As part of their outreach efforts the Air Force’s entertainment liaison office has started running annual tours for dozens of Hollywood bigshots. Recently released documents detail last year’s tour to US Space Command. In this focus episode I go through the documents page-by-page as an open source case study in the government-Hollywood relationship and in how to do this kind of research.
For those of you who want to follow along at home, which I strongly advise you to do, you can download the PDF and open it up so you can see what I’m talking about for yourself. First, I should say where I got them from, because that’s the first step. In the most recent batch of US Air Force entertainment liaison office reports (that I obtained via a FOIA request) I noticed references to a ‘CLT’, some kind of tour involving Hollywood types. As I explained in a prior episode, The Pentagon’s Hostile Takeover of Hollywood, that was for the 2016 tour. I filed a FOIA for documents specifically about that tour, which I outlined in that episode.
I wanted to know if this had become a more permanent fixture in the entertainment liaison office’s activities, so I put in a request for similar documents on last year’s CLT. The Air Force initially replied by sending me paper copies – which I’ve noticed with a few other recent requests. The Pentagon seem to be deliberately trying to make it harder for me to post this stuff online for free, I also got a non-functioning CD that’s supposed to contains dozens of Production Assistance Agreements in the last few weeks. Being the stubborn, or possibly lazy, person that I am, I followed up and got a PDF version so I didn’t have to borrow a scanner from someone. To be clear: CLT stands for ‘Civic Leader Tour’ but the documents also refer to it as the ‘Industry Leader Tour’. I have also seen the abbreviation EIL in a few documents, for entertainment industry leader, referring to the participants.
Pages One and Two: This is a receipt for a dozen tote bags, for what purposes I cannot say. They were evidently imprinted with a logo, but they cannot be mementos for the participants because there were over three times that many people on the CLT. They were ordered by Travis Schirner, a staff member at the Air Force liaison office, and his email address is not always redacted in these papers so if you want to ask him what the deal with the tote bags is then please do.
Pages Three and Four: This is a facility use agreement for the Ivywild School in Colorado Springs, a former school converted into a brewery along with a coffee shop, dining rooms and other community facilities. This where the dinner on the second evening of the tour was held, so the Air Force were evidently sent a copy of the rules for holding their dinner there. It’s all standard stuff about non-refundable deposits, not bringing your own alcohol and how, ‘Glitter, glue, and confetti are prohibited at Ivywild Events. An additional $150 cleaning fee will be added to final payment if additional cleaning is required for these items.’
Perhaps the most amusing stipulation in the agreement is that, ‘A three-foot wide floor protector (plastic sheeting, carpet, etc) is required for any activity in Ivywild Events that has a component of water or other liquid. Client is responsible to provide floor protection for any activity that may damage the floors. Please let your Event Manager know in advance if these types of activities are part of your event.’ Makes you wonder what sort of activities they’ve hosted at this place.
Pages Five to Eight: Menus and credit card receipts for the booking at Ivywild, and this is where things get a little confusing. The menu sounds quite nice and the credit card details are redacted so, sadly, the entertainment liaison office won’t be making a massive donation to Amnesty International this week. But this booking was for a dinner in June, but the main CLT was in July.
Pages 9 and 10 are an itinerary for an ‘idea generation tour’ which features most of the same places visited by the CLT the following month. So was this an initial tour for Air Force staff to figure out what to show the Hollywood people on the main tour a few weeks later? If so, why did it involve 45 people? This gets into an interesting question – how many people work for the entertainment liaison offices? The suites they have at 10880 Wilshere Blvd are fairly sizeable, enough for a couple of dozen people at least, but I’ve never seen more than half a dozen listed on any documents.
On the other hand, they are just the liaison office. When scripts come in it isn’t just the liaison office and Phil Strub who look at them before drawing up a list of changes. In some cases the scripts get sent off to higher-ranking Pentagon officials for their consideration. Likewise when you go to film at a military location you often deal with the local Public Affairs office at that installation, as well as the entertainment liaison office. So there are potentially hundreds of people, possibly even thousands, who are ultimately part of this process of the Pentagon working with Hollywood.
