This short episode is an update on my recent Freedom of Information fun. I talk about my successful and not so successful requests to the Pentagon and my ongoing struggle with the Foreign Office to reveal further details of their involvement in the entertainment industry. Finally I outline my efforts to find out more information about how a movie crew was allowed to blow up a bus in central London and why the MOD, MI5 and MI6 were told in advance but the public wasn’t.
It has been a long time since I did the first Fun with FOIA show – almost two years – so I thought I’d do a follow up to talk about what has happened since then, what I’m currently up to in terms of FOIA requests and what I hope is coming in the future.
For those of you who don’t remember or weren’t following my work back then, in ClandesTime episode 025 I revealed the DOD database or list or films that the Pentagon has provided production assistance to. At the time I said it was incomplete, which has since been confirmed by multiple sources. My friend Matt Alford had some email contact with Phil Strub, the DOD’s chief entertainment liaison officer, who said that the database was incomplete. We also obtained via FOIA reports from the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps entertainment liaison offices that list several major films – Avatar and Pacific Rim among them – that were not included on the list released to me in early 2014. There are also a significant number of minor or independent films from all over the world that the Pentagon has assisted, but which were likewise absent from the DOD’s database.
The reports from the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison offices are truly amazing to me – in the region of 3,500 pages of documents recording not just their involvement in film and TV but their other activities too – from appearing on panels at Comic-Con through to high level meetings with studio executives to try to shape forthcoming productions before they’ve even been written. I have written a series of articles on these documents outlining exactly what it is the Pentagon does in the entertainment industry that regular visitors to Spy Culture will be aware of but in terms of my ongoing research there are two major upshots of this:
1) The documents do not include many details, and for the most part don’t include any details at all, of the script changes requested by the DOD in exchange for their assistance on all these hundreds of films and TV shows. This is perhaps the most important element to this phenomenon of state-sponsorship of entertainment and we have pretty much no information about it since David Robb’s book in 2004. This is what Matt Alford specialises in – the political dimensions – and so he found it a bit frustrating going through these files.
Nonetheless the reports do refer to script changes and to script notes provided to the producers by the DOD’s liaison offices, so this is clearly still going on. I have put in a FOIA request for these and assuming I get something back I will of course share it with all of you. They also make some occasional mentions of things that the DOD didn’t like or wanted removing or changing. One thing that comes up a few times, in both video games and films, is China being portrayed as the enemy – the Pentagon don’t like this.
One example I talked about recently on The Opperman Report is Red Dawn, the remake of the 1980s film where the Soviets invade the US, somehow sneaking up through Mexico. In the script for the remake it is China who invades and are fought off by a patriotic all-American multicultural militia. The Marine Corps liaison office sent it to Phil Strub for his consideration and he said they wouldn’t co-operate unless the enemy’s identity was changed. The producers refused to change that, the Pentagon didn’t assist them, so they had to go elsewhere for military advice, vehicles and so on.
As late as post-production the producers changed their minds and decided to make the invading army North Korean. After all, if you’re going to have a ludicrous storyline you might as well go the whole hog. The media coverage says this change was made so they could sell the film to the Chinese market. But the film was never released in China, and the documents we got from the Marine Corps liaison office show that the producer approached them again, asking permission to do a promotional premiere showing at Camp Pendleton. So I’m guessing here that their attempt to woo the Pentagon to endorse this truly shit movie had more to do with it than trying to get into the Chinese market. In the event it was once bitten, twice shy: the Marine Corps said no to showing the film at Camp Pendleton, they wanted nothing to do with it. And they never even saw a rough cut before making the decision – it isn’t because the film is so bad that they refused to help them, it was because they hadn’t made the changes the Pentagon wanted when they wanted them made.
