Agencies of the U.S. government have long employed entertainment liaison officers to improve their public image in the mass media. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation established an office in the 1930s to bolster its image in radio programs, films, and television shows, including G-Men (1935), The FBI Story (1959), and The F.B.I. (1965–1974). In 1947, the Department of Defense followed suit, and now the army, the navy, the air force, the marine corps, the coast guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Secret Service all have motion picture and television offices or official assistants to the media on their payroll. Even government centers are currently working with Tinseltown, as evidenced by Hollywood, Health, and Society—a program partially funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to provide the entertainment industry with information on health-related story lines.
Despite the fact that it has existed since 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was the last major government agency to establish formal relations with the motion picture industry. In fact, it did not found a basic entertainment program until the early 1990s and did not hire Chase Brandon as its first entertainment industry liaison officer until 1996. Perhaps because its efforts in film and television are relatively new, only a very small amount of scholarship has examined the CIA's collaborations, motivations, and methodologies in this field. The lack of scholarship is surprising, however, given that the Agency has already shaped the content of numerous film and television works, including JAG (1995–2005), Enemy of the State (1998), In the Company of Spies (1999), The Agency (2001–2003), Alias (2001–2006), 24 (2001–2010), Bad Company (2002), The Sum of All Fears (2002), The Recruit (2003), Covert Affairs (2010–), and Argo (in production). CIA administrators have also met with studio heads and theatrical agents in order to influence their ideas about the Agency more broadly, and its retired officers have likewise contributed to numerous films, including Yuri Nosenko, KGB (1986), Sneakers (1992), Meet the Parents (2000), Syriana (2005), The Good Shepherd (2006), Rendition (2007), Charlie Wilson's War (2007), Salt (2010), and Red (2010).
As a result, this book sets out to answer a number of important questions regarding the CIA and its involvement in Hollywood (which here is used as a shorthand term to describe both the American film and television industry). These questions include: What is the nature of the CIA's role in the motion picture industry? What texts has the CIA influenced and to what ends? What events motivated Langley (here used as shorted for the CIA as whole) to reverse its closed-door policy regarding Hollywood in the 1990s? How does the role of the retired CIA officer in the entertainment industry differ from the role of the Agency, and why have these retirees generated so much government flak? How has film and television traditionally depicted the Agency? And what are the legal and ethical concerns that a relationship between the CIA and Hollywood present, especially in a democracy?
In order to answer these questions, this book employs a close textual analysis of several CIA-assisted texts and incorporates existing scholarship and journalism on the topic. Perhaps most significant, however, The CIA in Hollywood also draws from numerous interviews I conducted with the CIA's public affairs staff, operations officers, and historians, as well as with Hollywood technical consultants, producers, and screenwriters who have worked with the Agency over the years. These interviews provide greater insight into the nature of CIA-assisted texts and an additional behind-the-scenes, production economy perspective.
This book is important because very few people know that the CIA has been actively engaged in shaping the content of film and television, and they fail to understand how or even why the Agency has become more formally involved with this sector in the last fifteen years. Additionally, as Matthew Alford and Robbie Graham write, "academic debates on cinematic propaganda are almost entirely retrospective, and whilst a number of commentators have drawn attention to Hollywood's longstanding and open relationship with the Pentagon, little of substance has been written about the more clandestine influences working through Hollywood in the post-9/11 world." Indeed, one of the greatest misconceptions about the CIA is that it purposely avoids all types of media exposure; in fact, as Richard Aldrich points out, much of what we know about Langley has been deliberately placed in the public domain by the Agency itself, since it realizes the importance of controlling its public image. By revealing what has, to date, remained a largely hidden history of the CIA in Hollywood, this project encourages readers to become more critical consumers of contemporary media and to further the academic conversation surrounding the modern government-entertainment complex.
