The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) was established in the late 1970s and contains their entertainment liaison office. This week I go through an 8-page summary of the CIA’s Entertainment Liaison and Media Outreach activities covering 2014-16. This includes their relationships with journalists, their involvement in entertainment such as the Benghazi movie 13 Hours, and their relationship with deep state lawyer and Hollywood consultant Rich Klein.
In 2015 I noticed that one of the CIA’s Inspector General reports on their activities in the entertainment industry said that they had set up a new system for logging these interactions. I asked for a list of all entertainment productions, both those supported and those denied support, since the new system was implemented. Efficiently, in September this year – nearly 3 years after I filed the request – they responded with a document covering April 2014 to June 2016, some eight pages not at all dissimilar to the Pentagon entertainment liaison office reports.
This is the first time I’ve got something substantive out of the CIA from the post-Chase Brandon era. They are extremely tight-lipped about this stuff, so even though this isn’t what I asked for it is useful and very much new information.
First up, a few general observations. The document is titled Entertainment Liaison and Media Outreach, List of Major Meetings, Substantive Interactions & Shoots. It covers a little over two years, which is dozens of meetings with various media figures – mostly journalists but plenty of entertainment industry figures too, and several major projects. As far as I can tell, pretty much none of this has been reported before.
We’ll start with the very first entry, which is about the Travel Channel’s series America Declassified. OPA liaison officer Chris White and the director of the CIA’s in-house museum Toni Hiley met in April 2014 with the series producer, an executive from the Travel Channel and former CIA officer Mike Baker. Baker has worked on various entertainment products including Spooks and Spy here in the UK, along with several US productions. There was a tour of the museum and the visit lasted 2 hours, but unlike most entries this paragraph doesn’t mention whether classified material was discussed.
To go on a quick tangent – this is a hangover from the production of Zero Dark Thirty, when writer Mark Boal was invited to a high-level awards ceremony at Langley and was probably given access to classified material. This is why almost every entry in this document says ‘no classified information was discussed’.
The Travel Channel agreed to shoot some of the artefacts at the CIA museum and parts of the OSS museum for their episode, and there was a conference call where they discussed with CIA officials what to include. Another CIA public affairs official Carolyn Reams was involved at this stage. It seems there were several entertainment liaison officers within the OPA at this time. The shoot took place on June 28th, including an interview with the museum’s director. CIA officers were on hand to supervise everything.
I’m not sure if this episode ever broadcast but in February 2015 Mike Baker was back again, this time with Eli Frankel, an executive at Lionsgate. They were developing a series idea based around the CIA museum, drawing storylines from different artefacts. Again, they were given a tour by the director of the museum and Chris White was present from the OPA.
Likewise, the Smithsonian Museum sent a crew into Langley to photograph various items from the CIA museum, which took place in the ‘DCIA studio’. It seems the CIA director has their own media studio now. The report notes that one item – the Kryptos statue – was filmed outside, and that all pictures were checked by security before leaving CIA headquarters.
This is all very interesting to me because the CIA’s museum is something they’ve recently started pushing, likely based on the success of the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. That facility has proven so popular that they’re moving to a brand new building, custom-made. When you look at who is on their advisory board it includes former CIA directors such as James Woolsey and William Webster and former CIA officers who have worked in the entertainment industry such as Melissa Mahle and Carol Rollie Flynn, who I have pegged as the basis for Carrie in Homeland. It also includes former MI5 chief Stella Rimington and official British intelligence historian Christopher Andrew. It seems this museum is an international PR effort on the part of intelligence agencies.
FBI documents on the museum even include an exchange where two FBI agents ask ‘I wonder if any OPCA types would know if we have cooperated in any way?’ I assume this is a typo and they’re referring to the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, because the email exchange goes on to mention Mike Kortan, then head of the FBI’s Public Affairs Section. So even they thought this was some kind of intelligence PR operation.
To Kill an Operation Mockingbird
The document contains dozens of entries on the CIA’s contact with journalists. Naturally, this is a long-standing CIA practice but it’s instructive to see what they’ve been up to in recent years. For example, they met with former CNN anchor Suzanne Kelly in early 2014 to talk about her new media startup focusing on foreign policy. Later that year Kelly was developing a novel about female officers at the CIA. She interviewed the Counter Terrorism Center’s analyst Gina Bennett, who ‘spoke about her personal experience as a mom and an analyst at CIA, life at the Agency right after the 9/11 attacks and her camaraderie with fellow female analysts’.
