The CIA helps to make movies, but what does it think of them? In this episode we delve into how the Agency responds to the films and TV shows it makes about itself. Focusing in on a video featuring a former CIA officer reviewing Homeland, My Spy, Argo and other CIA-supported productions, we explore whether this is another layer of propaganda.
Let’s start with a question: Why does a secretive government agency care so much about spy movies? I know that might seem like a dumb question coming from someone who has spent over a decade learning about this, but it still strikes me as odd. They have so much power, access to so much money, they more or less do as they please. Normally, people who operate like that don’t give a flying monkey for what others think of them.
And yet, the CIA seem driven by insecurity, they really care how they are perceived. The same neurotic obsessions come up repeatedly in their PR – that people think they’re murderers, incompetents, weirdos. As always, if people think of you like that then perhaps look at the reasons why, rather than deflecting by making Hollywood make movies and producing terrible podcasts.
As I’ve detailed on my site, the relationship between the CIA and the movie machine is, like all relationships conforming to sacred geometry, triangular and made of three elements. They help make movies, for PR and psychological warfare purposes. They spy on Hollywood. They use films as training tools.
A quick example of each. One of the Chase Brandon films that I’ve never discussed in detail is Bad Company, which is about an older man who recruits a younger man into the CIA because his twin brother is killed so they need the surviving twin to pose as his brother for some imminent, vital covert operation. It is a by the books ‘inducting the audience into the CIA through the use of a neophyte protagonist who is himself (or herself) being inducted into the CIA’ narrative. It’s also quite a poorly written comedy that lacks chemistry between the two male leads. They were hoping for a repeat of the old white guy and younger black guy setup from Enemy of the State, casting Anthony Hopkins as Gene Hackman and Chris Rock as Will Smith.
So this is about recruiting young black men, showing off how exciting the world of the CIA is while also telling you that you are good enough to be part of it, the gradual normalising of covert operations, and some meme-age in the form of suitcase nukes, Russian mafia, terrorists. Also the last movie to film inside the World Trade Center. A coincidence about which we will say nothing.
When it comes to using Hollywood movies as training films, the Agency has been at it since the 1950s, an early example being the movie Walk East on Beacon, which was based on an article written by J Edgar Hoover and was supported by the FBI.
They started spying on Hollywood scripts depicting the CIA sometime in the early 1960s, likely in response to the increased attention they got after the Bay of Pigs. Also, film-makers were starting to push back against the Agency and Production Code Administration’s efforts to keep the CIA’s name out of Hollywood during the early Cold War.
One story that draws both of these elements together is the never-produced Universal movie The CIA, from 1969. It was written by William Woodfield and Allan Balter, and the Agency got a hold of a copy of the script so they could review it for how it depicted the CIA, and also whether it could be used as a training film for Agency recruits.
As I say, the film was never made and I haven’t been able to ascertain why – whether the Agency leaned on Universal to ditch the project or whether it died for other reasons. It does seem that Universal approached the CIA about possibly filming at Langley, but obviously that never happened. Films had barely mentioned the CIA up until this point – there are less than half a dozen movies where they are named in the dialogue prior to 1969. To put them in the title, like with the TV show The F.B.I. suggests that the studio were hoping for a similar kind of production. Which, in turn, suggests that the CIA shitting on the script is what killed the movie.
But who were Woodfield and Balter, and how did they get the job of writing such an important movie? They were writers on the TV series Mission: Impossible, a franchise the CIA are big fans of. Woodfield was a magician who also wrote newsletters about stage magic. He then became a photographer, famously photographing a naked Marilyn Monroe on the set of her last film, Something’s Got to Give. Her last film before she was murdered by the Kennedys after being spied on by the CIA due to her diary of secrets she’d picked up through her affairs with the Kennedys?
Woodfield was initially hired by the Mission: Impossible producer Bruce Geller as a magic consultant, before he and Balter wrote an episode together that impressed Geller enough to hire them as full-time writers. Throughout the late 60s they worked on the TV show and the spin-off film Mission: Impossible vs the Mob. Then, they got hired by Universal to write The CIA.
However, the Agency were not happy with the script, with a memo recording:
Apart from scenes which require presence on, and photographing of the agency installation (note also the eagle on the cover) which concern the agency’s physical security, there appears to be only one other aspect which might be construed as affecting the agency’s reputation. Two of four possible agency suspects are portrayed as “junkies” and one of them turns out to be a KGB agent as well, even though he is not the principal, i.e. “Kim” PHILBY.
