ClandesTime 078 – Chase Brandon: The CIA’s Man in Hollywood

Published April 24th 2016 | Tags: , , , ,

Chase Brandon was the CIA’s first Entertainment Industry Liaison.  From 1996 to early 2007 he was the CIA’s man in Hollywood, working on a dozen major movies and numerous high-profile TV shows.  In this episode we examine the background of the CIA in the entertainment industry and how they founded their Entertainment Liaison Office and appointed Brandon in charge of it.   We also discuss Brandon’s career, especially his attempts to downplay and disguise his influence on entertainment including ghost-writing The Recruit.  We finish up talking about how he helped TV series The Agency to predict the future, and the links between Brandon and the film Wag the Dog.

Transcript

Chase Brandon was a career CIA officer and for the last decade or do of his more than 35 years with the Agency he was their first entertainment industry liaison. Starting in late 1996 and working until sometime in early 2007, he was the CIA’s man in Hollywood, and in the entertainment industry more broadly.

As with Phil Strub, it isn’t easy finding out about Chase. He is starting to be referred to in books – Tricia Jenkins’ The CIA in Hollywood is the best book out there, certainly when it comes to the modern era of the CIA’s role in entertainment. She devotes a whole chapter and sections in other chapters to Chase Brandon’s work as entertainment industry liaison, and in the second edition found some stunning material which we’ll examine shortly.

Along similar lines is Reclaiming Parkland by James DiEugenio, which I’ve had recommended and have read some bits of and which tells the story of the making of Tom Hanks’ JFK film Parkland. It sets this against a backdrop of the CIA and Pentagon’s involvement in Hollywood, and talks of Brandon not just being involved in production, but also setting up a network of CIA assets in Hollywood, which I find quite plausible. But the essential biographical details – when and where Chase Brandon was born, his upbringing and education, how he joined the CIA – are not available anywhere that I can find.

What we can put together from his website and other sources is that he worked in black operations for many years but also liaised with other agencies and did induction and training at the Farm. He definitely served in Latin America, and given that he must have joined the CIA in the early 70s he would have been around during Operation Condor, the overthrow of Salvador Allende and his replacement with General Pinochet, and during CIA whistleblower Phil Agree publishing his book and then being persecuted for it, and the CIA-instigated civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, possibly Honduras and Panama too.

We don’t know if Brandon was involved directly in any of this, his name does not come up in Iran Contra for example. But I do think that it’s important to note that most of the CIA or ex-CIA people in the entertainment industry worked in black operations, not in intelligence analysis. Robert Baer, Valerie Plame, Sandra Grimes, Jeanne Vertefeuille, Milt Bearden, Lindsay Moran, Carol Rollie Flynn, Robert Grenier, Tony Mendez, Bazzel Baz (now know as just ‘Baz’) – these are all former covert agents. Some of them were even station heads, spymasters, and John MacGaffin, the primary consultant to Homeland, got as high as deputy director in the directorate of operations. So Brandon is in good company, and it does suggest that now they’re formally involved in Hollywood, the CIA sees that as just another set of black operations.

The CIA’s Entertainment Liaison Office

Just as with Brandon’s personal biography, the exact structure of the CIA’s Entertainment Liaison Office is not know. The CIA set up their Office of Public Affairs in the 1970s, in part as a response to the Church Committee and other pressures of that kind. They had already allowed one film – Scorpio, released in 1973 – to film at CIA headquarters at Langley. After formally establishing an Office of Public Affairs the first news/documentary crew that filmed at Langley was, quite predictably, from CBS.

Indeed, during some of the filming for Scorpio in Washington DC director Michael Winner was staying at the Watergate hotel and was staying there when the CIA-White House ‘Plumbers’ broke in and sparked off the whole Watergate scandal. I’m 99% sure that’s a coincidence, but it’s a curious one. The notion that Watergate was the CIA’s coup against Nixon is very much one I subscribe to, this was part of the CIA’s rise to power in the wake of the death of J Edgar Hoover, their deep state rival. But I digress.