And speaking of really bad movies, Battleship is another example of where the military managed to inject a lot of their agenda into the script. The Army’s liaison office reports mention how the wounded soldier character ‘was expanded significantly from the original cameo appearance to a major character instrumental to defeating the invading aliens and saving the planet – all while wearing an “ARMY” t-shirt’. This is clearly the result of the Pentagon’s influence because the character was played by a real life Army Colonel. The reports go on to say ‘The $200 million project is a pro-military chest-thumper with corresponding recruiting benefits. Discussions are ongoing for participation by the services in a premiere ‘red carpet’ event in Times Square, NYC, May 18. Assessment: Supports depiction of a Trained & Ready Force to meet our Nation’s needs.’ Which is all true, if the nation’s needs are to defend itself against an army of aquatic extraterrestrial robots. So, hopefully these small details can be expanded quite a lot if and when the fuller script notes from the Army and the Marine Corps are provided.
2) I did also ask for copies of the production agreements on approximately 15 films, just to see how uniform they are, see if there is anything especially worth of our attention. They are strong evidence of how formal and thus institutionalised this whole process is, but in themselves they are basically contracts which are by their nature very boring to read. The DOD got back to me literally as I was writing this, saying they don’t have any in the Office of the Secretary for Defense for Public Affairs. So I am going to ask the individual liaison offices themselves and see if I can get them that way.
Interestingly, the DOD denied that they were involved in Avatar, Pacific Rim, Zero Dark Thirty and The Avengers. They certainly were involved in these films to some extent, though in the case of Zero Dark Thirty and Pacific Rim that was minor. The Avengers in particular is one the DOD have tried to distance themselves from, despite continuing to be involved in subsequent Marvel films. The Army documents put paid to any denial, they detail how their liaison office provided access to the White Sands Missile Range for filming, and ‘a company of soldiers for the climactic battle scene’. However, this new set of requests for the agreements for the dozen or so other films I’m trying to get documents on I’m not sure what else to ask the Pentagon for in terms of FOIA requests.
I started doing these requests not just to understand this all better but also to get the evidence this is going on. Before I started all this I read various books and bits of books to see what had already been found and documented so I wouldn’t just spend my time replicating existing research and journalism. And, where possible, so that I could get copies of some of their source material and post it here on my site. After doing that I thought the best way to get evidence about what was going on today was to simply ask for it, which has proven surprisingly effective.
But I am now at the point where I don’t know what else to try to get, in terms of stuff that’s actually plausible. They aren’t going to give me top secret strategy documents explaining their overall propaganda aims, if such documents even exist. More likely there are no overall propaganda aims written down anywhere, and it’s more a mentality that is expressed and reinforced through conversation only.
So, the next question is the CIA. Obviously it is much harder to get documents out of the CIA than it is to get them from the DOD. Tricia Jenkins did manage to get a load of memos sent from Chase Brandon to the writer and producer of The Recruit that shows that Brandon essentially produced that film himself. But she didn’t get those through the CIA, they refused her request and mine for material on The Recruit.
Likewise, if you dig around on Brandon’s website you can find out about the 30 or more films, TV shows and books that he was involved in during his time as CIA entertainment liaison officer. But the post-Chase Brandon period is less well known – aside from Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and a bunch of TV shows I honestly don’t know what the CIA has been doing since 2007. The CIA’s Office of the Inspector General’s reports on their engagement with the entertainment industry do fill in a few gaps in terms of how it all works, but not in terms of what they’ve been working on.
Nonetheless, there are some records they refer to in that report that I have asked for, and if we can get those it will fill in some gaps. I also have some other ideas, one which I will tell you about and one which I won’t because if that comes off it’ll be great material for a book. The one I will tell you about is that I have been going through the last several years of FOIA logs for the CIA – records of the thousands of requests they’ve received. I’ve noted down all the ones relating to the entertainment industry and am going to put in a request for all documents that have been released in response to those previous requests. It is possible that most if not all of these requests failed to dislodge anything but if they did, I should be able to get that material.
Going through the logs was somewhat tedious but it is also quite fun. People file FOIA requests for the funniest things. There’s a lot of stuff on JFK and on UFOs and other obvious topics, but people also asked for records on Infowars.com, DavidIcke.com, lulzsec, wikileaks, Anonymous, a few random twitter accounts and other online identities. One requester asked whether Ho Chi Minh was a member of international freemasonry, another asked for evidence that the CIA is laundering drug money through NFL teams. A few people asked for records on the contents of the box of artefacts from the Roswell crash that Chase Brandon has been talking crap about to try to sell his UFO book. Someone asked about the OSS using pornography during WW2, which may actually be true.