So it wouldn’t be that surprising if 45 Air Force officials spent thousands of dollars on a four-day day joyride to ‘generate ideas’ for what they wanted to show to Hollywood writers. Certainly, this is how I interpret the documents because there’s no list of participants for this Idea Generation Tour in June, whereas there is for the full CLT in July.
The Global Entertainment Environment
Page 11 is where the July Tour records start, bluntly stating that the purpose of the tour was ‘To project and protect the image of the United States Air Force within the global entertainment environment.’ This is the same phrase they used for the 2016 tour, but these documents have the new liaison office logo where an Air Force jet appears to be bombing Hollywood. Also, the phrase ‘project and protect’ gets to the heart of what the DOD is all about – America being able to project its power all round the world, and pick and choose who and what to protect in line with overall national ambitions. The fact they’re applying this same language, and likely this same thinking, to the entertainment industry, is quite a worrying sign.
They go on to summarise the tour, ‘Three day, two night trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado to showcase the vital role Space Command plays in our nation’s defense. Attendees will visit Cheyenne Mountain, Schriever AFB, Peterson AFB, Fort Carson, and the beautiful Air Force Academy campus. The trip aims to inspire realistic storytelling of Air Force people, missions, and assets in the entertainment industry.’
The 2016 tour went to Alaska, but for some reasons for 2017 they decided to foreground the US Space Command in Colorado Springs. This conveniently pre-empted Donald Trump’s recent obsession with militarising space and creating a ‘Space Force’. I don’t recall Trump saying anything about this before the election, but the Air Force were considering Space Command as a location for the 2017 tour in late 2016, just as Trump was getting elected. Since then, spending on Space Defense has increased by nearly 20%, so I wonder whether this idea came from the White House to the Air Force, or from the Air Force to the White House. Given that the idea – to squeeze more money for the Air Force by highlighting the supposed need to weaponise space – was already circulating in the Air Force before the election, I’m guessing it is the latter.
Two other quick points on this – does this mean there’ll be a future CLT to the US Galactic Command on Jupiter, and if so how do I book an early ticket? And will Elon Musk be sub-contracted in some way because if so, I don’t want a ticket. The other point is that this is neo-con doctrine, though few people seem to be recognising it as such. The 2000 paper Rebuilding America’s Defenses talks about weaponising space and reviving some version of Reagan’s Star Wars program. So underneath this seemingly trivial tour of Air Force facilities is an attempt – conscious or unconscious – to indoctrinate Hollywood figures with neo-conservative ideology.
So who went on the CLT? From the entertainment liaison office we had the director, Maj. Hamilton Underwood. With a name like that he should really be starring in films rather than rewriting them for political purposes. It then lists a few others from SAF/PAYL – the acronym for the liaison office. We have Lt Travis Schirner and Ms. Leslie Finstein, both project officers, and MSgt Valda Wilson, a Superintendent, along with SSgt Corban Lundborg, a Photographer.
Then there’s a three page spreadsheet listing the three dozen Hollywood bigshots who went along. Some of these people you will have heard of but most of them you won’t because it’s primarily studio executives, producers and writers – the people who have the most influence over early scripts and screenplays, not big-name directors and stars who come in later and take all the credit. The spreadsheet includes a column for ‘notable projects’ both past and future citing everything from Blackish to The Tudors to Jack Ryan, Hell’s Kitchen, Men In Black, NCIS, Pulp Fiction, even Team America: World Police.
So this is a broad range of writers and producers, not just the people behind Transformers and Call of Duty. Indeed, Marvel films are mentioned numerous times, especially the forthcoming Captain Marvel (due out in 2019). The hero in that is a female US Air Force pilot who gets accidentally gene-spliced with an alien and gains superpowers. I’m guessing the Air Force are trying to get in on that production, hence inviting several people involved in the film on this tour. If so, I think it would be the first Pentagon-supported Marvel film since 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
We should also mention Rick Loverd, the program director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, who was instrumental in generating interest for the 2016 CLT, so much so that the liaison office reports said this. Several others on the 2017 CLT such as Jon Spaihts who worked on Doctor Strange and Prometheus, have appeared at SEEX events. It seems that relationship which I first outlined in detail in the episode on the Science and Entertainment Exchange is continuing to bear fruit.