The CIA’s Entertainment Liaison Office was not established until 1996. There were some limited forays into the entertainment industry in the early 90s – former agent John Strauchs consulted on Sneakers in 1992, the same year Patriot Games became the first major post-Cold War movie to be sponsored by the CIA, also being granted access to film at Langley. Then they set up the liaison office, inside the Office of Public Affairs and answerable to the Director of Public Affairs. This is how it works in the Pentagon and my understanding is that the CIA, NASA, DHS and other more recent entries to the world of entertainment liaison offices all model theirs on the highly successful and influential DOD setup.

They cast around looking for someone to head this office and come up with Chase Brandon. He fit perfectly – he was a career officer with a vested interest in keeping the right things secret and portraying the Agency in a positive light, he was coming to the end of his career and thus was interested in a less demanding role, he had worked for various parts of the CIA and with other agencies i.e. he was a good liaison, and his first cousin is Tommy Lee Jones. Who played CIA contract agent Clay Shaw, the only man to be prosecuted for the JFK assassination, in Oliver Stone’s film JFK.

Chase Brandon Movies

Over the next 10 years Brandon would be involved in 13 movies, 11 major TV series and various other book, TV and film projects, several of which never got made. This information is largely gleaned not from his credits at the end of films, which are non-existent, or his IMDB page, which is virtually empty. Most of this comes from his personal website, and most of it wasn’t added until 2012 or 2013. Even then, most of it is concealed behind drop-down menus that are totally unnecessary, and in a part of the site that isn’t linked to from the home page. I only found this other section by searching for all pages within the domain – chasebrandon.com, and these other pages have not been crawled by the internet archive wayback machine.

As such, this is a site that is difficult to navigate and where the robots.txt file has been set to prevent the major archive of web pages from crawling particular parts of the site. This has to be deliberate, though in the event completely pointless because you can access those other pages if you know how to look for them. Still, he’s a cunning bastard, gotta admire him for that.

The 13 films are: The Recruit, Sum of All Fears, Enemy of the State, Bad Company, Mission: Impossible III, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, In the Company of Spies, The Good Shepherd, Charlie Wilson’s War, Spy Game, The Interpreter and The Bourne Identity. So we have historical reconstructions, action thrillers, more conventional spy thrillers and family comedies. Basically a smaller version of what the Pentagon supported over the same period. Breaking it down:

– Historical dramas like Charlie Wilson’s War and The Good Shepherd are a means of rewriting history, or just popularising a version of history that makes you look how you want to look. In The Good Shepherd they very much adopt this view of ‘it’s a dark, complex world so we’re lucky to have the CIA working on our side even if they are bastards’. The CIA characters are mostly anti-heroes of one kind or another. In Charlie Wilson’s War they heroise the CIA for defeating the evil Commies in Afghanistan, by creating Al Qaeda but we’ll gloss over that because it’s more fun to talk about how Charlie Wilson was into cocaine and lap-dancers. They also portray the CIA as being under-funded and minimally staffed, the film shows literally half a dozen agents, in America and in Pakistan combined, running this multi-billion dollar black operation. Interesting Milt Bearden, who was a consultant on the film, does not appear in the film himself.

– Action thrillers basically make the CIA seem exciting. Sum of All Fears, Mission: Impossible III, Enemy of the State, Bad Company which is basically a black version of The Recruit, The Bourne Identity – all very exciting movies, quite slickly made and fun to watch. This is the CIA equivalent of True Lies – very fast paced, often with some comedy and sex thrown in to keep everything ticking over, ultimately fictional but basically set in the real world. These are usually simple promos for the CIA, designed to aid recruitment but also to help the CIA’s image both for the general public but more importantly for media commentators and Congress.

– The comedies, a category in which you could also include Bad Company because it’s certainly trying to be a comedy though it largely fails, definitely includes Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. They are a pair of very funny films, on the face of it they are fish out of water stories, the first one about a Jewish guy marrying into an austere Protestant family, the second about the austere Protestant family meeting the Jewish guy’s hippy parents. Underneath all that is a lot of weird stuff with Robert De Niro’s character who is a retired CIA agent who dresses and acts somewhat like Chase Brandon and obsesses over his ‘circle of trust’ when he himself is not at all trusting. When we analysed these films at some length in episode 02 of The CIA and Hollywood, we concluded that the point of this was to make what in reality would be a serious mental illness into a lovable character flaw. As De Niro represents the CIA in these films this helps softens their image of institutionalised paranoia.

