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15 years after podcasts first became a popular medium, the CIA has cottoned onto the value of pre-recorded audio content. In this episode we look at season two of the CIA’s own podcast The Langley Files, and the Sony production Witnessed: Fade to Black, about the mystery surrounding Gary Devore, a screenwriter who may have been murdered by the CIA. We look at evidence that the Agency themselves may have been covertly involved in the Sony podcast, in order to direct attention away from themselves as potential culprits in Gary’s disappearance.

The Langley Files: Season Two

We’ve reviewed The Langley Files before, and noted how specific talking points from season one turned up in CIA-supported TV shows that came out at almost the exact same time. Naturally, a podcast produced by the CIA is PR for the Agency, even though they talk about the Office of Public Affairs as though it’s a separate thing. Likewise, while they constantly ask guests about Homeland and Argo and Mission: Impossible and other CIA-assisted film and TV, they rarely if ever mention the CIA’s involvement. They also don’t mention more recent films like 13 Hours, The Courier, A Call to Spy, though they do reference Jack Ryan a lot.

Much like the disclaimer at the end of every episode of Jack Ryan – the CIA has not approved or endorsed this production – this seems like a deliberate effort to distance themselves from their own propaganda operations. They’ve asked the Director, Deputy Director for Operations, the Director of the museum, someone from the Office Public Affairs, in house historians, and a professional recruiter about spy movies. But never anyone from the CIA who has actually worked on those spy movies. This cannot be a coincidence.

This pattern continues in season two, which features the Agency’s first CTO – Chief Technology Officer – the Deputy Director for Analysis, a CIA cop, a security expert, their first Chief Wellbeing Officer and some historians. While there aren’t quite so many references to movies and TV, they do still feature frequently, and the finale of the season is a two-parter on the Argo operation where they finally reveal the identity of the second guy on the ground in Tehran alongside Ben Affleck – sorry, Tony Mendez. But they never explain why this second guy doesn’t appear in the film, even though it seems they must have had a hand in keeping him out of it.

We will come back to this. Unlike prior podcasts I’ve done on The Langley Files, I am not going to do a blow by blow breakdown of each one, partly because we’ve got a second series to look at as well today. Instead, let’s pick out some of the key material and see how the Langley Files has progressed in this second season.

For one thing, they’ve made a new intro – still using the same music but with a more dramatic voiceover introducing the show, not unlike a 1950s cop show, or the FBI series The F.B.I..

Also, this season feels less scripted – Walter remains an unremitting prat who certainly does not evoke any sense of a man working for an elite intelligence agency. I did mention this in my review of season one, and they’ve seriously leaned into it in season two. Likewise, I said that Dee was the better of the two hosts and in the second season she’s very much become the senior host, with Walter more of a sidekick.

So, hello CIA and thank you for listening to my in-depth review of season one of The Langley Files and taking some of my criticisms on board. Who says the government never listens? The fucking spy agencies certainly do.

They have also broadened their selection of guests – which in season one were fairly obvious choices – and I applaud this, it was more interesting and fun to listen to as a result. As you might expect, they still haven’t got anyone who worked at a black site or trained terrorists at the School of the Americas. Maybe season three will get into all that.

As I noted previously, episode 7, the first of this second season, is an interview with the Agency’s first CTO, titled ‘CIA’s First Chief Technology Officer Talks Start-Up Culture vs. Spy Culture’. Spy Culture is not a phrase the CIA typically use – it’s a phrase most associated with me and my work. Given my (very negative) review of season one, I am taking this as confirmation that the CIA listened to it. They’ve also started calling the episodes ‘files’, numbered with the 00 designation from James Bond, so episode 7 is file 007.

Regardless, the interview with Nand Mulchandani is quite interesting – he refers to smartphones as the ‘single most amazing yet evil device’, talks a bunch about his own background and how he got the job at CIA. The most curious thing to me is that he keeps denying that the relationship between the US government and the tech industry is long-established.

It’s, you know, it’s national government at a small scale, and so there was no path to CIA. There was no path to national security. I think, in the back of my head, I thought, you know, that would be cool one day to do something else in government. It was very amorphous, but you never think about that. And that’s not a thing that we used to think about 20-30 years ago in the Valley, because just the disconnect between, not disconnect, it’s the equivalent of me saying, well, wow, it would be great if I was starring in Mission Impossible, right? Like you don’t get up in the morning and think wow, you’re gonna make such a career change. And so so here we are.

 

Listen, the thing is this, which is, well, every kid grows up wanting to be here, and, it’s all the spy work. It’s all cool stuff. It’s all this and that, even pointing out say 20 years ago, rewinding back, the intersection of government and technology just didn’t exist the way it does today.

This is complete bullshit, and ironically Nand’s own career proves it. He got his start in Silicon Valley in 1991 at Sun Microsystems, which readers of Yasha Levine’s book Surveillance Valley will know is an icon company of the early tech industry, and grew out of ARPA, the predecessor to DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). The relationship between the government and technology is so old it precedes Nand’s career in the industry, which goes back over 30 years. It’s so old, the agency that helped create Sun Microsystems doesn’t even have the same name anymore.

More recently, in 2010 Nand worked for Accel Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Accel are one of the main firms who co-invest in startups with In-Q-Tel, which is technically a private non-profit foundation but which acts as a venture capital firm for the US intelligence agencies, including the CIA. When In-Q-Tel finds a surveillance software company they like the look of, as often as not Accel are right there investing in multiple rounds alongside them. Much like Greylock, a similar VC firm, they were among the early investors in Facebook.

In 2019 Nand joined the Department of Defence’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, where he worked until taking the CIA job in 2022. He describes being recruited by a three star Air Force General, out of the blue, to take the CTO job at the Center. While he has done a bunch of other things with his life and career, Nand is either painfully ignorant of the military and intelligence relationship with the tech industry, or is simply lying. Given that he’s working for the CIA, I imagine you can take a good guess at which option is more likely.

To give you a sense of how quickly Nand has adapted to the sort of doublethink and doublespeak you have to engage in to work at the CIA, towards the end of the interview he starts joking about there being aliens in the back of Director Burns mini fridge. Dee and Walter play along, joking about the aliens, saying they’re going to have to alert the media team because the phone is going to be ringing. Again, as though the people making this media for the CIA aren’t part of the CIA’s media team.

