The CIA’s Opinion of Spy Films (including some they helped to make)
Like all of us, the CIA are not averse to reading books and watching films and then sharing their opinions about them on the internet. Unlike most of us the CIA have an online journal – Studies in Intelligence – where they like to post their views about things. In one Special Review Supplement to a summer 2009 edition of Studies in Intelligence called Intelligence in Contemporary Media they reviewed several books and films in the spy-fi genre.
The introduction to this supplement was written by former acting Director of the CIA John McLaughlin, who trots out the usual (but nonetheless true) line about how ‘what most in the public think about intelligence depends to a large extent on what they see in cinematic, documentary, and novelistic sources like those reviewed in this issue.’ The CIA are well aware, and have been for decades, of the power of fiction to fill the knowledge vacuum created by institutional secrecy.
The CIA’s Opinion of Spy Films
The supplement then includes reviews and in some cases mini-polls of the opinions of CIA officers on a series of books and films. I won’t bore you by doing a full run down of what I think of every entry but the full list of articles is:
Stephen Maturin : the ideal intelligence officer for our times / Nicholas Dujmovic
The Spy who Came in from the Cold / Barry Royden
Crescent Moon Rising / Noah Rozman
Stormbreaker : James Bond for a new generation / Valerie P.
Rogue’s March / James M. Burridge
The Hunt for Red October : the techno-espionage prototype? / Bill Hadley
The Kite Runner / Elizabeth Darcy
One day in September and Munich : enduring questions, indelible images / Daniel Tsao
The Siege / Eric Heller
9/11 documentary / Dennis C. Wilder
Hamburg Cell / senior New Zealand SIS case officer
Baghdad ER : the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq, a documentary / Dr. John Elliott
Body of Lies / V.L. Vorbeck
The Recruit / John Anderson, Clifford L., Lucy B.
The Bourne Identity / J.M. Webb
Burn Notice / Lisa M. Forrester
Taken / Shirley A. Healer
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
A few of these jump out at me as being very interesting. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, written by former British intelligence officer John Le Carré is a curious addition, because it is hardly ‘contemporary media’. Also, in the BBC adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People the KGB head Karla is played by Patrick Stewart, who visited Langley off the back of those performances. According to an edition of What’s News at CIA, Stewart ‘cited the similarity of what the Agency stands for and the values portrayed on Star Trek‘. The review of The Spy who Came in From the Cold by Barry Royden is glowing, praising the book for its accuracy.
The Hunt for Red October
The Hunt for Red October is another amusing choice, as the book is something of an obsession for the US security state. The author Tom Clancy was invited to CIA headquarters after publishing the book, and the DOD participated in the production of the film adaptation. Clancy enjoyed a very close relationship with the US government and several of his other books were adapted into films with CIA and/or DOD assistance. As the review by Bill Hadley notes, The Hunt for Red October was the first work of fiction to be published by the Naval Institute Press. The US Naval Institute is a private non-profit with no official ties to the US Navy. Except that it is housed on the grounds of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and its current chairman is a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Hadley details the DOD co-operation in the film adaptation with some apparent glee:
Moviemakers avoided it for a long time because they regarded the story as too complicated. Ultimately producer Mace Neufeld took on the project. Several senior US naval officers—convinced the movie would do for submariners what Top Gun had done to boost the image of US Navy jet fighter pilots—provided unprecedented access to their submarines and training in submarine steering for Connery, Baldwin, and Scott Glenn (commander of the Dallas). The navy even allowed the use of its subs in the film. The USS Houston (in the role of the Dallas) reportedly made more than 40 emergency surfacing “blows” for rehearsal and for the cameras. Eventually, the Navy involved the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, helicopters, two frigates, and a dry-dock crew. Most reviewers panned the film, but it grossed $17 million during its first weekend in March 1990 (more than half its budget) and eventually earned about $200 million.