But this book is not without its limitations. The CIA is far from an open organization, and many who work for the Agency remained tight-lipped about even the most basic information. Likewise, because the CIA has often preferred to communicate with theatrical agents through phone conversations rather than through e-mail or letters, it rarely leaves a paper trail, making it much more difficult to obtain relevant materials through Freedom of Information Act requests. Additionally, when Chase Brandon retired from his position as the CIA's entertainment liaison in 2006, he reportedly took with him every telephone number and piece of paper related to his job, and thus, as his successor Paul Barry explains, "nothing remains from the past (1995–late 2006)," leaving researchers with even less documentation to request and review. As a result, the history of the CIA in Hollywood is, at present, more of a verbal history than a written one, which is complicated by the fact that those in Hollywood are often too busy, or simply unwilling, to speak with academic researchers about their collaborations with the government. Also, because the CIA's relationship with Hollywood involves "deep politics"—so called because they involve "activities which cannot currently be fully understood due to the covert influence of shadowy power players"—this book cannot possibly claim to unveil all of the CIA's involvement in motion pictures over the past fifteen to twenty years; indeed, some of these collaborations may never be brought to light, while the exact nature of others will remain hidden. Instead, this book can only unveil a significant part of the CIA's hidden history in film and television, evaluate the impact of that history, and establish a strong foundation on which future investigations of the CIA in Hollywood may be based.
The Role and Structure of the CIA
Before delving into any analysis of the CIA's current involvement in Hollywood, it is important to briefly outline the structure and purpose of the Agency, and the extent to which it worked with the motion picture industry prior to the 1990s. The National Security Act of 1947 officially established the Central Intelligence Agency. The act, signed by President Truman, created a centralized intelligence organization aimed at correlating, evaluating, and disseminating information affecting national security. The information collected by the CIA assists military, executive, and legislative leaders in their decision-making processes. Unlike the FBI, which primarily collects information on American subjects, the CIA is sanctioned only to work abroad (although it can collect information on foreign subjects on U.S. soil). The CIA also has no "police, subpoena, law enforcement, or internal security functions."
While the CIA's stated mission is to provide the president and congressional leaders with intelligence essential to national security, the Agency also engages in covert operations. Historically, these operations have included paramilitary activities and propaganda campaigns aimed at destabilizing and influencing opposing regimes, even during peacetime. The CIA uses secret funds to conduct these black operations under the premise of "plausible deniability," and while these activities are often controversial, it is important to remember that the CIA's covert capability is exercised at the direction of the president. No covert action is supposed to be undertaken without explicit presidential instruction or, as of the 1960s, a "finding," which is a legal authorization about which congressional overseers are made aware.
In order to accomplish its covert missions and its intelligence collection, the CIA has been divided into four sectors for most of its history. The National Clandestine Service (formerly called the Directorate of Operations) works to recruit and manage agents who provide the Agency with information, and it also attempts to influence or overthrow foreign governments, political parties, or leaders "through secret funding, training, paramilitary operations and propaganda." The Directorate of Intelligence houses the Agency's analysts, who bring together information from human assets, satellites, television and radio broadcasts, newsletters, scientific publications, and more in order to make predictions about events and to inform policy makers. The third sector, the Directorate of Science and Technology, monitors satellite imagery, military communications, missile transmissions, and intercepted communications both within countries and inside foreign embassies. The directorate is also responsible for the creation of disguises and document forgeries, including foreign passports and birth certificates, for use by its assets and officers in the field. The final sector of the CIA is the Directorate of Support (formerly called the Directorate of Administration). Historically, this has been the CIA's largest department. In 1992, it housed roughly nine thousand employees, as opposed to the Directorate of Operations' five thousand, the Directorate of Intelligence's three thousand, and the Directorate of Science and Technology's five thousand employees. These administrators, along with the Office of Human Resources, manage the Agency's payroll, office supply center, and money-laundering efforts. They also provide medical services for officers stationed overseas, manage the Agency's travel and transportation needs, assign security clearances, and work with the Agency's industrial partners in the corporate sector. The directorate is also responsible for creating the Agency's global communications system and its information technology and security infrastructure.
Each of these directorates used to be managed by the director of central intelligence (DCI). The DCI served as the head of the CIA, coordinated other intelligence agencies in the government, and acted as the primary adviser to the president on foreign intelligence matters. In December 2004, however, President George W. Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which restructured the intelligence community after the 9-11 Commission criticized its organization. This act abolished the position of the DCI as the coordinator of other intelligence agencies and gave those responsibilities to the newly created Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The act also changed the name of the DCI to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D/CIA), and this individual's only job is to now oversee the Agency and provide advice to policy makers.
One of the many tasks of the D/CIA is to hire and work with a director of public affairs (DPA) in order to communicate with the public. This director oversees the CIA's Public Affairs Office (PAO), which is responsible for handling Langley's internal communications and media requests from news organizations, academics, and entertainment professionals. For the purposes of this book, it is important to emphasize that the majority of all Hollywood collaborators work in or through the PAO, and that from 1996 to 2008, the DPA oversaw the agency's entertainment industry liaison officers—Chase Brandon and Paul Barry—who were fully dedicated to assisting and influencing filmmakers and novelists. Upon Barry's departure in 2008, however, the PAO restructured its office, and now the responsibility of assisting moviemakers, writers, and television producers is divided among its four-person media relations team, although the position of entertainment liaison remained open as of the writing of this book.
