having issues with shooting the scene in the picture above, because the stuntman either broke too much of the Cadillac’s windscreen or not enough. She then spoke to Richard Maber, who was doing press and publicity for the film. He said:
Well, it’s been a nice film for us because we travelled to Washington, London, Vienna, Paris at the best times of the year in each city. No question that it’s hard work. It’s a four or five million dollar CIA thriller in that it’s an intelligence spy film. Burt Lancaster does not have magic rays in his left hand coat pocket or anything. We tried to get it as real as possible.
We welcome Ed Opperman to the series and discuss the 2005 docudrama Good Night, and Good Luck which retells the story of the 1954 confrontation between senator Joe McCarthy and television journalist Ed Murrow of CBS. McCarthy was pursuing Communists within the State Department and other government agencies and innocent people were getting caught in the crossfire, creating a climate of suspicion, mistrust and hostility. Murrow used his prime time series See It Now to attack McCarthy and the culture and mentality of McCarthyism, showing the senator to be a hypocrite who persecuted his targets.
This is the story that is told in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film born out of the creative relationship between George Clooney and Grant Heslov. In this episode we take a sideways look at the historical events and ask why Clooney and Heslov chose to lionise not just Murrow but the whole See it Now/CBS crew. We try to persuade Ed of an alternative interpretation of events, with Murrow not quite being the heroic counter-establishment figure he is in the film and CBS being a rotten media organisation with deep ties to the CIA. We then explore how almost everyone involved in Good Night, and Good Luck had either already made a film with CIA assistance, or went on to do so. We round off talking about Clooney’s bizarre Las Vegas connection, E Michael Burke, George Steinbrenner and (inevitably) Donald Trump.