Then, at the end of the episode they put in a disclaimer:

Dee: You might have heard Nand make a joke in this episode about Director Burns keeping aliens in his mini-fridge.
Walter: Dee and I have since investigated, and we can confirm—there are no aliens in Director Burns’ mini-fridge.
Dee: Nand was just joking.
Walter: Please don’t try to contact us about this.

Episode two, or file 008, is an interview with Linda Weissgold, the Deputy Director for Analysis and for some years a CIA briefer to the President. It is quite a tedious episode to be honest, nowhere near as good as the one with the Deputy Director for Operations. Linda is a woman so there’s a token bit about women at the CIA:

Our Agency and American intelligence itself has always benefited from the skill and dedication of women officers. We actually have an exhibit here in our building devoted to CIA’s World War II predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. In that exhibit, you’re going to find a small sample of the stories about female OSS veterans who were active in everything from analysis, to psyops, to agent operations, and personnel vetting. And you may be surprised because I know I was that to find out that nearly a third of the 13,000 who were serving in OSS were women. Now I was fortunate myself to have many women serve as role models during my time here at the Agency. But I’ll also say that we reflect American culture, and when I first started, it was rare for a woman to rise to the senior ranks and have a family. But things change, and I’m very proud to have been in my position at a time a few years ago when all five of our Directorates were run by women. Today in the DA, we have gender parity at all ranks from the most junior grades through the most senior, and the fact that I’m the fourth woman to lead the Directorate, that that’s neither pioneering nor groundbreaking, that’s a sign of progress, and I think, actually a point of pride.

This is bizarre, but also typical of modern, progressive identity politics. Simultaneously saying that the OSS was one third women, so there’s a long history of women in US intelligence, but also saying we’re making progress now compared to the past. How much progress was necessary when your predecessor agency, over three quarters of a century ago, already had so many women doing so much important stuff? The narrative here is both that women were relevant and important in the past, but also somehow marginalised at the same time, and now they’re not as marginalised as before, even though before they weren’t really marginalised. I wonder, will they have any black or brown CIA employees on the Langley Files and ask them the same sorts of questions? Because, aside from terrorists and drug traffickers, the CIA doesn’t have such a proud history of employing people from those demographics.

Then, a repetition of a talking point we’ve heard a bunch of times in the last two years:

Dee: So let’s shift just a bit to current national security landscape. You must have seen a lot of changes in Russia throughout your time as an analyst. But can you tell us a little bit about the role CIA played in warning of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? And how analysis contributed to that?

Linda: So CIA was not surprised when Putin invaded Ukraine. As our Director has publicly said, we are all extremely proud of the work that our officers did prior to the invasion to provide our policymakers and our allies warning.

In reality, the CIA spent almost every week from the coup in Kiev in 2014 until the invasion in early 2022 predicting that Putin was about to invade Ukraine. Almost as though he was there at the border himself, on horseback, ready to lead a one-man charge into the country. It’s remarkable how simplistic the CIA is when it comes to Russia – they always refer to Putin, as though Russia is a single man running the largest country in the world. Why? Because it fits in with the lone bad guy narrative – the Kaiser, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Noriega, Saddam, Osama, Putin.

The notion that he’s actually a puppet, a front man for the Russian establishment who got him into power back when he was a mid-level officer in Russian intelligence, just doesn’t seem to occur to the world’s premier intelligence agency.

Or that removing Putin wouldn’t solve the problem, since the same establishment backs United Russia, the main party in the Russian parliament, and the next biggest party is the Communists. There literally isn’t anyone in the Russian political landscape that has significant support who would be acceptable to Washington, or London, Paris, Berlin. It is quite hilarious watching liberals prostrate themselves about Alexei Navalny, whose politics aren’t dissimilar to Trump’s, saying Navalny is a political prisoner while saying Trump is a fascist who is working for Putin. Now, Navalny is a political prisoner, but what do you think the US government would do if someone founded an anti-government party in America that was obviously being run by Russian intelligence? Do you think they might imprison the major figures in that party? And those people would also be political prisoners.

File 009 is an interview with a friendly CIA cop named Dave. They would pick one of the friendlier cops for this bit of CIA copaganda. He’s a former Marine who got recruited by the Agency to work in their Langley police force. That’s right, the CIA have their own police, since the regular police don’t have the clearances to go into Langley with search warrants and arrest warrants and interview witnesses and grab CCTV footage and take samples of the blood on the walls and all the rest of that. As you might imagine, this makes CIA headquarters quite a good place to commit a crime, whether we’re talking everyday stuff or the sort of crimes the CIA specialise in.

The key bit in this episode is where they reinforce the idea that the CIA does not operate domestically and is not a law enforcement agency.

David: When I was when I was first hired, uh, this is not your traditional law enforcement through and through. While we are sworn federal law enforcement officers by going to the FLETC down in Georgia, when we return, we’re really a force protection entity. We want to make sure, like I mentioned, those people inside, once they pass through our checkpoint in the morning, they come in and they know they can work in a safe environment. So if that law enforcement authority has to be exercised, we do. But really, we’re here to make sure that the people who come past us every day are working in a safe environment.
Dee: I’m glad that you just said that because I think that’s a really important point to make. So, while our Security Protective Service is a law enforcement entity, the CIA itself is an intelligence, not a domestic law enforcement authority, unlike other agencies like the FBI, which is actually the primary domestic law enforcement agency for the federal government. So SPS’ law enforcement authorities are really for the purpose of keeping CIA’s facilities and our personnel safe, and, you know, actually they do a wide variety of different functions in order to do that.
Walter: I think you guys helped me jump start my car once. I should say, so.
David: You’re welcome.
Walter: Thank you.
David: Did we really?
Walter: Yeah, you did. It was years ago.
David: I remember when you came to the gate and you were like, “I think my car got towed.”
Walter: Oh, my God. I think I was debating whether not to mention that…
David: You can cut that out.
Walter: It had been towed 100%. Yeah.