The entry mentions how the CIA analyst used material from her book National Security Mom, which was approved by the Agency’s publications review board. OPA’s Chris White was also at the interview. Kelly was back a few months later to interview Sue Gordon, the director of the CIA’s Information Operations Center, who spoke about X, Y and Z. I’m not kidding, that’s what the document says – it appears they either didn’t know what Sue Gordon spoke about or they couldn’t write it in this document.
Also in early 2014 they gave a briefing to the Center for Public Integrity reporter Doug Birch and their editor R Jeffrey Smith. They talked about the ‘security of civilian stockpiles of plutonium and enriched uranium’ with the Deputy Director of WINPAC (the Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation & Arms Control Center). The CIA officials emphasised the ‘threat from employees and other insiders’ before fielding questions. The same day OPA officers met with CNN’s Evan Perez and Pamela Brown, with the document noting they were new to the network and only occasionally cover intelligence matters. They took them through the usual OPA processes for liaising with the media.
Perhaps the most interesting in these early entries is a ‘filming event’ where Jorge Ramos from the Fusion Network interviewed then CIA director John Brennan and others on ‘diversity and a host of other issues. Three young officers were also interviewed to give the millenial perspective’. Several officers from the OPA along with assistance from other OPA branches, the Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion, and the Recruitment Center all worked together to facilitate this.
The CIA have made a big effort to appear more inclusive and diverse in recent years, including inviting DC comic creator Brian Bendis to Langley to give a talk on diversity. While there’s no mention of the film Black Panther in this document, the CIA did recently publish an article on their blog about the technology of Wakanda and how it’s similar to the CIA’s own advanced tech. It is clear that at the very least there was some kind of mutual branding exercise with Black Panther. Likewise, there are other entries focusing on promoting the CIA as a pro-diversity organisation, which is mostly just a bunch of cynical virtue signalling.
Another briefing was given for Reuters reporter Phil Stewart on Boko Harem, focusing on their funding. The briefing was given by OPA spokeswoman Kali Caldwell, who went on to become one of the CIA’s entertainment liaison officers. She has since left the Agency. Similarly, an off-the-record briefing was given to a group of national security journalists on Russia, ‘to give context to the crisis in Ukraine. Briefers emphasised the legacy of the Cold War and the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union on the Russian mindset’.
OPA officers also facilitated a briefing by CIA analysts on the rise of ISIL, in August 2014 just as ISIS were gaining a lot of attention via videos of apparent beheadings. 18 reporters were there including David Ignatius, Eli Lake and Mike Isikoff, and were fed a bunch of ‘PRB-cleared points’ on the impact of ISIS on the global jihad. Further briefings were given to Massimo Calibrese of Time magazine on ‘recent Russian provocations worldwide’ (this was in early 2015) as well as backgrounders on Libya and Boko Harem later that year.
So we can see that outside of the usual issue of journalists phoning up the CIA to get comment for their stories, the Agency is pro-actively providing select journalists with briefings and backgrounders to try to shape their coverage of major world events. This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the CIA’s historical relationship with journalists, but once again none of this has been reported before. It begs the question of how independent these journalists really are, if they’re depending on information provided by the CIA that they cannot verify through their own sources.
In particular the ever-growing narrative about Russia being a rogue state that is carrying out numerous provocations worldwide – which isn’t entirely untrue, of course – is something they were encouraging throughout the period covered by this document. The notion that there is such a thing as the ‘Russian mindset’ and that Russian foreign policy is driven by a tortured mindset following the collapse of the Soviet Union is absurd and inaccurate. But that didn’t stop the CIA encouraging journalists to think like this.
The CIA and the Entertainment Industry
Naturally, the stuff that most interests me is the entertainment liaison activities, of which there are quite a few. For example, the actor Tommy Savas, star of the series State of Affairs, visited Langley in June 2014. He was given a tour of the CIA and OSS museums, and was accompanied by ‘Crumpton Group executive Rodney Faraon, who is co-producing the show’. They also visited the EAA store, a shop run by the CIA’s Employee Activity Association, which is apparently stocked with CIA-themed swag. Incidentally, Henry Crumpton and Rodney Faraon are two former CIA officers who now work in the entertainment industry, and both signed the statement criticising Trump for revoking John Brennan’s security clearance.