The CIA reviewer concluded that it had no potential training value, and continued:
Although the play is claimed to be based on the career of Harold “Kim” PHILBY, too many works have already appeared on the market which completely negate any possibility that this version could be accepted even as an edited documentary by any well-read group of people, much less by a group of would-be junior intelligence officers… …Investigative techniques and tradecraft portrayed in this work rely heavily on fairly far-fetched gimmicks and would only encourage snickers and derision.
Briefly put, this screenplay would produce a low-budget “James Bond” type of movie. It would probably be light and amusing. There is no politico-ideological-motivational content whatsoever which might unduly tax a mind wishing for a few moments of escape. It might be favourably compared with a “Western” which has no heavy-handed “Hollywood social message”.
I’m sure you’re getting the picture – CIA reviewer doesn’t like CIA movie, and CIA movie never gets made. The other great example where all of this comes together is in The Recruit, a film made with very close cooperation from the CIA, which is about CIA recruit training, and which appears in a CIA collection of reviews of spy movies. This is from 2009, and comes from their Center for Studies in Intelligence. Most of the Center’s publications are classified, but they made this one available, likely because it was seen as harmless and potentially positive PR – look, we watch spy movies too.
They asked CIA officers for their opinions on various films – The Hunt for Red October, The Bourne Identity, The Siege, The Kite Runner, Burn Notice, Body of Lies, The Recruit, and a few others. Several of these were supported by the CIA and/or other government agencies, of course.
One of the reviews of The Recruit mentions:
The funny thing is that everyone in the Agency believes the movie is ridiculous but, despite that sentiment, all of the covert service trainees watched the film on the bus going into training and then again back to Washington after graduation.
During every step of our training, many of my fellow trainees would watch this film for “comic relief” from the intense pressures we were experiencing. We would all share a laugh about how melodramatic the movie seemed compared to reality. We scoffed at many inaccuracies regarding the portrayal of our training, for example, when the main characters are discussing whether they would be able to field-strip an assault rifle, blindfolded, during a night jump (that unfortunately was not part of our training). Another favorite laughable inaccuracy was when the NOC (whom they referred to as the NOC, then they would spell out “N-O-C” so the audience would presumably understand they were referring to nonofficial cover) was assigned as an overt employee at CIA headquarters. Very covert for a nonofficial employee!
So, while perhaps not an official training film, The Recruit was clearly a reference point for people joining the CIA in the 2000s, and was made available to them on the bus to Camp Peary and back. It also functions like James Bond does for MI5 and MI6 – something they can mock in public for not being realistic, while also using to promote themselves and the horrible things they do.
Enter Michele Rigby Assad
Over the last 15 years or so we’ve seen a flood of former CIA operatives entering public life, as lecturers, politicians, thinktank talking heads, playwrights, even actors, if you think of Ashton Kutcher. OK, he’s not really an actor, but you see what I mean. Then we get the authors, because one thing it seems you can guarantee once you’ve left the Agency is a cushy book deal.
One such author is Michele Rigby Assad, who wrote the book Breaking Cover about her time on the front lines of covert missions for the CIA during the War on Terror. As you can imagine, it is entirely self-serving and not very interesting, mostly about her apparent journey of self-discovery that led her to write the book. A kind of meta-story about why someone writes a book isn’t a good subject for that book.
But it seems to have served her well, because now she’s ‘an international security consultant, public speaker, and trainer focused on counterterrorism, personal security, and refugees.’ Her website is an exercise in vainglorious newspeak, declaring how during her time at the CIA she learned how to ‘get off the X’ and actually make decisions, and she can teach you the importance of ‘getting off the X’.
Further down we learn that:
MICHELE IS A GLOBAL THOUGHT LEADER whose extensive knowledge and unique stories translate into every industry. Michele’s presentations are customized for conference objectives, event themes and audience composition.
I can only say that describing yourself as a global thought leader, in all caps and colour-highlighted, on your own website, without anyone else saying that about you, reeks of insecurity and desperation. I, for one, would not hire someone so insecure to be my security consultant.
Under the Training section of her site we encounter a full screen graphic saying ‘Michele Rigby Assad, Michele Rigby Assad, Michele Rigby Assad’ in tricolour outline. Just in case the name of the site being Michele Rigby Assad dot com might have confused you into thinking this was a website about someone other than Michele Rigby Assad, this graphic serves as a useful reminder that no, in fact, this website is about none other than Michele Rigby Assad.