You see what I mean about Walter. In any case, it’s a familiar refrain – the CIA does not operate domestically, they don’t do law enforcement. We heard this in Designated Survivor season three, in scenes the CIA had a lot of input on, and the same with Allegiance a few years earlier, again at the CIA’s behest.

This is complete bullshit. For one thing, the CIA’s headquarters is in the domestic USA, so how are they not operating domestically? They have their own police force, so how are they not involved in law enforcement? Then there’s stuff like JMWAVE, a massive intelligence gathering and covert operations station run out of Miami in the 1960s, which was involved in everything from trying to overthrow Castro to infiltrating Miami university. Or we could look at Iran-Contra, where the CIA were helping drugs traffickers import large amounts of drugs into the US, which surely qualifies as operating domestically. Or the New York Al Qaeda cell under the Blind Sheikh, who got into the US on CIA-sponsored visas, and which involved Ali Mohamed, who got into the US on a CIA-sponsored visa.

Or we could pick a much more recent story, of a woman who is suing the CIA for trying cover up a sexual assault. The assailant was convicted in August, but the lady is suing the Agency because (she alleges, and I believe her) they provided copies of emails and private messages between her and the assailant to the defence lawyers. The CIA apparently did this unprompted – there was no subpoena, no request from law enforcement for these records. Which leads us to the conclusion that they did this to try to interfere with the trial and help the accused get a not guilty verdict by trying to portray the accuser as a floozy having an extra-marital affair, and hence not to be trusted.

If they aren’t a law enforcement agency and they don’t operate domestically then how could such a thing happen? How could they get involved in a trial on US soil? Why would they be trying to influence the verdict?

File 010 (that whole 00 thing didn’t last long) is the most moronic and xenophobic of the lot, while masquerading as a helpful advice and lifehacks episode. The interview is with a CIA security expert, Kyle – the sort of person who advises and briefs and trains CIA officers who are working overseas. But he isn’t really talking about his work for the CIA – because he can’t, it’s mostly classified – and instead they offer a travel safety tips episode for Americans going abroad.

I will stop here and note that America and Americans in general are very xenophobic – not necessarily towards people from other places, but of other places themselves. Most Americans have never left their home country, never been in a place with a foreign language on all the signs, unfamiliar cuisine, surrounded by people they don’t know. When I’ve asked Americans why not, the primary answer that comes back is fear – they have this perception that inside America is safe, but outside is somehow unsafe. The same utterly failed assumption that led to lockdowns, where keeping people indoors somehow kept them safe from a virus that primarily transmits indoors – the perception that ‘out there’ is somehow dangerous but ‘in here’ is fine and dandy.

This Langley Files episode does nothing to dispel this paranoid assumption, and everything to encourage and reinforce it. They go through a typical journey, identifying every single moment at which something bad might happen, right down to telling people not to lock their valuables in a safe in their hotel room, lest they be stolen by hotel staff who know the reset code. But by that reckoning, you can’t leave your valuables anywhere in the hotel room. So you have to carry them around everywhere. But that makes you a target for street thieves and kidnappers. So you do something else. But that makes something else a threat, and so on. It feeds into this American perception that the world is full of dishonest poor people and us rich, honest, hardworking Americans should steer clear of them and their third world countries altogether. Leave it to the CIA to figure all that out, while we hide at home and watch Keeping up with the Kardashians and eat high fructose corn syrup, because neither of those things ever harmed anyone. And pass the opioids, won’t you? Oh look, the Kardashians have been interrupted by breaking news about another mass shooting event, how sad. But we couldn’t possibly visit Italy.

File 011 is an interview with the CIA’s Chief Wellbeing Officer – because apparently a lot of people at the CIA get depressed, stressed, burned out, suffer from PTSD and generally find it difficult working for a cross between a secret society and a criminal syndicate. Who would have guessed? They also interview Paul, an Ops Officer who suffered some horrible injuries on the job, and how the CIA are helping him recover and continue in the workplace. Think of those documentaries about the Wounded Warrior program and you’ll get the idea.

So, in 2022 the CIA appointed its first Wellbeing Officer, to help overcome the endemic mental health problems at Langley through the magic of generic, meaningless buzzwords like ‘energy management’, ‘wellbeing’, ‘a holistic approach’ and ‘mindfulness’. None of these terms, on closer examination, actually mean anything specific. ‘Mindfulness’ is a term invented by marketing companies to try to sell more therapy, because it sounds a little bit technical, like Western science, but also a little bit woo woo, like Eastern religion. It connotes some combination of meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy – both of which are quite specific techniques that do work, or at least can work.

But ‘mindfulness’ is extremely vague both in its definitions and its practices, and when I asked the NHS for their definition of this word they refused to give it to me. An (alleged) healthcare service for a country of 70 million people, who use terms like Wellbeing and Mindfulness constantly, but cannot tell you what they mean or how to ascertain whether something constitutes Wellbeing or Mindfulness, or doesn’t. And as such, everything can be considered Wellbeing and Mindfulness, so we all just sit around talking vaguely about everything and nothing actually gets resolved because no one is tackling anything specific.

Hence, the situation we have now, where mental healthcare is about buzzwords and bullshit that cannot be measured, cannot even be evaluated qualitatively, and which is doing no one any good whatsoever. It might delude them into thinking things are getting better, but because things are not actually getting better, that means they’re actually getting worse. But I’m sure someone who used to work at Johnson and Johnson and is now working for the satanic mafia has got it all under control. We just need more seminars on being holistic.

The only part of this episode I enjoyed was the trivia question at the end on animals at CIA headquarters.

Dee: Here we go. In the quiet natural surroundings of CIA’s Headquarters here in Langley, Virginia, Agency officers can take a stroll to enjoy some much-needed fresh air and soothing scenery. There are times, however, where our officers are not alone in their wandering. There happens to be a particular woodland animal that frequents the grounds here and often seems quite at home amongst the buildings and the people. In fact, this known creature has become somewhat of an unofficial mascot of the CIA. So our question is – which type of animal are we talking about?
Walter: Now we know there could be many answers to this question. But this particular animal tends to be a sly one, mischievously scurrying between buildings and darting between vehicles.
Dee: Regardless of the mischief, Agency officers have actually given this animal a very fitting nickname. So we will have to see who can guess this one.