Also in June 2014, writer/director George Nolfi met with the OPA’s Chris White and someone from the CIA’s Office of Security. Nolfi had written the pilot episode of NBC’s spy drama Allegiance, and wanted to film at Langley. The show, which I imagine none of you have seen, is about a CIA analyst ‘who discovers his parents are part of an SVR cell in the US’. So, basically the same as The Americans, The Assets and a bunch of other CIA or ex-CIA spy series in recent years.
The following month Nolfi had lunch with White, and screened the pilot episode for him. The request to film at Langley had been provisionally approved a couple of days earlier. In August one of the stars of Allegiance had a conference call with the OPA to talk about what it’s like to be a CIA analyst. He asked about ‘training, weekly routine and whether officers can tell others what they do’. In September there was a walkthrough for the film shoot, with Nolfi and a small crew. The filming actually took place in November. In February 2015 the first three episodes of the new series were screened at Langley by Nolfi, who then participated in a Q and A session.
The series is, much like Homeland, based on an Israeli spy drama. Unlike Homeland, it got weak reviews and low ratings and though 13 episodes were produced only five were broadcast before it was cancelled. As I explored in the episode on filming at Langley, it seems the CIA stopped allowing people to shoot at their headquarters sometime in 2014, because it was degrading their brand by being so closely associated with dross like Game of Pawns and Dying of the Light. Neither of those films are mentioned in this document but the failure of Allegiance fits into this same analysis. It is only recently – with the new Jack Ryan series – that I’ve seen a piece of entertainment that was allowed to film at CIA headquarters. I will be reviewing that series in a forthcoming episode.
As to Allegiance – it is pretty bad. The opening dialogue is a menacing Russian announcing that the KGB might have been renamed the SVR, but the rules of the organisation are still the same. His henchmen then murder an apparent traitor in truly horrible fashion. We then see our protagonist driving to work at Langley, in much the same way as Ben Affleck in Argo or Harrison Ford in Patriot Games. His supervisor is a blonde woman who looks a lot like Carol Rollie Flynn. Basically, Allegiance is a mish-mash of every other recent CIA-themed TV series, without any of the originality or intelligence.
One aspect that is prevalent in the script is how well the CIA and FBI co-operate – they work together on a joint operation to try to stop the SVR, who are planning to take down the US economy. The traitor who is murdered in the opening scene stole high-level SVR documents on the plan, which are hidden on a laptop in a safe inside Philadelphia city hall. The CIA launch an operation to break into the building and retrieve the laptop, but the FBI have to be in charge because it’s illegal for the CIA to carry out operations on US soil.
Most of this sequence was filmed at Langley, which is probably why the dialogue is so heavy-handed in making sure we know that the CIA act within the law. While there’s no mention of a script review taking place, the dialogue is so on-the-nose that it reeks of CIA input. Or at least being written by someone who has been told what to write.
There are some other more minor liaisons with the entertainment industry, such as when writer/producer Ed Bernero met with CIA officers to ‘discuss the role of psychologists at CIA’. Along with Rodney Faraon, he was developing a CIA-themed TV show about a fictional CIA psychologist. The OPA also arranged an interview with John Brennan for the documentary Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs. Interestingly, one of the filmmakers was Jules Naudet, one of the pair of brothers who made the infamous 9/11 documentary.
One of the most interesting engagements was with the developers for a computer game in the Ghost Recon series, who asked the CIA to fact check elements of the game. The document notes how, ‘The series is set in South America with Bolivia as a Nazo-state with CIA paramilitary along with military and local security elements battling narco-insurgents. As the lead character of the game is a CIA targeting analyst, we urged developers steer clear of popular portrayals of female officers’.
The CIA and 13 Hours (and Rich Klein)
The biggest project that the CIA worked on during this period was 13 Hours, the Michael Bay-directed movie about the Benghazi affair. Bay first approached the CIA in March 2015, with the document commenting ‘OPA decided to engage with Bay for the sole purpose of keeping sensitive and unapproved material from the book out of the film’. The film was based on a book of the same name written by a professor of journalism, with help from some of the people who were actually there.
There is quite a detailed timeline of the CIA’s involvement in the film, beginning with a conference call with officers from the OPA and from the Office of General Counsel, the CIA’s lawyers. A couple of days later Chris White sent an email to Bay’s assistant to set up a follow-up call to ask Bay whether he was willing to keep the ‘sensitive and unapproved material’ out of the film. They exchanged more emails and calls and set up a meeting at CIA for late March. White asked that Bay bring a copy of the script so it could be reviewed by the OPA, and Bay agreed.
