Aside from Ian Fleming, there is no more influential spy author than Tom Clancy. Clancy’s books (and the films and computer games based on them) benefited from his close contact with the US government. This week we shed light on his relationships with the CIA and the NSA, and ask whether the CIA’s public affairs office was giving Clancy ideas, or Clancy was giving the CIA ideas, or both.
We have previously explored Tom Clancy’s relationships with the US government, including how the CIA produced their own in-house version of The Hunt for Red October. If you want to go back and refresh your memory, or listen for the first time, episodes 074 and 075 have a lot of good information in them.
But that was nearly two years ago and in the meantime new information has become available, namely the CIA’s CREST database, some documents from my own FOIA requests and a video of one of Clancy’s presentations at the NSA. So we’re going to look at all this and re-examine the ongoing question of whether Clancy was some kind of asset for US intelligence. I doubt we’ll ever get a conclusive answer to that question, but given his popularity and influence I think it’s a question worth coming back to in light of this new evidence.
The CIA’s Tom Clancy File
I previously published the CIA’s James Bond file – a collection of memos, news cuttings and other Agency records on James Bond. To be clear – the CIA never put this together into one file, at least as far as I know, I compiled this myself. Nonetheless, it shows that they had a long-standing interest in James Bond, both the books and the films, and especially in how Bond became a cultural reference point, a meme.
The same is true of Tom Clancy – and it is Clancy, not his creation Jack Ryan, that turns up time and again on the CREST database. So I have also compiled and published the CIA’s Tom Clancy file. I’m going to quickly run through a timeline of the documents and records in the file, to give you an overview of what we’re looking at today.
The file effectively begins in January 1985 – not long after The Hunt for Red October was first published. A Washington Post article suggested that Clancy was a secret agent. Who was this mysterious author who’d sold 45,000 copies of his debut novel in a matter of months, a novel which contained highly technical details about secret submarine warfare? Clancy was doing a lecture at Loyola College – where he was educated, though he didn’t score very well in tests – so the reporter went along to listen to what he had to say. While the idea that Clancy was an agent is clearly tongue-in-cheek, one wonders if the reporter was onto something.
In April 1985 Clancy gave a speech at the Washington Post’s spring Book and Author Luncheon, at the Sheraton in Washington. When asked about where he got his information Clancy said his only source of classified information was the Washington Post, ‘and it’s turned out to be a pretty good one’.
In June 1985 there was an article about submarine propulsion systems which Clancy invented for Hunt for Red October but which turned out to be very similar to real systems tested by the Pentagon. Clancy mentions this in his speech at the NSA.
In February 1986 Clancy spoke at the CIA, I think this was the second time. There was a luncheon in the Director of Central Intelligence’s dining room, which was attended by Bob Gates, Deputy Director for Intelligence Dick Kerr and someone from the Office of Scientific and Weapons Research whose name is redacted but is marked as ‘friend of Tom Clancy’. The OSWR sponsored this event. Clancy then gave a speech in one of the auditoriums which was broadcast on the CIA’s internal cable channel.
In May 1986 the Washington Post – again – interviewed Clancy about real life spy stories including the tale of Vitaly Yurchenko, a defector who asked for asylum in the US, apparently named a bunch of Soviet spies and then bizarrely returned to the Soviet Union. Clancy said, ‘I’m sure he’s dead by now’.
The following month Clancy wrote to the CIA returning a cheque for $500 they had sent him as an ‘honorarium’ for his speech. Clancy wrote to director of public affairs George Lauder saying, ‘See enclosed my “performance” check for $500.00. As we have previously discussed, please donate this to the Agency’s Educational Aid Fund, or whatever other in-house charity fund seems the most appropriate.’ The CIA did this, and the fact Clancy had donated the money back to the CIA was reported back up the chain to the DCI.
In September Clancy’s name was suggested for the following year’s list of speakers at Langley, and in October he gave a talk at the NSA. This was apparently his second presentation there. In May 1987 the CIA obtained a copy of a newsletter that said that Clancy was speaking at the National Military Intelligence Association’s annual banquet. In November he spoke at a multi-agency event held at the FBI academy at Quantico, the Security Educators Seminar.