Now, long time CIA obsessives will know that HQ is home to a bunch of different animals – ducks, which the CIA refuses to release any pictures of, various dogs doing security and similar work, the occasional deer, quite a lot of squirrels and – the answer to the trivia question – foxes. Honestly, if I worked there I’d be out in the woods most of the time. It’s far better for your mental health than listening to twats prattle on about mindfulness, I can guarantee you that.

File 012 gets us back to a familiar topic, and a fun one – disguise. It’s slightly surprising we didn’t get an interview with a disguise specialist in season one, given how popular the subject is, especially with women. I won’t speculate as to whether women only become spies in order to expand their wardrobe options, simply observe that dresses are a key feature in most female-led spy movies.

This interview, with a pair of disguise specialists is perhaps the most interesting of all, because while it is another recruitment pitch they talk about what sorts of people end up in the disguise department. It’s graphic designers, make up artists, special effects artists – mostly people from the culture industries. Remember, Tony Mendez was friends with John Chambers, the Hollywood make up and prosthetics expert who worked on Planet of the Apes.

Carrie, the lady disguise specialist also makes a very acute observation – that people are so distracted looking at their phones that you can get away with almost anything. But the most bizarre part of this one is when they talk about CIA officers who liked their disguises a little too much:

Walter: Could I ask… a whimsical question maybe?
Joe: Sure.
Carrie: I’m scared.
Dee: Whimsy. I love it.
Joe: Never be afraid of whimsy.
Walter: Do officers ever get lost in their disguise personas that you teach them? The mannerisms, the way of speaking… is it ever like, “no, you need to let The Captain go. You need to go back to being, you know, Paul, or Joe, or Mike, or whatever.”
Joe: Funny story. I did have one officer—this was early on—who liked their look so much that when they came to pick up, a month later, their finished disguise product, they looked exactly like their disguise. They had cut their hair, dyed their hair…
Dee: Really? Oh my gosh.
Walter: Oh wow.
Carrie: I was going to say that. Yes, that’s happened to me. I gave a nice blonde wig, and a lady came back with bleached blond hair. And I’m like..
Dee: She’s like, I pulled this off.
Carrie: Oh no! Now we have to go back to square one.
Walter: Extreme Makeover: CIA.
Joe: Yes, but I’m like, uh, you know what you did, right? And they’re like, but it looks so good.
Dee: But now you can’t be that.
Joe: And I’m like now I gotta make you a new one.
Walter: Make you back into what you were before.
Carrie: Yeah, right. Like thanks for the compliment, but …
Joe: Yeah I’m glad I helped you find who you really want to be.

Firstly, as dippy as Walter is he’s right, Extreme Makeover should do a CIA edition. They’ve worked with the military, so it’s a logical step. But this is also an indication of just how weird undercover CIA operatives are, how much they enjoy pretending to be someone they’re not. The ‘unique personality conundrum’ that Chase Brandon refers to in the making of featurette for The Recruit.

There are some other curiosities in this one – they describe a story where an operative didn’t just completely change their appearance, but switched gender (in terms of their disguise) in just a few minutes. It was so effective that when they walked out of the building as the new person and went to get a taxi, one of the surveillance team spying on them actually opened the door of the taxi for them. So, clearly this was a man who disguised himself as a woman, since people don’t usually volunteer to open doors for men.

They also make some more jokes about aliens, and whether birds are real or whether they’re spying on us (which is, of course, not two mutually exclusive scenarios – they could be both real and spying on us). This whole ‘birds are real’ is a meme, and it’s especially odd to hear the CIA picking up on it given that they’ve actually used birds as spies.

The final two episodes of season two of The Langley Files is a double header about the Argo operation – the first time they’ve dug into some actual files and discussed a covert operation in depth. This is something I criticised them for not doing, and I actually suggested they do an episode telling us who the second guy alongside Tony Mendez was, or at least sarcastically criticised them for constantly referencing Argo, both the film and the real op, without getting into this second operative.

Thus, I was delighted to find that this is exactly what they did – a feature two-parter where they talk about this second CIA officer on the ground in Tehran, and his role in the operation. They have a guest – one of their in-house historians, Brent, but they also include clips from an interview with the second man. He is referred to in the internal CIA history of the operation and in Tony’s book as Julio, but his real name was Ed Johnson. As the episode reveals, the CIA have been very protective of his identity up until now:

Walter: Those listeners will remember that, in the movie version of these events, Affleck’s character sneaks into Iran alone. But here, in a hallway of the real-life CIA Headquarters, there’s a painting commemorating the operation. In it, Tony sits at a table in Tehran, hard at work on the final preparations for the exfiltration of the six Americans. And in that painting, there’s someone else working alongside him. Someone whose face isn’t visible and whose name the plaque beneath the painting doesn’t reveal, even here in CIA Headquarters.

As is often the case, we have a layered story with levels of secrecy. The popular version, the Hollywood movie, doesn’t include Ed Johnson at all – Tony goes to Tehran and rescues the State Department employees by himself. This is in keeping with the fact that Tony Mendez was one of the designated CIA trailblazers celebrated as part of their 50th anniversary events in 1997. Foreground Tony, ignore the other guy. For those who went deeper and read Tony’s book or the history of the operation in the CIA’s journal, which is produced by their historians, you would find out there was another guy, but not much more than that. If you work for the CIA and look at the painting, you see he was integrally involved, but still can’t see his face or learn his name. It’s only now, for nerds like me who listen to their podcast, that we find out his real name.

This is all very on brand for the CIA, who love to keep secrets so they can reveal them at a time and in such a way that it helps them. They also like to structure secrets in this way, so different people can find out parts of it, much like tiers of classification or, indeed, age based movie classifications. Again, Jack Valenti, the guy who devised that system of rating and classifying movies, had a relationship with the CIA. It was Valenti, for example, who attended a private screening of The Godfather alongside CIA officials.