The CIA’s lawyers, the OPA and the Office of Security met for a ‘prep session in advance of the meeting’. At the meeting they ‘flagged a number of issues for Bay, most of which he agreed to change’. They also ‘discussed our perspective of that night’ i.e. the night of the Benghazi attack on September 11th 2012. In April Bay requested permission to film the wall of stars in the CIA headquarters lobby, and sent along the last page of his script. The document notes that it contained ‘numerous inaccuracies, including a claim that the Benghazi contractors were not awarded for their service and that they ‘retired’ from the Agency’. As a result, permission to film was denied and Bay humbly promised to take all the suggested changes on board.
The document also mentions two meetings with Rich Klein, the former State Department official who is now a lawyer for McLarty Associates, who used to be one half of Kissinger’s law firm. Klein runs McLarty Media, a consulting arm of the firm that works with Hollywood to help them deal with governments, both domestically and abroad. He also has a bunch of former FBI and CIA employees on his roster, to consult on scripts and so on.
I have suspected for a long time that Rich Klein has a working relationship with the CIA, and was in some ways working for them in the entertainment industry. This is basically confirmed in the document, which calls him ‘a longtime contact of OPA’ and mentions how he ‘discussed a number of projects he’s working on, including the Fast and Furious franchise’ when they met for lunch.
They also met during pre-production on 13 Hours, which is described as a ‘routine meeting’ but likely wasn’t. Klein told Chris White of the OPA that he had been hired by Paramount to advise on the script, and that his job was to ‘try to keep the script as accurate as possible, hewing as close as possible to the HPSCI Benghazi report’. In return White told Klein that ‘CIA representatives had met with Bay to ask him to keep uncleared information from the book out of the movie’.
So it seems that the CIA met with Klein to try the side door to getting what they wanted. By all accounts they found Bay pretty frustrating to work with (understandably), and apparently saw Klein as another means of influencing the script. This didn’t really work, because when the film came out in 2016 a CIA spokesperson slated the film as woefully inaccurate. The author of the book – Mitchell Zuckoff – along with some of the contractors hit back, saying that there was a stand down order that delayed their response.
We could see this as an attempt by the CIA to rewrite history, but crucially one that failed. Michael Bay probably didn’t care, and just included the stand down order because it’s more dramatic, it works better for the story that way. The film wasn’t very successful, it’s certainly no Black Hawk Down which I’m sure is what Bay hoped it would be, but it shows that the CIA doesn’t always get what they want.
What is missing from this document?
I do not believe this document is a complete summary of the OPA’s activities during this period, because a few things are obviously missing. There is no mention of Game of Pawns, the FBI-funded short film about the Glenn Shriver spy case. They filmed at Langley and the film was produced during the period covered by this document, but for some reason there’s no mention of it.
There are also no references to Homeland, which is bizarre given how the producers and some of the actors have referenced the CIA’s help in developing the storylines and ideas for the show. Indeed, when I asked the CIA for any records they have of these widely-reported meetings at a spy club in Georgetown before each season, they denied having any documents. It seems that the CIA are not recording what they’re doing on Homeland, I can only assume this is deliberate.
There is also no mention of Mission: Impossible 5, when we know from the DVD commentary that they approached the CIA for permission to film at Langley and were told you’re not allowed to do that any more. Again, this is a bizarre omission even if the request was ultimately rejected, just like Michael Bay’s request was rejected.
As such, the OPA’s rather lax attitude towards keeping records of their activities seems to have continued even after the Inspector General’s reports criticised them for exactly that. Despite all the revelations in these 8 pages, there is clearly more going on. One final example: In July 2014 OPA officers had meetings with Government Affairs executives from Fox, Viacom, NBC Universal and Time Warner. The purpose was to brief them on how the CIA works with the entertainment industry, specifically ‘OPA cannot solicit engagement from Hollywood’ and merely ‘answer requests on an as-needed basis’.
However, the final page of the document lists a number of activities in 2015 and 2016, including ‘meeting and greet with industry contacts in LA’ including people from Paramount and from CAA – one of the biggest talent agencies in the world. There are also a number of other meetings with studio executives, though none of these are described in detail. Does this really qualify as ‘answering requests on an as-needed basis’ or are the CIA, like the Pentagon, doing outreach in Hollywood in order to win friends and influence people?
I’m sure you know what I think.