– The less action-oriented thrillers like The Interpreter, Spy Game and The Recruit are more cerebral versions of the same thing as the action thrillers. They are still promotional devices, from the CIA’s perspective, but they tend to portray the CIA in a somewhat more compromised way. Indeed, all of these films to some extent admit that the CIA does bad things, that isn’t something they just avoid or censor out of films like the Pentagon can and does. But these three especially do not portray the CIA as a particularly nice place, and nor do more recent films such as American Ultra. It seems they are instead adopting a ‘it’s a dirty world and a dirty job but someone’s got to do it’ kind of PR, which is working well for them particularly in the post-9/11 world of constant and very dirty wars. The more it seems like that’s just the way of the world, rather than the world the CIA have helped to create, the more they wash their hands of moral responsibility.

Chase Brandon’s bizarre denials

In the case of Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt (two men who turn up repeatedly in this story), the CIA withdrew co-operation from the film part way through. Spy Game still includes the CIA seal and the external shot of Langley common to almost all of these films and Brandon still includes the film as one he provided technical advice to, so there is an ambiguity there.

However, there are two cases of Brandon explicitly lying and claiming he didn’t work on productions when he did. In a 2001 Guardian article about Chase Brandon and the CIA entertainment liaison office they write:

He withheld his endorsement from Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. The final rewrite “showed our senior management in an insensitive light and we just wouldn’t want to be a part of that kind of project”, said Brandon, who also withheld approval from 24, a Fox CIA series that also suggests all is not hunky-dory in the company’s upper echelons.

In an interview for Metro a few years later he was asked:

– You’ve also worked on 24.
– Yes, we weren’t involved at first because they didn’t ask. Now they have and I’ve been out to their offices and the set so we’re doing more to help them out.

Furthermore, in a 2007 discussion called The CIA and Cinema: A Strange Bond, former CIA lawyer John Rizzo said that the producers of 24 had never asked for any help. So which is it? Did they ask initially and were turned down? Did they not ask until later series and only received help then? Did they never ask? None of these three different versions, two from Chase himself, can be reconciled with the others. Clearly, someone is lying, and I’m pretty sure the CIA were involved in some seasons of 24.

Likewise in the 2001 Guardian article they say:

And The Bourne Identity, based on the 1984 novel by Robert Ludlum, was “so awful that I tossed it in the burn bag after page 25”.

Now, presumably Brandon doesn’t literally throw scripts in the burn bag, which is for the destruction of classified materials. But his use of such an image which makes him sound cool and decisive and very CIA-like is because it is lie. Brandon not only lists The Bourne Identity on his site, he appears on the Special Edition DVD promoting the film:

So, just like with Phil Strub in the last episode, Brandon has a curious habit of denying working on productions that he did work on. As we will see in next, he has also found ways to downplay and minimise his impact on the entertainment industry.

Chase Brandon and The Recruit

By far the most important example of CIA propaganda from Chase Brandon’s time as entertainment liaison is The Recruit. We discussed this film in some detail in episode 03 of The CIA and Hollywood and I do recommend that discussion but since then further details have come to light. We knew at that time that the CIA assisted with the film – Brandon lists the film on his own site, it’s on his IMDB page and he is the main figure in a 16 minute bonus feature on the DVD.

Though the DVD feature is introduced by producer Jeff Apple and he doesn’t make it clear that Brandon worked on the film, or even that he was the CIA’s entertainment liaison officer.

This is only the first layer in a whole cake of covering up Brandon’s role in the film. Though years later Brandon would list the film on his own site and he has an IMDB credit (quite probably at his own request) he is credited only as a technical advisor. If we dig a little deeper into the semi-secret part of his site we find that he lists The Recruit screenwriter Roger Towne and producer Jeff Apple as his screen-writing and producing partners. Even this doesn’t truly represent the extent to which The Recruit was Chase Brandon’s creation.

I should highlight here that one of the first Chase Brandon-assisted productions, In the Company of Spies, was a TV movie that bears some considerable similarities to The Recruit. This was given the CIA’s full support – filming at Langley, technical and script advice, real CIA people as background extras, a premiere at Langley. But it was a TV movie, so it bombed. It also wasn’t particularly good.