Across this two-parter they recount the operation in detail – the infiltration of Ed and Tony into Iran, through the airport, the preparation of the six people hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s house, and the exfiltration back through the airport. One specific thing stood out to me:

Brent: So when they land, you know, these are you know, these are exfiltration experts and so the very first thing they do when they land is is they switch it on. They start to, observe very carefully and sort of take mental notes of everything that they’re seeing at the airport there in Tehran at Mehrabad Airport. And, one of the very slick things that Tony describes Ed as having done was you had to fill out these yellow sheets of paper when you enter and when you leave Iran. And there was a whole stack of them at one place and that Ed laid his newspaper down onto the stack. And as he walked away you know, with a with a nice little sleight of hand, he grabbed multiple multiple copies of this little yellow paper so they would have them for the houseguests. And so they would have extras if they made any mistakes in, you know, sort of forging those entry stamps and that kind of thing. Um, so you know that that that sort of sleight of hand is is something that OTS is, sort of famously known for and he said the way Tony described it was that that he barely even noticed what Ed had done and then just sort of smiled to himself. What a slick move it had been.

These yellow forms are important, as they’re basically entry forms that all recent visitors to Iran would have, but the six potential hostages did not have because they’d been in the country much longer. So they needed to forge a bunch of entry slips for the six in order to get them back out through the airport, hence needing to steal some blank forms.

In the film, it is Tony who does this, though because it’s Ben Affleck it is far from slick. But this isn’t mentioned in either the internal history or in Tony’s book, Master of Disguise, likewise the detail about them messing up the forgery and having to send the Canadians back to the airport to steal more yellow forms. Let’s assume it is true, but why is this attributed to Tony Mendez and not Ed Johnson? Indeed, why isn’t Ed Johnson depicted or referred to in any way in the film of Argo?

I ask because Tony Mendez was a technical consultant on the film, hung around with Affleck, did loads of promotional interviews and appears on the DVD extras. He was at the meeting at CIA headquarters when the film-makers first approached the Agency about supporting the film, indeed it was Affleck, Tony and Tony’s son Jesse.

Given what we know about the painting in the hallway, which doesn’t reveal Ed’s name or show his face, it seems likely that it was the CIA themselves who wrote Ed out of the movie version of the story, in order to focus on their trailblazer, a man they’d already turned into a PR figure for the Agency. Tony’s book had to be vetted prior to publication by the CIA’s review board, so it was also in effect a piece of CIA propaganda. Exactly why the book is allowed to mention Julio/Ed Johnson but the film was not isn’t clear, it makes no sense from a security point of view. If they didn’t want the Iranians to realise that Tony had a second guy alongside him then they’d have kept Julio out of the book, but they didn’t. A decade later, they kept him out of the film (or so I suspect).

The Gary Devore Story

I first heard about Gary Devore sometime in the 2000s, but at that point I was focused on state sponsored terrorism and double agents inside terrorist organisations, and didn’t have time to look into the case in any depth. However, a recent podcast titled Witnessed: Fade to Black covers the story across eight episodes, so I felt it would make a good comparison or companion to our examination of The Langley Files.

I first became aware of Witnessed: Fade to Black through Matt Alford, who was interviewed for the series. I expressed absolutely no desire to get involved because I had an inkling where it would go and what it would end up being, and it seems Matt may have discouraged the producers from even contacting me. Much like the BBC Conspiracy Roadtrip episode on the 7/7 London Bombings, I am glad I did not participate.

The season runs for eight episodes and looks into the mystery surrounding Gary Devore, a Hollywood screenwriter who’d written films for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude Van Damme. He was also a rewriter, someone who punched up the comic dialogue in action movies, which is certainly a talent Gary had. He wrote and produced Traxx, about a super violent State Trooper who becomes a mercenary. After years spent travelling in El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Middle East, killing terrorists left and right, he retires and becomes a luxury cookie baker in a small town.

Traxx is, to be sure, a work of comic genius that touches on a lot of the themes that became part of the legend of Gary Devore, and though it was intended to have a theatrical release it was downgraded to direct-to-video, and came out in 1988. These days you can find copies online quite easily and it’s a strong recommendation from me, I had a great time after Matt told me about it and I found it on youtube.

Traxx aside, in June 1997 Gary was preparing his directorial debut – a remake of The Big Steal, the 1949 Robert Mitchum movie about some Army guys ripping off the pension fund. In Devore’s version, it was about the CIA robbing a bank in Panama during the US invasion of Panama in late 1989. He’d had the project greenlit, was told he could write and direct and throughout early 1997 he worked on treatments and draft scripts, trying to encapsulate his vision.

Where things get suspicious is that Gary was evidently also struggling with how far to go in his script. One version of the story even said that the reason for the invasion is because Manuel Noriega was blackmailing high officials of the US government with video tapes of illegal sex parties, and perhaps this is what the CIA were actually stealing from the bank. Gary told close friends and his wife, Wendy, that his script was going to ‘blow the lid off the CIA’, and in June he went away to visit friends and work in his office in Santa Fe, New Mexico to try to finish a full draft of the script.

He finally completed it in late June, and was driving back to Santa Barbara in California, going through the Mojave desert, when he disappeared, and has never been seen or heard of since. A year later, a tip led to the search of an aqueduct underneath the road he was driving back along, which found his car and a badly decomposed body that may or may not have been Gary’s. His laptop and disks containing his work on The Big Steal were never recovered.

I do not wish to enter into a lengthy retread of the fundamentals of the Devore case, because for that you can listen to Witnessed: Fade to Black. As a basic run through of the various theories and investigations – by Matt, among others – it does a good job. However, I’m happy to offer my opinion, which is that Gary was most likely kidnapped and then murdered, and that the car was planted in the aqueduct. The accident theory, which involves Gary turning around on the motorway, driving the wrong way for half a mile or more, possibly while asleep at the wheel, and then going through a 17-foot gap in the fencing and over the edge, down into the water, leaving no trace despite people searching that very area in a variety of ways, only to then be found a year later thanks to someone magically figuring out this highly improbable scenario and tipping off the police, doesn’t ring true to me. In any way. At all.

There are other possibilities, of course. Gary might have had a second life, a second wife or possible wife, and run off to elope. But there’s literally no indication of this in any of the numerous investigations by the California police, both local and state, the FBI, various media, private detectives, professional researchers and miscellaneous amateurs who’ve got hooked by this story.