Pages 14 to 16 are the itinerary for the tour, running from July 16th to July 19th. They started out in Riverside, California, at the optional dinner at a restaurant and an overnight stay at the Mission Hotel and Spa. The following morning they had to be at the March Air Reserve Base at 0530, so a C-17 Globemaster could fly them to Peterson AFB. Snacks and drinks were provided in-flight. Amusingly, all you had to do to get on board the March base was to tell the gate security staff you were with the entertainment industry leader tour.
From Peterson they went on to Schriever AFB, begging the question of why they even stopped at Peterson. At Schriever they had lunch with the 50th Air Wing and saw a presentation on their mission. After lunch they got a tour of the 2nd and 4th Space Squadrons, responsible for GPS Control and Military Satellite Communications. This gives you a sense of those sequences in films where something’s gone wrong with some technology so someone’s got to frantically type keys on a computer and somehow fix it. I’m not sure you need to see inside a military base to write these scenes, but hey ho, I’m sure it was all innocent.
In the afternoon they went to Fort Carson for Joint Terminal Air Control (JTAC) familiarization. Whatever that means. Then they checked into Hotel Elegante, had dinner at the Ivywild School, maybe some watersports-based entertainment before back to the hotel. Time elapsed: 14 hours.
The following day they arrived at headquarters for the US Space Command at 0800. Following a ‘mission overview brief’ they then went to the 302nd Airlift Wing, and had another ‘familiarization’ this time on C-130s being used to fight fires. Do you notice how little of this has to do with the military’s main activity? It’s all communications tech and benevolent activities like firefighting. I’m sure they’d defend this by saying they were trying to highlight the wide range of things that DOD employees do on a daily basis. But the point remains, they didn’t take them to see drone pilots with 600 confirmed kills who are on the verge of suicide.
They had lunch at 1100, which is approximately when I have brunch so I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed this experience. This was with the 21st Space Wing, who presumably regaled them with stories about UFOs. Then they went to Cheyenne Mountain, one of the Air Force’s most important installations. Until 2006 it was the command centre for NORAD, who are responsible for air defence over the US. It’s also a popular film setting, most famously in War Games, where they somehow reconstructed a very realistic version of the command centre despite it not being open to the public. It is now, or at least parts of it are now, so the film-makers got the usual tourist walk-through. Though the itinerary does say, ‘No phones, cameras, or electronic devices (fitbitz, smart watches) allowed, leave on bus.’ After that it was back to the Hotel Elegante for ‘dinner on your own’. Which strikes me as a rude way to put it – why not ‘make your own dinner plans’?
At 0600 the next morning they were up again and on their way to the US Air Force Academy. After several hours of Expeditionary, Survival and Evasion training with cadets they got a Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) lunch in the field at 1130. From what almost everyone tells me, MRE food is pretty terrible. But rather than take these softy movie producers for a proper lunch, they showed them what Pentagon employees have to eat when they’re in the field. I’m guessing this is something they’d like to see highlighted in a film, to maybe create a bit of pressure to provide better food to the troops. And if so, that’s one thing I don’t have any problem with at all.
After lunch they got a tour of the cadet chapel before it was back to Peterson AFB for the flight home to March AFB. Arrival time 1615, the itinerary comments ‘mission complete’. The notes at the bottom of this document are worth reading, including the encouragement to tweet or instagram pictures from the tour, and especially the line, ‘Please leave politics at home. Your US Air Force is non—partisan, even in this political climate. Please don’t put Air Force members in awkward situations by bringing up the topic.’
You will remember from the 2016 tour, that took place just before the election, that the participants were told the same thing – to leave politics out of it. There are several ways to interpret this. The first is that they’re being professional and honest, that the Air Force is non-partisan and that they didn’t want to put their staff in an awkward position. Another is that most people in the military are Republicans, for obvious reasons, whereas most movie producers are Democrats. They reference the very polarised political climate, and perhaps were worried about arguments between their staff and the tour participants, which would ruin the whole aim of inducting and charming the participants into doing what the Pentagon wants. There’s also the idea that the Pentagon likes people thinking that politics is a party and partisan affair, and that their existence and activities are apolitical. After all, national security is in everyone’s interests, right?