Body of Lies
Similarly, Body of Lies is a film that enjoyed assistance from some odd quarters. They employed Aymen Khalifa as a cultural consultant, who had previously worked on CIA-assisted productions Syriana and The Good Shepherd. Furthermore, all three of the film’s technical advisors are somewhat strange. Nicholas Rich, who went on to work on the DOD-assisted Transformers franchise, died at a young age in 2011. Kathy Brady, who also appeared in a minor role in the film, was not credited for her role as a consultant and does not appear to have an online public profile. Body of Lies is the only film she has worked on.
The third of the film’s technical advisors is a young man called Christopher Slaughter, who served two tours as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom for the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division. He then returned to the US and almost immediately got involved in Body of Lies, and then was Matt Damon’s body double in Green Zone. According to his LinkedIn profile he was also working for the London office of Red Clover Productions during this period, as well as obtaining a ‘Critical Thinking’ certification from the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2009. In 2010 he also worked as a NATO Special Operations Liaison to the DEA in Kabul, Afghanistan. This lasted less than a year, and then he opened and is now running the Seattle office of Red Clover. However, he is also continuing to gain certificates from the US Army, so he’s clearly running that revolving door in circles as fast as he can.
The CIA’s review of the film was written by a ‘a military veteran with six years work in CIA’s Counterterrorism Center’ using the pen name VL Vorbeck. In one passage the writer suggests that the CIA themselves were involved in the movie:
An entertaining, perhaps intentionally tongue-in-cheek, aspect of the film are scenes in which Hoffman conducts his spy direction from his home, car, kid’s soccer practice, etc. This is either Hollywood’s version of showing virtual control of operations worldwide or part of a recruitment campaign by the CIA to show that the chief of a major division can save the world and still have quality time with family.
1998’s The Siege was one of the first films to be recognised by the 9/11 ‘truth movement’ as possible predictive programming – seeding or promoting an idea through culture prior to making it happen for real. The CIA’s review of the movie cannot avoid mentioning how prescient it was, and how well it portrayed the immediately post-9/11 world three years before the attacks. One paragraph is downright hilarious:
The Siege tells the story of the US reaction to a wave of terrorist attacks by a shadowy network of Islamic extremists in New York City in retaliation for the US detention of an influential extremist sheikh in the Middle East. As a result of continued attacks, the president declares martial law in New York. The declaration pits the efforts of a CIA officer and an FBI task force against US military operations in the city to end the siege. In this story line, watchers cannot help but be reminded of the Khobar Towers attack and the detention of the “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abd al-Rahman, who was convicted in the United States for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and who has often been the subject of release demands from extremist groups.
What is outrageously ironic about this, aside from the reviewer Eric Heller being a counter-terrorism expert who doesn’t know how to spell the Blind Sheikh’s name, is that the Blind Sheikh was a CIA asset. The CIA has remained tight-lipped about their involvement with Rahman but the fact is that it was their agents posing as consular officials who arranged the visas that allowed the Blind Sheikh to enter the US. In April and May 1989 US officials secretly met with followers of the Blind Sheikh in Egypt, including a lawyer representing the group. The cables recording these meetings were signed by Frank Wisner – the US ambassador to Egypt and the son of the veteran of CIA black ops. A year later the Blind Sheikh moved to New York permanently.
Heller’s review even criticises The Siege for its ‘hyperbolic flair’, and one example of this is ‘CIA officers making amends for a failed covert operation by facilitating the movement of terrorists into the United States’. This is exactly what some CIA officers do, this isn’t hyperbolic flair at all. However, the DOD’s Heller manages to say one sensible thing: ‘Films like The Siege deserve our attention, no matter how hyperbolically portrayed. They tell us how some people think about these issues well before they are in vogue.’ No shit, Sherlock.