I’m not making this up, the website is almost perversely exhibitionist.
So, we can hire Michele Rigby Assad to give us the ‘Get Off the X’ seminar, subtitled ‘CIA Tradecraft to Conquer What’s Holding You Back’. That’s missing an imperative verb, surely it should be ‘Learn CIA Tradecraft to Conquer What’s Holding You Back’. Scroll down and we learn that the contents of this seminar have been reviewed by the CIA Publication Review Board, which is nice to know. And it costs $10,000, based on a group of 10-12 students.
Other courses include How To Spot Liars, taught to you by an experienced liar. Which makes it easy to spot them, I guess. There’s also a bunch of twaddle about being a woman, and how she’s an expert in being a woman, especially in organisations where there are people who aren’t women. I would have thought most, if not all, women could claim to be experts in being women but apparently not unless you have a website where you say you’re a global thought leader.
If you’re thinking that this ex-CIA officer is clearly full of shit and cashing in on everything from her gender to her not-especially-extensive experience at the Agency, that’s because she is. Having no shame isn’t actually a substitute for feeling a deep, abiding shame that you cannot even talk about, but evidently it can help launch your career.
So, why bring her up? Partly because her behaviour typifies the CIA’s approach to its own public image – desperately trying to look cool and diverse and not at all like creepy murderers who are spying on your dick pics. Also, because she appeared in a video that inspired this podcast.
Michele (Rigby Assad) Reviews CIA Movies
The video is on the Insider youtube channel, titled ‘Ex-CIA Agent Rates 11 CIA Spy Scenes In Movies And TV | How Real Is It?’. Clearly the ex-CIA agent didn’t tell Insider that they don’t call themselves ‘agents’, or point out that 11 scenes is plural so the title should read ‘How Real Are They?’. Maybe they need to Get Off the X. Or Get Back On the X. Who knows?
This channel does a lot of these sorts of videos – they get some Army veteran to talk about combat scenes in movies, forensic scientists to talk about autopsy scenes, Secret Service agent talks about bodyguard films, and so on. They all follow the same pattern – supposed expert shits on movie scene and says that’s not how things really go down. And they all come off a little bit resentful, as though people shouldn’t be watching movies, they should be listening to the experts like me who tell it like it is.
In a post-reality world, expertise should no longer exist but curiously, as people lose their faith in myths and institutions they, if anything, are more prone to latching onto people and thinking they’re really smart and know what’s what. Hence you get the cults around figures like Ricky Gervais, Jordan Peterson and Elon Musk, none of whom have anything original or intelligent to say, but are all followed slavishly by quite cynical, weak people who don’t really believe in anything, least of all in themselves.
I also enjoy how having some kind of expertise or experience makes you an instant genius on all aspects of that area of life. No one thinks that going through a divorce means you instantly understand all divorces everywhere, but being in one firefight outside Tikrit in 2005 somehow qualifies you to discuss movie depictions of combat in a different country, featuring different armies, 20 years earlier. In reality, most people don’t do their jobs that well, aren’t especially observant, and don’t push themselves to understand their field beyond the tasks that are put in front of them. Expertise is grossly overrated.
And that’s certainly the case with Michele Rigby Assad, who offers her expert opinion on an episode of Alias, the films Mission: Impossible, Spy, The Bourne Identity, True Lies, the TV show Jack Ryan, the film Argo, the TV show Homeland, the films My Spy, Spy Game and Body of Lies. You will notice, of these 11 products, 8 were supported by the CIA, two were supported by ex-CIA consultants, and the other was made with the DOD. Almost like it’s Mission: Impossible to actually find a spy film or TV show that wasn’t supported by the government in some way.
We’re going to go through these scenes and Michele’s comments on them, and see if I agree or disagree with her assessments. Whether I’m an expert on the CIA or not, I leave up to you to decide, but please wait until after this breakdown to make up your mind.
We start off with a scene from Alias, which was supported by the CIA. We see Jennifer Garner using different disguises, scanning an ID card from a distance so it can be replicated, and recognising someone else from the CIA at the same party. Apparently the only realistic thing is accidentally stumbling across an old classmate.
This is what I mean about expertise and why it’s ultimately nonsense – Michele is judging all this based on her own experience. She didn’t work in the Science and Technology Directorate, she was out in the Middle East trying to track down insurgents. Who generally don’t have keycard security systems that need to be infiltrated.