In December Clancy sent the CIA’s office of public affairs a copy of his new novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin, asking them to vet it for possible classified information. A few months later William Baker, then CIA head of public affairs, wrote back praising the book and congratulating Clancy on his recent visit to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. Also in July 1988 the CIA director William Webster spoke at Bohemian Grove and mentioned Clancy as part of his talk.
In August 1988 Clancy wrote to public affairs chief William Baker again, denying that he’d received any classified information when writing Cardinal of the Kremlin and asking to know how a letter had leaked to a Newsweek reporter that implied he was profiting from people leaking him classified data.
As the file goes on it becomes more sparse. In May 1990 Clancy wrote to Baker’s replacement James Greenleaf, including a letter he’d received from a fan that evidently alleged all kinds of misdoings by the CIA. The letter itself is redacted, but Greenleaf forwarded it to the deputy director of operations and the CIA’s office of security, apparently for a laugh. The file finishes in July 1991 with a press cutting comparing Stansfield Turner to a character from a Clancy novel.
Clancy’s fiction vs Institutional Secrecy
Now you’ve got a sense of what we’re looking at today let’s focus in on a few specific events to understand more about how Clancy’s fiction fits into a landscape of institutionalised secrecy.
Firstly, there is the phenomenon of fiction filling in the gaps in the public’s limited knowledge of the intelligence agencies. This has always been the case – most people get most of their impressions and ideas about what these agencies do from fiction, not from reality. During the 1980s the CIA, under Bill Casey, tried to restore the secrecy they enjoyed back in the 50s and much of the 60s. While Stansfield Turner had set up an Office of Public Affairs and started letting film crews onto the Langley campus, Casey reversed this policy, the CIA stopped co-operating with Hollywood and the firestorm of reporting on the CIA in the 1970s turned into a drip-drip of minor information.
Into this re-established landscape of secrecy came Clancy’s novels, offering what appeared to be a highly authentic look behind the scenes at covert operations. Clancy always maintained that he never made use of leaked information, and that if anyone offered him classified information he’d probably tell the FBI. This may be true, but after the publication of Hunt for Red October he was – in his words – ‘adopted’ by the US Army and the US and British Navies. He got to go on a warship and on submarines, he even got to drive an M-1 tank and fire off a few shells.
Clancy also spoke with the Secretary of the Navy, went to the White House, CIA, FBI and NSA multiple times, even developed friendships with multiple Soviet defectors both in the US and the UK. So while it may be true that he was never given classified information, both the British and American security states helped him in unclassified ways, and encouraged him to use his books to portray them in a positive light.
Indeed, when Clancy sent a copy of Cardinal of the Kremlin to the CIA, he did so without his publisher knowing. He even said that his depiction of covert ops was inaccurate and that ‘part of that was a conscious decision on my part’. He invited the CIA to review his book and that he’d make changes if there was anything they had a problem with. While we don’t have the full correspondence between Clancy and the Agency, it doesn’t seem they requested any changes but it demonstrates that while Clancy was publicly pretending to offer an accurate portrait of the CIA, in reality he was deliberately writing an inaccurate version and making sure it was in keeping with the CIA’s desired public image. Just as with James Bond, there’s an element of deliberate doublethink here.
When CIA Public Affairs chief William Baker wrote to Clancy the following summer, telling him he heard about his visit to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and telling him to ‘keep up the good work’ he also commented on Cardinal of the Kremlin. Baker said that while sailing from Annapolis to the Solomon Islands he was reading the book and enjoyed the acknowledgement regarding satellite photography that was ‘good enough to make a few people nervous’.
This refers to the opening of the book where Clancy thanks various people and organisations that helped in his research. He wrote, ‘Special thanks, moreover, are due to Chris Larsson and Space Media Network, whose commercially generated “overhead imagery” was good enough to make a few people nervous—and this is only the beginning…’ If you read the book a lot of it is about a Soviet missile defence laser system and people arguing over whether the overhead imagery proved that this is what they were building. At the end of the book the CIA sponsor a bunch of jihadis fighting in Afghanistan to carry out an assault on the base, destroying the laser defence system.