He may have had a secret life of a different kind, of course. He did know Walter Mirisch, the Hollywood bigwig who appears to have had CIA contacts and definitely had military contacts. Gary also knew Chase Brandon, the CIA’s Hollywood liaison and covert ops man about town. According to Fade to Black, they met at Tommy Lee Jones’ second wedding, where they were both best men – Chase being Tommy’s cousin. That would make the Gary Devore – Chase Brandon relationship over a decade old, since that wedding was in the early 1980s.

There are other indications – Gary wrote a script for a film called Stealth, about the Stealth bomber, which it doesn’t appear was ever made. But he did tell his daughter that he had security clearance to go and see the bomber and learn about it. The B-2 eventually made its cinematic debut in Armageddon, a year after Gary’s disappearance, just to underline how unusual his access must have been.

You also have to wonder about someone writing an action comedy in 1988 about a mercenary who worked in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, where the CIA were waging covert wars. And we also know that Chase Brandon was in Latin America during his time in covert operations, so at the least will have had some kind of knowledge, if not first-hand experience of the Iran-Contra affair, the dirty war in El Salvador and whatever was going on around Noriega and the invasion of Panama.

This offers up several possibilities. First, Gary disappeared into some spy hideaway or witness protection type deal, though exactly why he’d have done that is unclear. Second, his script revealed things the CIA were desperate to keep quiet, so they kidnapped and/or killed him in order to kill the film and keep the secrets secret. Third, someone else involved in whatever Gary knew, possibly from a criminal organisation or central American government, kidnapped and/or murdered Gary for similar motives, and this was then covered up by people in the American government. Fourth, his script was so bad that he was murdered by the studio so as to get out of paying for the movie. Though this seems highly unlikely because he was a talented writer and, much like with Oliver Stone’s script for Pinkville, his story of the My Lai Massacre, I would love to read Devore’s The Big Steal.

There was a cover-up, that much is obvious. The vehicle was pulled out of the aqueduct a year later, just like in Enemy of the State, a film that came out that summer and which was made with Chase Brandon and the CIA’s help, as well as the NSA’s. The decomposed body inside was little more than a skeleton, though it was still partially dressed in Gary’s clothes. It was also missing its hands.

When Wendy Devore was shown this body she wasn’t told about the missing hands beforehand (sorry), and immediately asked what the hell was going on. Shortly before the tip off, she’d given an interview saying she believed Gary was still alive and if he was dead, to show her the body. Then the tip comes in, the authorities pull this car that they should and could easily have found earlier, assuming it had been there all along, out of the water with this strange body inside.

Wendy is then presented with a number of supposed hand bones found in the mud in the bottom of the car, which – the story goes – had been nibbled off by fish and had sunk into the mud. DNA testing on the body is inconclusive, and there were issues with Wendy getting the samples to a laboratory in Canada. The dental work on the body doesn’t match people’s memories’ of Gary, and his dental records have vanished without explanation. Not the first time dental records have gone missing in such a monumental case – see the David Kelly story a few years later here in the UK, the weapons inspector who did not kill himself regardless of what the British government says. There are various other highly suspicious elements, such as the CCTV not working outside the last place Gary stopped on the highway to get cup of coffee.

I am not going to recount all that, but a key issue is the script itself. Devore’s laptop and disks were never recovered, and within a day or two of his disappearance Chase Brandon was showing up at Wendy’s house and offering his unique brand of help and support – which included openly flirting with her. One of Wendy’s friends found him in Gary’s office one day, messing with his computer, deleting files. The hard drive in that computer then failed and all the data on it became unrecoverable.

We might also look at the context – a year earlier, Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News published the Dark Alliance series, about the CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking around the selfsame covert operations Gary had touched on in Traxx and which were presumably part of his script for The Big Steal. Gary Webb was initially celebrated by the media establishment, before the CIA went on the attack. They encouraged friendly journalists to tear into Webb and his work, trying to dispute his findings, badmouth his sources, humiliate and ruin him as a journalist. This story is told in Kill the Messenger, the film starring Jeremy Renner (and largely financed by Renner because he couldn’t get independent backing). It culminates with Webb’s suicide, and as I’ve explained before I do not believe that was an assassination made to look like a suicide. I think it was state sponsored in that the CIA created the conditions for Webb, by that point broken professionally and personally, to kill himself.

However, Gary Devore wasn’t broken – he was on the way up, on the verge of directing his own screenplay for the first time. He also had much closer connections to the very people he was writing about than Webb ever had. In those last months various friends and loved ones described him as talking more like an investigative journalist than a screenwriter, as he worked on the story he wanted to tell and what he wanted it to say. So the parallels between the two Garys – Webb and Devore – go far beyond them sharing a first name. One we know was targeted by the CIA for public destruction, even though their own Inspector General’s reports would eventually vindicate most of Webb’s work.

But a compelling film made by a big studio is in some ways a bigger threat, and a different kind of threat. The CIA denying that the storyline in a movie is true, and getting their assets to publicly attack the people making it is not how they like to roll, and would risk drawing more attention to the film and its story. Whereas with a journalist that’s the safer course than disappearing or killing him, especially once the story is already out there.

Thus, the Devore situation is somewhat different – he evidently got some of his information for The Big Steal via Chase or people Chase introduced him to, so the CIA would have had some kind of knowledge about his script while he was still developing it and writing that first full draft. Back in the 80s, when they wanted to shut down an Iran-Contra movie they just set up a front company and bought the rights, then let the project die. But Gary wouldn’t sell the rights, already had the backing of a big studio, and even if the movie died he would still know what he knew.

In this context it’s entirely plausible, likely even that the Agency had Devore whacked, however absurd it might seem to say they killed a screenwriter but not a journalist.

Witnessed: Fade to Black

The podcast Witnessed: Fade to Black came out in the autumn and winter of 2023, and features numerous interviews with Wendy Devore and other friends and relatives of Gary, as well as intelligence professionals, private detectives and others who got involved somewhere along the way. They even got to speak to Chase Brandon, though his lines are portrayed by an actor doing a Chase Brandon impersonation. Both Matt and Tricia were also interviewed, along with some film industry types, and people who knew Michael Sands – a CIA connected PR agent who Matt got to know fairly well, before he died in truly ridiculous and mysterious circumstances.