As to disguises – we know from Jonna Mendez, former CIA chief of disguise, that of course they use wigs and other quick methods of changing their appearance. They even use full synthetic masks like in Mission: Impossible, and had been doing for decades before Michele joined the CIA. Which is convenient, because the next scene is from Mission: Impossible, also supported by the CIA.
Note that Michele loves this film, despite it apparently being unrealistic. The most interesting bit about this, to me, is that she says it would never happen that you get two CIA teams in the same place at the same time. But she’s overlooking how this is part of the plot, and that both teams are actually from IMF, they’re CIA contractors.
As to two teams operating in the same place at the same time – this does happen. Consider every single terrorist being tracked by the CIA who is also working for the CIA. The notion that a heavily compartmentalised bureaucracy somehow makes it impossible for anyone to tread on anyone else’s toes is ridiculous, and smacks of PR fed by the Agency through Michele to us, the watching audience.
Also, exploding chewing gum is a real thing, apparently.
Now we move onto Spy (2015), a very popular movie within the CIA, and Michele loses the plot entirely. She claims that nothing on the table of equipment are things you’d be assigned or use in a real operation. Except the table includes a small spy drone, a set of glasses that probably have a hidden camera, or are for disguise purposes, several hand weapons. All of which can be issued prior to a mission because they’re general equipment you’d use for all sorts of operations, rather than specific tech for a specific purpose that needs to be requested.
Again, is this about whether the scenes are at all realistic, or about Michele trying to paint her personal experience as somehow universal, and thus as expertise? From a CIA PR perspective, is this about correcting the record or portraying their own people as ‘in the know’?
Which brings us to The Bourne Identity, where Jason Bourne’s extraordinary powers of recall are deemed unrealistic, before she says the car chase ‘would never happen’ when they actually happen in real life operations quite often.
The first point is interesting because it completely contradicts what Chase Brandon said on the DVD extra for The Bourne Identity.
According to Chase, even the brain-damaged Jason Bourne could and should be able to memorise an entire room or street without really trying, it’s just second nature. But according to Michele, it’s 2/10 unrealistic. Who do we trust? Are they both lying? Convenient, because the next film is True Lies.
Again, True Lies. A movie that no one thinks is realistic, even the people making it. The climax involves Arnie rescuing Eliza Dushku, who clings onto the Harrier jump jet in mid-air while the terrorist is fired off on a missile into the other terrorists’ helicopter.
However, her downplaying of violence is once again Michele assuming her own experience speaks for everyone. Talk to the guys who were at the CIA annex in Benghazi about whether they fight and shoot guns and their jobs involve extended action sequences. After all, those guys helped make a movie about all that with Michael Bay, an even more action-centred director than James Cameron. Or talk to the people at the Bay of Pigs, or trained at the School of the Americas, or the people who assassinated Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende and John F Kennedy. Or Omar Torrijos, or Saddam Hussein, or Che Guevara.
Wait, so in the first clip we hear that you don’t do operations with an earpiece in and live support from your team, but now we’re hearing about Obama listening in on the Abbottabad raid?
In any case Jack Ryan is apparently very realistic, even though the scene being discussed is where Jack poses as a terrorist’s brother in an online chat – a fairly ludicrous gambit, especially when you’re not even sure whether the guy realises his brother is dead. It makes for good TV – the investigative part of Jack Ryan season one is well written – but how is this more realistic than using multiple wigs during an operation? I’m not sure Michele understands the rules of this game. Or what day it is.
Needless to say, if Jack Ryan is one of the more realistic spy shows out there, you know who to thank for that. (CIA consultants clip)
Naturally, they couldn’t do this video without including Argo, one of the CIA’s proudest moments in Hollywood. A story that promoted both the Agency, telling a tale where they manage not to kill anyone, and their relationship with the entertainment business.
Michele gives Argo a 9/10 for realism, mostly due to the scenes in the airport in the final act. But most of that never happened, it was created by the screenwriters to make the Iranians seem more scary and dangerous than they really were, and to generate third act jeopardy. In his own account of the operation, Mendez said the group’s transition through the airport went ‘as smooth as silk’, completely contrary to Michele’s version of events.
And they couldn’t do a video like this without including Homeland. This is from season one, where Carrie is running the paid girlfriend of a Sheikh to try to get information on a terrorist kingpin.
Michele somehow gives it 8/10 even though she says there’s a lot wrong with the scene. She presents an idealised, training book version of running sources, or assets. In reality, the CIA do blackmail people, do pick up people facing criminal charges and use that as leverage, do all manner of bribery and other persuasions.