Why the CLTs matter
Pages to 18 to 22 are another spreadsheet, almost entirely redacted, of people who were prospective participants who did not take part in the CLT. This is about five times as many people as actually went on the tour and the spreadsheet includes their names, job titles, previous work and in some cases, notes. As I say, almost all of this information is redacted, including all of the notes, but this does indicate a fairly sophisticated approach to selecting who they wanted on the tour.
Indeed, there’s no sign of any advertising being done – it seems they drew up the list based on things like who had arranged to go on the 2016 tour and then cancelled, who was in a position to influence which films get made and which scripts get developed and how, an who seemed like a good person to have on board with the military’s projects in Hollywood. They then approached them, or got Rick Loverd to approach them, offering them a place.
While it may be that technically the tour is open to anyone who wants to go, by keeping it quiet (there is no mention of the industry leader tour on the Air Force’s websites, for example) and only approaching those they wanted to include, they had effective control over who went. This is crucial, because all of the Pentagon’s efforts in tinseltown are a form of cultural subsidy – they have the effect of elevating certain films and brands and franchises, while deprecating others.
Bear in mind, this is all going on before a script has even been written. Many of these writers and producers will be working with the Pentagon on a film or TV show several years from now, and will have to go through the script review process then. I think these CLTs are another way for the Pentagon to get upstream and have an influence before the first draft is even written. Their own documents state this is an aim for them, despite being utterly contrary to the military doctrine governing their activities. I believe that these tours have little to do with ensuring realistic stories get told but are a means for the Pentagon to make friends and influence people in key positions in the Hollywood machine.
Page 23 is a receipt from CoinsforAnything.com for $848, for a set of coins commemorating the tour. It seems these were handed out to participants as a memento, because this is what they did the previous year. Then there are some more detailed itineraries that seem to be for the people running the tour rather than for the participants. There’s also another copy of the list of participants.
Page 31 is a strange document because it’s from the Air Force Academy and it’s titled: ‘Distinguished Visitor Itinerary, AF Entertainment Office, Entertainment Industry Leaders, June 21, 2017’. So was the trip in June an idea generation tour or an entertainment industry leader tour? Whoever went on the June trip apparently went to the academy, saw the Barry Goldwater visitor centre and toured around seeing the chapel and getting briefings.
Pages 32 and 33 clear this up, perhaps. It’s an authorisation for the Hollywood writers and producers to travel on US Air Force planes and visit Air Force facilities. There is no equivalent authorisation for the June trip, which wouldn’t have been necessary if all 45 participants were already members of the Air Force. So, on balance, I think all 45 people on the June trip were Air Force staff, and this was preparation for the July trip with the Hollywood types.
The rest of the documents are maps and receipts which are of little interest. But the final page is a request from Travis Schirner for 7 Hollywood walk of fame plaques. These were for the Air Force Space Command, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, 302nd Airlift Wing, 13th Air Support Operations Squadron, 21st Space Wing, and the 50th Space Wing. I think these are plaques that were sent to these various facilities and units to thank them for being involved with the CLT. The inscription on each reads, ‘With sincere gratitude for your outstanding support to the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office’s Industry Leader Tour 2017. Your efforts have positively highlighted our missions and the Airmen who sustain and further our air, space and cyberspace advantages.’
That’s right, at the time of the 2017 tour US Space Command had responsibility for leading Cyberspace operations. So the same place that was hosting these dozens of high-level Hollywood producers and executives is also responsible for the Pentagon’s documented propaganda operations on the internet? That responsibility has since been removed from Space Command and moved to the Air Combat Command in Langley, Virginia.
As always I will let you make of all this what you will. Some would argue that these tours are relatively innocent and are about providing Hollywood creatives with inspiration and accurate information. Some would say they are key networking opportunities for the Air Force to effectively recruit these creatives as government assets and induct them into the military realm. I’d say they are both, and the result will be the enhancing of the Pentagon’s propaganda operations in the entertainment industry.