I will admit, I was biased before listening to Fade to Black. I expected the usual framing and shaping that you get with mainstream media discussions of conspiracy theories, having watched and listened to dozens of these over the years. They use the exciting, speculative nature of the topic to hook people, and pursue the possibility of a conspiracy for the first half of the story. But there’s usually a warning about disinformation being a threat to society, so we should be more sceptical of the conspiracy theories than we are of the government.

And that’s exactly what we got here – 8 minutes into episode 1 the host, journalist Josh Dean and the founder of Campside Media, who produced this series, tells us he thinks most conspiracy theories are ‘ridiculous, if not outright dangerous’. Exactly how are they dangerous? To my mind, the only idea that is truly dangerous is the idea that ideas are dangerous. This is the first of several signs that the producers are not entirely honest. Or possibly not at all honest.

Dean himself is a curious choice to host and produce this series, since he wrote a very positive book about the CIA titled The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History. This is the Glomar expedition that we’ve looked at before, and something the CIA love to foreground in their museum and on their youtube channel. Also, why is every fucking spy mission ‘the most daring operation in history’? Surely some of that actually weren’t that daring, and were – on closer examination – quite cowardly. Such as trying to get the Mafia to take out Castro because you’re too gutless and incompetent to do it yourselves.

Indeed, less than 10 minutes into episode 1, Dean says he’s written about the CIA ‘a lot’, has spoken at CIA headquarters, has close family friends who work for the CIA, has become friendly with some CIA types himself. Why would someone who thinks conspiracy theories are stupid and dangerous, who has engaged in positive PR for the Agency, has friends at the Agency, has family friends at the Agency, and has been to the Agency choose to spend a year of his life making a podcast pretending to investigate whether a screenwriter was killed by the Agency?

Tell me you’re making propaganda, without telling me.

It doesn’t help that among the advert breaks that constantly interrupt these podcasts there are ads for endless cheesy true crime podcasts. So, you make true crime podcasts in order to make money advertising true crime podcasts? And one of these was especially hideous – a short form daily true crime bulletin pod designed for neurotics and sociopaths to enjoy over their morning coffee. Because I know when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I want to think about is rapes and murders.

The whole thing reminds me of the podcast looking into whether the song Winds of Change, a rock anthem from the late Cold War period, was written by the CIA to help hasten the downfall of Communism. It took forever to say absolutely nothing, and treated the story of the CIA making covert cultural propaganda as little more than a curiosity. Fade to Black, by the nature of its story, has to be a tad more hard hitting, but it’s only a tad. They recount Gary’s career, his disappearance, Wendy’s pain and confusion, a lot of the weirdness and unresolved anomalies in the story, including the presence of Chase Brandon in his home shortly after his disappearance, apparently crashing his hard drive and making data unrecoverable.

However, they end up portraying Brandon as a frustrated wannabe screenwriter, someone who was envious of Gary and wanted to be him, rather than a suspect in his disappearance or murder. Ditto, when it comes to Panama they talk about Gary’s screenplay portraying ‘rogue CIA agents’ robbing a bank during the invasion, but never mention the possibility they were stealing video tapes of upper class sex parties.

And yet, they do make Panama central to their conspiracy theory – in this series about how most conspiracy theories are ridiculous and probably dangerous. At the end of episode 2 they describe Chase getting into Wendy’s house and screwing with his hard drive, and mention that the script was about Panama, before claiming that Brandon ‘made his bones in the CIA as a clandestine officer in Panama’.

Episode 3 is titled ‘Panama’ and I listened closely, twice, to hear their evidence that Brandon ‘made his bones in the CIA as a clandestine officer in Panama’, because this would indeed be a surprise. Especially since he joined the Agency in the early 70s, a decade and a half before the invasion. So if he made his bones at that time, it was a decade before Noriega even took power in Panama.

But forget all that, because their source for their claim is unimpeachable. It’s me.

They set it up as Gary including details of classified CIA operations in Panama in his script for The Big Steal, and ask where he could have got such details. They note that Gary’s dayplanner for the weeks before his disappearance feature Chase prominently and frequently – it seems they were meeting regularly. They play some bits from his interview on Coast to Coast in 2012, when Chase was hawking his UFO novel.

But then, they say it’s only ‘likely’ that Chase worked in Panama during his time at the CIA, and attribute this solely to a profile I wrote and they then play an audio clip of me describing the CIA’s activities in Central and South America during Chase’s time in black operations. That clip is from ClandesTime 078, which they used without my permission and without identifying it, as they do with the clip from Coast to Coast, for example.

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.

Thus, their big reveal trailed at the end of episode 2 turns out to be based on me pretty much speculating that Chase was in Panama, as well as other countries in the region that the CIA were involved in during the time he was at the Agency. And they used this without my permission, without even contacting me.

Why me? Possibly because when you search google for ‘Chase Brandon Panama’ the top result is episode 078 of this podcast. Ahead of a Daily Mail article claiming he worked in Panama for 25 years – which he certainly did not – and, satisfyingly, ahead of the Fade to Black podcast. Fuck you, Josh.

Two points on this. One: this is really poor journalism, if you can even call it that. Taking material without attribution or permission and using it to string together a fairly key link in your story is lazy, pathetic behaviour. If they treated me like this, imagine how they treated Wendy Devore. I have heard on the QT that they really didn’t give a shit about her, have taken some of Gary’s property and not given it back, basically exploited her from start to finish so they could make their lame podcast.

Point Two: If Josh Dean truly believes that most conspiracy theories are wrong and probably dangerous, then why did he take material without permission or attribution in order to help substantiate his conspiracy theory? And why did he claim at the end of episode 2 that Chase made his bones for the CIA working in Panama, and then in episode 3 say it was only ‘likely’ that he was ever even there? Especially when the invasion took place nearly 20 years after Chase joined the Agency, and hence he didn’t make any bones there. And especially when Josh’s only source for this is someone he never spoke to, i.e. me.