When Clancy replied to Baker a few weeks later he wrote:
You know, after swearing me to secrecy, it was something of a surprise to have Evan Thomas of Newsweek hand me a copy of that letter which your chaps obtained (nefariously) while driving him down to Norfolk. I know you didn’t have anything to do with that. but I hope that you folks can either A» let me know how and why that stuff got leaked, or B)» screw the leaker to the nearest block wall. I don’t mean this to sound like a complaint, Bill. You handled this matter as straight as anybody could have, and probably straighter than I would have in your place. But that leak started a raft of questions that implicitly accuse me of being a leak-ee to whom leak-ers give TS information. The idea that I’d accept classified information (that is a felony, isn’t it?) and use it for commercial gain is disgusting. We did settle that issue, didn’t we? The person(s) who told me about “Bright Star” swore to me that everything was in the open, and that did turn out to be the case, since SMN already had the imagery in their files.
Let’s dismantle this – Baker made Clancy swear that he would keep certain information secret – we don’t know what, but again this shows how close Clancy was to the CIA and how he was willing to help them massage their public image. I’m not sure what this letter was that Evan Thomas handed to Clancy but evidently it implied that Clancy had been leaked classified information to help with his books. The letter had been obtained by the CIA and apparently someone – whether in the CIA or another agency – had leaked it to the press and inspired these allegations about Clancy. ‘Bright Star’ is the name Clancy gives to the real life Soviet facility at Dushanbe, which in the book is the base for the laser defence system. SMN are Space Media Network, the company who provided Clancy with overhead imagery of this facility.
Clancy continues, referring to an article Baker had sent to him:
This piece by Daggett and English-well, thank God they’re not part of your team. Turn the clock back 45 years and I suppose they would have locked at “overhead imagery” of Auschwitz and called it an industrial facility, what with all the busy smokestacks; but surely not an extermination camp-after all, the Germans are our enemies, but nobody would ever do that. It doesn’t make sense, after all, to do that.
D&E really like to apologize for the Soviets. Not that they’re alone in this, but isn’t it rather like defense attorneys who tell the jury that their client wasn’t really a rapist–the lady (who is not really a lady, of course) wanted him to do it, and the pistol at her head merely made it the more exciting for her–after all?
This is deeply ironic because Clancy was wrong about the Dushanbe facility. According to the Federation of American Scientists – a very fine website – ‘Western experts believed that this was a military laser system. According to the statement of Soviet officials, this was an optronic system for observation of space objects, similar to the American GEODSS.’ It eventually turned out that Dushanbe was just an observation base, and not a laser defence missile interception system as Clancy and others suspected. So his criticisms of this piece, including the rapist metaphor, are simply inaccurate.
Before we move on I’d like to touch on William Webster’s comments at Bohemian Grove in 1988 – right in the middle of this correspondence between Clancy and Baker. Webster said:
The public has been primed by newspaper accounts. And by a number of popular books on espionage. One of my officers confessed that he didn’t know where to put his own collection of Books on intelligence. But he figured they belonged somewhere between the fiction and non-fiction shelves.
The many stories about intelligence vary of course in style and authenticity. But they do have an impact. The other day at a National Security Council meeting, the president turned to me and said, “Bill, I’ve just been reading Tom Clancy‘s new book The Cardinal of the Kremlin, and the CIA is in trouble.”
We have had numerous offers of help – perhaps in part because of novels like Tom Clancy’s. We have applications from qualified Americans coming in at the rate of 1.000 a month.
So again, in private the CIA director was admitting that Clancy’s novels were having an impact on Ronald Reagan’s view of the CIA and of the state of geopolitics. He also suggested the books were helping to boost applications to the CIA. So we have a situation where – because of wrong-headed suspicions about Dushanbe and the Soviets’ capabilities – the public and the president were being propagandised. Clancy’s novels sit somewhere between fiction and reality – but the parts people think are real are actually paranoid speculation, and the parts they think are fiction are probably the most true elements of the books. Most crucially, while we don’t know specifically what passed between Baker and Clancy, these documents prove that the CIA had a hand in crafting this doublethinking, hyperreal semi-fiction.