The CIA in Hollywood during the Cold War
Because the CIA did not hire its first entertainment liaison until 1996, many have assumed that it was completely inactive in the film industry during the Cold War. This assumption is incorrect, as other Agency employees did work with filmmakers to carry out covert operations and propaganda campaigns. For example, Hugh Wilford explains in The Mighty Wurlitzer that the CIA was very interested in Hollywood during the Cold War because it believed films were the best medium through which to communicate pro-democratic messages in countries where illiteracy rates were high. Thus the CIA set out to influence several film productions by working with "intensely patriotic" and anticommunist players in the industry, including the filmmaker John Ford, the actor John Wayne, and the studio heads Cecil B. DeMille, Darryl Zanuck, and Luigi Luraschi.
Indeed, the CIA's 1950s recruitment of Luraschi, the head of domestic and foreign censorship at Paramount Studios, proved productive, though short-lived. According to David Eldridge, Luraschi's job was to eliminate images that would offend foreign markets in the preproduction and production stages. He specifically worked to delete scenes where Americans were depicted as "brash, drunk, sexually immoral, violent or 'trigger-happy,'" and to eliminate others where Americans traveling abroad were depicted as imperialistic or insensitive to other cultures. Luraschi worked to ensure that left-leaning films, such as High Noon (1952) and The Little World of Don Camillo (1952), were passed over for industry accolades, and he reported to the CIA on the political sympathies of other movie professionals. Luraschi also worked with several casting directors to plant "well dressed negroes" into films, including "a dignified negro butler" who has lines "indicating he is a free man" in Sangaree (1953) and another in a golf scene in the 1953 film The Caddy. These changes were not part of a campaign to instill what we now call "political correctness" in the populace, but were, as Alford and Graham write, "specifically enacted to hamper the Soviets' ability to exploit its enemy's poor record in race relations."
The Office of Policy Coordination, a think tank housed at the CIA, also worked to discredit Soviet ideologies and counter communists' attacks on the West through film. In the early 1950s, two members of the OPC's psychological warfare team who had dabbled in radio and film began negotiating with George Orwell's widow for the film rights to Animal Farm, his allegorical novella that painted an unflattering image of Stalin and the communist policies before World War II. According to Tony Shaw's Hollywood's Cold War, the novel was selected by the OPC because it could be turned into an animated film, which would be easily consumed by the illiterate in developing countries yet also be understood by industrial workers in more developed nations, where motion pictures played a larger cultural role. That Orwell was a democratic socialist also distanced the film from right-leaning capitalists and could help disguise American backing of the project.
Orwell's widow, Sonia Blair, eventually agreed to sell the rights to Louis de Rochement's production company, RD-DR, with Carleton Alsop of the OPC likely acting as a go-between to finance and broker the deal. De Rochement eventually contracted with a British animation company to produce the film since it would reduce costs, but also because "the lighter the American hand in the film, the greater its propaganda potential became." While the film was never hugely successful, it did generate significant media attention and manipulated the ending of Orwell's book to drive home its anti-Soviet message, thereby helping the CIA circulate pro-capitalist ideologies through film without the public ever knowing of its involvement. In fact, Daniel Leab, author of Orwell Subverted, points out that it took decades for the rumors about CIA involvement in Animal Farm to be properly documented, which "speaks volumes" about the Agency's abilities to keep its activities covert.
By the late 1950s, the CIA had "grown adept at secretly financing the distribution of foreign-made films in regions of the world considered vulnerable to communism." In fact, it repeated the feat by working alongside the Family Rosary Crusade's Father Patrick Peyton and the shipping magnate J. Peter Grace in 1958. Grace had asked the CIA to finance the dissemination of Peyton's Spanish-language "rosary films," which encouraged Catholicism, family unity, and prayer, since he believed "the strongest bulwark against communism was religion." DCI Allen Dulles and Vice President Richard Nixon agreed to the proposal and provided the Family Rosary Crusade with $20,000 to launch a pilot program that showcased Peyton's films throughout Latin America.