However, it was written by The Recruit screenwriter Roger Towne, and this was his first proper screenplay for 15 years. So the obvious hypothesis is that Towne allowed himself to be a front for Chase Brandon, for whatever reason, and that Brandon really wrote The Recruit and In the Company of Spies. In the second edition of Tricia Jenkins The CIA in Hollywood she cites documents from a court case that include communications between Towne and Brandon going back to 1997, when the first draft of The Recruit was written. They show, conclusively, that Brandon was the main writer on the early drafts of The Recruit. While Towne and Apple had some input and Kurt Wimmer polished the script a couple of years later in the run-up to filming, this was Brandon’s baby, his Frankenstein.

The details have to be read to be believed and I will encourage you all to get a copy of the book because like the others that I have been reviewing recently, it is a truly excellent piece of work and you will not be disappointed in what you get. I guess the important thing to emphasise here is that this is the exception rather than the rule, Brandon spent a lot of time pitching ideas to scriptwriters and producers and fishing for opportunities like this. It seems that in Roger Towne and Jeff Apple he found people willing to let him use them as fronts, whereas most would simply take his ideas and say thank you.

Chase Brandon and The Agency

However, there is also the question of the TV show The Agency, which again had full CIA support along with writers and consultants who were ex-agents. This show premièred at Langley and was due to début on TV just after 9/11. It was pulled because the first episode features Osama Bin Laden launching a massive attack on the West, sparking off a War on Terror. This episode, the pilot, was dropped down the schedule and the show was delayed for a couple of weeks to take the sting out of it.

Another episode about an anthrax attack on the US had to be pulled because on the day it was due to air the anthrax story broke. Later in the series, one storyline involved a Pakistani general going rogue and so the CIA assassinate him with a Hellfire missile fired from a predator drone. Not long after the episode aired, the CIA assassinated a rogue Pakistani general with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone.

According to Jenkins’ interview with the show’s producer Michael Beckner, this all came from Chase Brandon, all of these storylines came from the CIA. If this is true, and I can’t think of many reasons for Beckner to make this up, it means that these controversies were somewhat manufactured by the CIA. That’s aside from the question of predictive programming which we looked at in some detail regarding Tom Clancy, where the state pre-conditions the public to something that is about to happen or that they are about to do.

Chase Brandon and Wag the Dog

The final question I want to get into with this episode is Wag the Dog, a film that continues to puzzle and delight people nearly 20 years later. We reviewed Wag the Dog in some depth in ClandesTime episode 021 where I floated the hypothesis that the character played by Robert De Niro, Conrad Breen, was based on Chase Brandon. After all, he is a bearded spin doctor, who works with a Hollywood producer, whose background is unclear and who can identify the CIA on sight and negotiate with them successfully.

But it is more than that, even. It is more that physical resemblance, similar names and virtually identical jobs, though that is enough for the theory to start to hold some water. It isn’t even that De Niro went on to make three movies with Chase Brandon, though that has to be relevant. Or that this film was made just at the start of Chase Brandon’s work in Hollywood.

It’s also that Brandon went on to write a script with the screenwriter who won an Oscar for writing Wag the Dog – Hillary Henkin. Buried in the semi-secret section of Brandon’s site he lists a script he co-wrote while Entertainment Liaison Officer for Di Bonaventura Pictures, the studio within Paramount headed by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. This is the studio that made Red, with former CIA agent Bob Baer, Salt with the help of the CIA, Transformers with the help of the Pentagon and NASA, and the reboot of Jack Ryan. This is the studio Brandon co-wrote a script for, and he co-wrote it with the writer of Wag the Dog.

But it’s more than that. It’s also that the character of Conrad Breen even talks like Chase Brandon, with this weird self-contradictory doublethink embedded at every step. We’ll take the most interesting scene in Wag the Dog, and compare it to Brandon being interviewed for the making of feature for The Recruit.

And this is Chase Brandon:

(especially 1:15 – 1:50 and 10:25-11:10)

Of course, none of this adds up to Chase Brandon actually working on Wag the Dog, but in some way Conrad Breen is based on him. All the pieces fit.

Obviously I could continue at great length, discussing what Brandon’s been up to since he left the Agency or looking into his films in more depth. But we covered several of the films he supported in The CIA and Hollywood season 1 and I recently wrote a lengthy article Decoding Chase Brandon so if you would like to know more then they are at your disposal.

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