And even more especially when Josh is close to the CIA, has clearly worked with their Office of Public Affairs in order to write a book that tells the exact same story we’ve heard on the CIA’s youtube channel and on the Langley Files, both produced by that selfsame Office of Public Affairs.

As Witnessed: Fade to Black approaches its final episodes there’s an obvious and predictable twist, where they start to step away from taking the accusations seriously and start to pick holes in certain claims made by conspiracy theorists. This is classic mainstream conspiracy-themed content – by proving that some of the conspiracy theories are nonsense, they imply that they’re all refuted, all proven untrue. Because some people have made hazy or untrue claims about the search for Gary Devore’s vehicle in the aqueduct, that means it isn’t at all suspicious that it was found a year later after a bizarre tip off almost immediately following Wendy’s interview where she demanded to be shown a body.

The final episode is titled Occam’s Razor, which is another well worn, even hackneyed technique used by professional conspiracy debunkers. Because conspiracy theories are often quite complex, they cite Occam’s Razor to try to reject them. There are three major problems with this logic.

For one thing, people who do this invariably misquote Occam, merely saying ‘the simplest explanation is usually the right one’. This isn’t what the Razor says, it says ‘all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one’. If all things aren’t equal then the second part doesn’t apply.

Then there’s the challenges posed by chaos and complexity theory, namely that the world is too complex and multifarious and unpredictable for any such rule of thumb, particularly one based on simplicity as the distinguishing hallmark of truth, to be correct.

Then there’s my criticism that Occam’s Razor invalidates itself, because the simplest explanation isn’t ‘all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one’. If that’s the distinguishing sign of truth – simplicity – then Occam’s Razor isn’t true. This isn’t something they’ll teach you in philosophy classes, or anywhere else really, but it’s always worth folding a logical principle back on itself, applying it to itself, and seeing what happens. It’s the same with the Precautionary Principle, which also invalidates itself when applied to itself. As someone who has studied over 2000 years of logic and epistemology, the producers of this podcast really should have spoken to me before making this massive, idiotic mistake.

And this is how it plays out in the final episode of Fade to Black – they send the producers out to the road where Gary supposedly crashed, in order to see it for themselves and talk about what they think happened. Of course, they go with the ‘random crash that wasn’t discovered for a year’ theory, claiming it is the simplest explanation.

We hear about how Gary had taken a ‘powerful stimulant and hallucinogen’ a day before his trip – namely, MDMA, which he apparently took semi-regularly as a recreational drug. And anyone who has taken MDMA will know it’s fast acting, out of your system quickly, and doesn’t tend to produce strong hallucinations. Then we hear there was a police roadblock, and Gary had drugs and a gun in the car and so as he approached the roadblock he did a quick U-turn. This led to him driving the wrong way in the dark, into oncoming traffic that never saw him, then through a small gap in the fence between the lanes, and over the edge and down into the aqueduct.

We even get to hear the producer telling us exactly what Gary was feeling moment to moment as all this went on, as though he was there in the car. It is a truly sickening and bargain basement piece of manipulation, trying to get us to feel what Gary felt and thus buy into this entirely speculative account for which there is almost no evidence. What they avoid in this explanation is that there’s no sign of Gary doing any of this, with the exception of his car found in the aqueduct a year later facing in that direction.

Is this even an application of Occam’s Razor? Their explanation isn’t simple, it necessitates a number of unlikely things happening in just the right sequence to produce a very specific result.

Furthermore, let’s not forget ‘all things being equal’. Even if we could accept that this is the simplest explanation of what happened to Gary, it doesn’t explain what happened to his computers – the laptop that was never recovered and the desktop that was screwed up by Chase. We’re led to believe that his hand bones – small, light pieces of organic matter, floated to the bottom of the car while it was underwater and sunk into the mud in the footwell. But his laptop – a much heaver item – wasn’t in the car?

So, all things aren’t equal, because what happened to Gary isn’t the only question we need to answer in order to solve this mystery. But they’re pretending we can exclude all the other stuff they spent four or five episodes outlining, in favour of them describing the emotions of a man they never met, doing things they have no evidence he actually did.

Then there’s the attempt to say that the bigger story – which they devote only one episode to – is that of the CIA and wider government influence in Hollywood. If that’s the story they wanted to tell, why not start with Gary but spend most of their season on the more important topic? It seems like a very strange rhetorical sleight of hand to go off on a diversion like this.

This episode, which is mostly based on Tricia’s work, contains several obvious inaccuracies. They claim that the script change on Meet the Parents, where the CIA removed the torture manuals from Robert De Niro’s secret hideaway and replaced them with photos of dignitaries, is merely rumoured, or something they ‘seem to have done’. They also say that no one has been able to interview Chase Brandon about his time as CIA Hollywood liaison.

Neither of these things is true – the information on that script change came from a PhD thesis by David McCarthy, and came from an interview he did with Chase while he was still in post at the CIA. The episode on the CIA’s Hollywood operations continues in similar fashion, failing to mention anything they’ve done since Zero Dark Thirty over a decade ago.

In sum, they spin a story about Panama partly based on someone they never spoke to, in order to then U-turn and replace that with pure speculation about things they have no evidence Gary ever did, while saying that the bigger more important story is something else, which they also downplay and misrepresent. All while employing a misunderstood version of a self-invalidating logic. And exploiting a woman who has surely suffered enough at the hands of predatory media hacks, among many others.

Well done, Josh and Campside Media. This bullshit might win you an intelligence medal but it’s also put you well and truly in my crosshairs.

The parallels between these two podcast series, or seasons, are plentiful. They came out almost simultaneously, they’re both produced by people who work for or with the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs, they both dangle conspiracy theories (aliens, Panama, whatever) before snatching them back and telling you you’re naughty for even looking. And they both seem to be well aware of me and my work.

Of the two, by far the more informative and interesting is The Langley Files, despite its many, many deceptions and Walter’s abject stupidity. Witnessed: Fade to Black is in many ways a typically exploitative true crime mystery series that concludes in a totally unsatisfying and unearned way, the only reason it stands out is the subject matter. Whereas The Langley Files remains a guilty pleasure for me, and even I have to admit this second season was better than the first, after they took a lot of my criticisms on board and made changes to the carcrash into an aqueduct that was season one.