The prize for most witty FOIA request to the CIA has to go to whoever asked about their twitter account. When the CIA finally joined twitter the first tweet they sent out was ‘we can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet’. So someone asked them for record that would confirm or deny whether that was their first tweet. That really made my day.
What else have I been up to on the FOIA front recently? I have been continuing to struggle with the Foreign Office. When I first started putting in requests to the FCO last autumn I got a phonecall from a nice lady who wanted to clarify my request so they could process it within their time and cost limits and so on. I was given a list of all the productions they’ve assisted since 2010. I asked for their communications with the producers of two of these productions – Downton Abbey and Spectre – and the production agreements. They gave me those pretty quickly too.
Then, the nice lady who I’d been in contact with said she was moving to another section of the FCO and handed me over to one of her colleagues, who has since essentially refused to answer my emails. I’ve only been inquiring about basic stuff – such as how someone gets permission to film the MI6 building – but he’s ignoring me, it seems. They’ve also tried to avoid answering some of my further FOIA requests, including saying demonstrably untrue things. They claimed that all their production agreements are essentially identical and from the same template, so they don’t want to release other ones to me. The problem is that the two I already have are not identical. They are not from the same template.
I’m only guessing here but I wonder if they are deliberately telling untruths to try to prevent me from gathering the evidence of their involvement in the entertainment industry. The Ministry of Defence messed me around for months before finally providing me with an incomplete database of films that their sub-contracted private company has assisted. They didn’t even admit that a lot of it is handled by a private company until I’d hassled them and appealed and argued every step of the way. So I’m going to persist with the Foreign Office, if only because I don’t like it when government departments tell me things that I know aren’t true.
I will say this – I phoned up the Information Commissioner’s Office to ask them if it is illegal to provide false information in support of refusing a FOIA request. I was told that it is not. The FCO can – deliberately or otherwise – say anything they like as their reason for not releasing information. I expressed my bewilderment at this to the nice young man from the Information Commissioner’s Office and went back to tell the FCO what I thought of their refusal to release the documents. I await their response.
Finally, the other day I read about a new movie called The Foreigner which had blown up a bus on Lambeth Bridge in London as part of their filming. This had, somewhat predictably, created a bit of stir because it was all a bit too fucking similar to what happened on 7/7. Indeed, if you watch the film it’s very similar, given how the explosion blows up the back of the top deck. Quite a few people have complained about this, mostly on social media, but I think their reaction is quite justified.
I read a story saying that the MOD, MI5 and MI6 had been told about this ahead of time, presumably so that they would know it wasn’t the real thing. So I put in FOIA requests for documents relating to permission to film this bus exploding in the middle of London without warning the public. I’ve asked Lambeth Council, Transport for London, the Home Office, the Metropolitan Police and the Ministry of Defence for documents, so we’ll see what comes back.
One thing that made me laugh is that about half an hour after sending my request to the MOD I received a email back addressed to a Mr Whitehead asking about his request. They included a copy of his request and his details, obviously I’m not going to share that information but that’s pretty careless stuff. It’s not like my name is similar to his – I’m Tom Secker, he’s Mr Whitehead. I replied, copying in Mr Whitehead so that he would know of the mistake, saying:
I am not Mr Whitehead, and you’ve just violated his privacy (which I am informing him of by copying him into this email).
Get your act together. Your FOIA office is a bloody disgrace.
So, my misadventures with the Freedom of Information Act continue to be fun and most of them continue to be quite productive. I do want to write a book on the CIA and the entertainment industry but that will be a lot of work that I have sketched out in my mind but which will take time. People have asked why, given all the stuff I have on the DOD, why I don’t write a book on them. The simple answer is that the CIA matters more to me, and I don’t mind giving the DOD stuff away for free. Doing so has helped highlight this topic and my contributions to this area of research and means that everyone has a mountain of evidence that this is going on. There’s no room for doubt any more, so I can now move on to the tougher question of the CIA, safe in the knowledge that I’ve made a unique contribution.
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