As you may recall from the episode on Morten Storm, who worked for the CIA spying on Anwar Al-Awlaki, they do treat their assets quite poorly – breaking promises, manipulating them, threatening them. So Michele is quite wrong about this, she sounds like she’s reading from a PR pamphlet on covert source management.
Finally, on the question of a white Western woman being able to get close to a terrorist mastermind – there is Samantha Lewthwaite, and some of the so-called ISIS brides were white.
What Michele appears to be missing when it comes to My Spy is that this is a scene between an ex-Army ranger turned CIA operative who is playing games with a young girl. It isn’t a serious depiction of CIA training.
Thus, everything she says is completely irrelevant, except for the part about the CIA using polygraphs as part of their security screening. This is also depicted in season one of Homeland, and in Game of Pawns, but for some reason they chose My Spy, one of the more recent CIA-Hollywood productions (and a genuinely fun movie). The polygraph machine also appears in Meet the Parents, of course, in the scene set in Robert De Niro’s secret hideaway.
In each of these productions the polygraph is either treated as funny, or a means of getting to the truth. It’s either an amusing gadget or a serious piece of tech. In reality, polygraphs are highly subjective interpretations of biorhythms that vary quite a lot with underlying metabolism, let alone the individual mental buttons created by a lifetime of emotional experiences.
Not that Michele would tell you any of this.
Spy Game is an interesting one, because the CIA did consult on the film but there was some kind of falling out over the final script and the Agency dropped out. It is another ‘older guy recruits younger guy into the secret world’ story, but it’s one of the better versions of that.
It does feature almost the exact same set of tradecraft training exercises that we see in The Recruit, and in Spy and Spies and other ‘train to be a spy’ reality TV shows. Street surveillance and counter-surveillance. Engaging with people and getting information out of them. There isn’t a bit where Brad Pitt gets kidnapped by Robert Redford, locked in a cell for weeks and tortured, that’s something that only happens in The Recruit. And in SERE training.
Of all the things that happens in Body of Lies, this scene strikes me as one of the less problematic but OK, they shouldn’t have some paparazzo long-lensing the target. I’m sure that’s just to make it more cinematic, because big cameras are nice to look at.
Then, right at the end she talks about how much she loves Melissa McCarthy in Spy. To reiterate – this is something I’ve heard from a few places, just how well loved that movie is among CIA and ex-CIA people, including, presumably, the one who worked on it. We may have to go back and do a proper analysis of that one.
Conclusions: What is the CIA saying about the CIA in Hollywood?
All in all, Michele spends most of this video talking utter gibberish and assuming her subjective individual experiences are somehow definitive. No alarms and no surprises there.
But what I find interesting is both the underlying messages she’s sending out, and the things she doesn’t say. For example, in My Spy, Homeland, Alias and to a lesser extent in some of the others, the Agency is shown operating domestically – inside the US. They’re spying on people, meeting assets, sometimes even conducting lethal black operations.
Legally, and officially, the CIA doesn’t do this, they don’t operate domestically. But at no point does Michele flag this up, despite it being something the CIA have repeatedly injected into TV shows they’ve supported – Allegiance, Designated Survivor and The Recruit being three from recent years. And it’s something they repeatedly talk about on their podcast, which came out almost simultaneously with The Recruit.
Then there’s the implied messages in Michele’s commentary – the CIA is not as evil as you might believe, they’re not that violent, they’re not that technically equipped, they aren’t as dangerously dysfunctional and incompetent as some of these scenes suggest.
All of which has been a staple of the CIA’s entertainment propaganda since the 1990s, when they started fully embracing Hollywood. They have worked against the stereotypes created in the 1970s conspiracy thrillers, while also trying to co-opt those stereotypes for the purpose of normalising their own evil.
Which makes me wonder – is this ex CIA officer whose training on How to Get Off the X has been vetted by the Agency, actually performing a PR function for the CIA in this video? She can’t sit there discussing CIA training and operations openly, there are things she isn’t allowed to say. How much input did the CIA themselves have on this youtube video listicle? When you consider the supposed ‘myths’ about the CIA mentioned by former director Mike Morrell – that the CIA is technologically all powerful, that they’re corrupt screw ups, and that they’re a rogue agency – all of them are countered by this seemingly innocent video. And what are the odds of them choosing almost entirely CIA-supported productions? Why not pick one of the many non-CIA supported films and TV shows out there?