The CIA’s Propaganda Strategy
Another element to this is that we could see Clancy’s novels as a form of psychological warfare – primarily directed not at the Western public, but at the Soviet Union and other designated enemies. Alongside his comments to the NSA in that clip, he told the New York Times that:
‘The principle of deterrence depends on having the other guy know something about what we do. If everything we do is secret they won ‘t know enough to be afraid of us. Secrecy is a tool for national security, but like any tool it must be used intelligently.’
He’s not wrong. A country that does nothing to promote its hi-tech weaponry and extremely competent military staff, and its genius-level intelligence agencies is a country no one will be scared of. One might argue that one of the reasons for state sponsorship of popular culture is to help it function as a warning to enemies, rival nations, even stateless terrorist groups.
After all, we apply this idea to criminality. Most people don’t go around raping and murdering people because it’s wrong, but some people don’t do those things because they’re afraid of being caught. As applied to geopolitics, this becomes ‘some nations don’t attack NATO because there is no advantage to them doing so, but other nations don’t do it because they’re afraid of being obliterated’. So even films like Independence Day and White House Down – that were not supported by the Pentagon for various reasons – are useful for psychological warfare because they remind people that the US has a massive stock of ballistic missiles, including nuclear missiles.
Now, of course in every Clancy novel the Americans are the good guys and they win out in the end. That’s almost not worth pointing out, because that’s the shape of almost all national or regional propaganda – to portray us as good, them as bad. But far less attention is paid to the role of high technology and extremely competent and effective agents of the state – when in this respect it is more important than the overall narrative and who wins and loses. It is not that our tech is good and theirs is bad, but that ours is better than theirs, ours is something they should fear. Likewise, films like Mission: Impossible – which are quite similar to Clancy’s books and the films based on them, in that they aren’t particularly violent – show state agents being incredibly talented, effective people. So they too are something to be feared.
Indeed, if we go forward about 10 years we can find evidence of this becoming the CIA’s approach to entertainment-based psychological warfare. When Chase Brandon was working with Michael Frost Beckner on The Agency, he told the producer to include a lot of high-tech spy equipment – biometrics and other advanced gear used by intelligence agencies. When Beckner asked him if some of this even existed Brandon admitted that it didn’t, but urged him to include it in his scripts anyway because it was good intimidation, after all ‘terrorists watch TV too’.
So, the principle Clancy expressed in the 1980s, and embodied in his novels, became part of the CIA’s modus operandi when they created their formal entertainment liaison office a few years down the road. Indeed, Chase Brandon worked as a consultant and on-set technical adviser on the film adaptation of The Sum of All Fears. Though various changes were made to the story in the book – for various reasons – the underlying idea that the CIA are not to messed with remained constant.
If you take CIA-sponsored entertainment as a whole it is quite inconsistent in whether it portrays the CIA as a moral agency, as good people. Films like Argo and Mission: Impossible make them look quite nice, films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Good Shepherd are the opposite. But across all these films the CIA characters are very competent and effective – often lethally so. The idea of the CIA being bunglers – the Get Smart version of the Agency – has been all but eradicated from our screens, when once it was quite a common depiction. Clancy certainly helped with that – in his books the CIA rarely if ever makes mistakes, they just sometimes have to do evil things because circumstances demand it.
One final point about Clancy – and another parallel with Ian Fleming – is that he predicted the War on Terror replacing the Cold War.
Remember, in that clip he’s speaking in 1987, saying that terrorists are going to replace the Soviet Union as the principal enemies of the US and the West in general. Now, Reagan’s White House did make a big fuss about international terrorism, much more so than Carter or Ford or Clinton or even Bush I. Ironically, Reagan’s White House also sponsored more terrorists than perhaps any other administration before or since. So Clancy was leaping on a trend that was quite prevalent in the 1980s. Then we got events like the WTC93 bombing, Oklahoma City, the Embassy bombings, and then 9/11.