Naudet Brothers 9/11 Documentary
The CIA’s Special Review Supplement also takes a look at the infamous 9/11 documentary by Jules and Gideon Naudet. This is the film that was being shot in New York as the brothers followed members of the NY Fire Department around for several weeks. They happened to be in just the right place at just the right time to capture both planes striking both towers, and the collapse of both towers – one from inside the other. The CIA review is almost exclusively devoted to the author remembering their experience of 9/11, before likening the film to the footage ‘of soldiers struggling to gain a foothold on Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944’. That footage was, of course, shot by military cameramen.
The 2003 thriller The Recruit is a beautiful choice, given the prominent involvement of the CIA’s own Chase Brandon in the production of the film. We reviewed this film as part of our recent series The CIA and Hollywood, so a thorough dissection can be found here, but the three different comments on The Recruit from three different CIA officers are quite revelatory. All three used pseudonyms, with ‘John Anderson’ saying:
Personally, my main motivation in joining the Agency was to work against the terrorist target. For this reason, The Recruit did not really influence my decision to apply— very little of the movie dealt with issues that were important to me. I did find the fast-paced lifestyle portrayed in the movie appealing, however. I would recommend the movie to an aspiring NCS candidate, but only for its entertainment value.
Another officer, ‘Clifford L’ particularly enjoyed the movie, particularly ‘the DVD special features that included minidocumentaries about the CIA, hosted by Chase Brandon, a former operations officer who consulted when the movie was being made.’ He also mentioned that, ‘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.’
The most accurate comment comes from the final reviewer ‘Lucy B’ (clearly the pseudonym officer on duty that day was a bit lazy) who mentions that she saw the film when it first came out and then watched it again after completing her training as a CIA case officer. She said that, ‘My second viewing led to several “aha” moments, and specific lines in the movie stood out to me because it was clear that the movie’s makers had consultations with CIA officers about what the training entails. They got at least some elements of it spot on, embedded in a lot of Hollywood embellishments.’ While obviously quite neutral this is nonetheless a very apt description of the film and its production process.
The Bourne Identity
The last film that really stood out for me is the 2002 action spy thriller The Bourne Identity, the first of the trilogy adapted from the books by Robert Ludlum. In a 2001 interview Chase Brandon denied being involved in the production of the film, saying it was ‘so awful that I tossed it in the burn bag after page 25’. Despite this the latter two films in the trilogy feature the signature shots of Langley that are the tell-tale sign of CIA approval, and Chase Brandon himself even appears in a Special Edition DVD featurette for the first film, the one he explicitly denied his involvement in:
Clearly, Chase is telling porkies when he says he threw the script in the burn bag. The CIA’s review of the film from 2009, which is very positive, was put together by an analyst – obviously the ideal person to give a realistic appraisal of this story about a mind-controlled assassin. Indeed, the review is striking in its lack of emotion, and its commitment to purely analytical responses. The closing couple of lines demonstrate this very well:
Part of what makes watching The Bourne Identity interesting is seeing characters so deeply flawed they think they can act with impunity in the pursuit of their own self interests, particularly since the Agency works so hard to give officers a strong ethical compass to guide them through murky waters. What’s disquieting however, is when CIA officers are caught in the middle of the pursuit of national interests, debates over the national conscience, and clashing political philosophies.
The recurring theme throughout these reviews is that the CIA is portrayed relatively accurately in these films, albeit with some dramatic exaggeration and invention. This says a lot less about the films themselves and a lot more about the CIA’s indoctrination of its workforce, but it is nonetheless not far from the truth. The problem is that the things that these low-level case officers and analysts see as hyperbolic or unrealistic are in reality the stock in trade of the sociopaths in the upper echelons of black operations.
This is the doublethink not just in the CIA’s internal training propaganda for its own officers and agents, but also in these films, for us, the public who are watching, and who are reading these reviews. These reviews have been produced by the same process of quasi-deniable propaganda that helped make the films they are discussing. As per usual, the CIA think they are clever and are trying to stay one step ahead, but they are almost invariably hoisted by their own petard and outed by their own arrogance.
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