There were still further efforts to win hearts and minds. Through its Psychological Strategy Board, the CIA tried—without luck—to commission Frank Capra to direct a film series titled Why We Fight the Cold War and provided details to filmmakers about conditions in the USSR, in the hopes that they would use them in their movies. More successfully, the CIA-supervised American Committee for Cultural Freedom oversaw the production of the Michael Redgrave feature 1984 (1956), and the Agency was able to influence the 1958 film version of The Quiet American. Edward Lansdale, a legendary CIA operative, specifically helped the writer and director of the latter film, Joseph Mankiewicz, to "reverse the anti-Americanism" of Graham Greene's novel and turn it "into a decidedly patriotic film." The pair's revisions included an alternate ending, where the communists, rather than the American-backed Colonel Thé;, are responsible for a terrorist bombing in Saigon. The two also reveal that the communists have tricked Thomas Fowler into murdering the quiet American, Alden Pyle, who turns out not to be a bomb maker (as he is in the novel and as film viewers had been led to believe), but rather a manufacturer of children's toys. Upon the film's completion, Lansdale wrote to President Ngo Dinh Diem that the film was an excellent change from "Greene's novel of despair" and should help the American-backed president "win more friends . . . [in] Vietnam [and] in many places in the world where it is shown."
As Harry Rositzke explains in The CIA's Secret Operations, the heyday for CIA covert propaganda campaigns ran throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s but eventually declined by the end of the decade. Nonetheless, the CIA did continue to use film and filmmakers during the later stages of the Cold War. Tony Mendez, a retired CIA officer, recalls that any time a Soviet official visited the United States, the Agency made sure he or she left with VHS players, computers, fashion magazines, and films in order to spur the Soviets' desire for capitalism. Mendez also claimed that the CIA's covert action programs often "had a very robust media component," and that its "Mighty Wurlitzer" program "co-opted a lot of showbiz people who were used as ambassadors of the West." The CIA officer Paul Barry likewise explained that the Agency "pumped" dozens of episodes of Dynasty (1981–1989) into East Germany during the Cold War in order to sell those residents on capitalism and the luxury life it could afford.
The CIA also worked with filmmakers to carry out its covert operations. Mendez, a former disguise master, has often recounted how the famous makeup artist John Chambers worked as a consultant with the Headquarters Disguise Unit to develop new techniques. Chambers, at the time of his collaboration, was at the apex of his career, having just won an Academy Award for his makeup artistry on Planet of the Apes (1968). For that film, Chambers had developed a malleable material that could be applied to actors' arms and faces to make their disguises look more realistic, even from reasonably close distances. His developments, which he shared with the CIA, were then further developed for use in the field. In one case, the Agency even used the material to transform an Asian statesman and an African American case officer into two Caucasians, which helped the men continue their clandestine meetings without attracting much attention in Vientiane, Laos.
But Hollywood's makeup artists did not stop at helping the CIA to develop disguise materials. The collaboration with Chambers again proved extremely useful in 1979, when a group of Islamic militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian Revolution. Between November 1979 and January 1981, roughly fifty Americans were held hostage, but six were able to escape the embassy and enter into hiding before the takeover was complete. In Master of Disguise, Mendez recounts how the CIA was able to extract these six men and women from the country by disguising them as a Hollywood film crew. "In the intelligence business," he writes, "we usually try to match cover legends closely to the actual experience of the person involved. A cover should be bland, as uninteresting as possible, so the casual observer, or the not-so-casual immigration official, doesn't probe too deeply." The situation in Teheran, however, was unusual, and Mendez believed that disguising the men and women as a film crew might work precisely because no sensible spy organization would be suspected of using it.
In order to build a convincing cover for the Americans, Mendez and his team worked with Chambers and fellow makeup artist Bob Sidell to establish a fake Hollywood production company called Studio Six Productions, which soon announced its first project—a movie titled Argo to be shot in Iran. The front company soon took out trade advertisements announcing the film's production in both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter to strengthen the cover of the six Americans, who would eventually pose as members of a production crew surveying the country for shooting locations, transportation logistics, and more. The fake production company was so convincing that it had acquired twenty-eight scripts from screenwriters during the time it was open, including submissions from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Mendez, Chambers, and Sidell kept Studio Six running until March of 1980, six weeks after the small American group arrived home safely, because the CIA believed that it might be able to use the Argo project to send larger production crews into Iran in the future. The production crews, of course, would really be composed of Delta Force members who would then rescue the remaining hostages through military action, but the Agency never carried out this plan. The Hollywood community never learned about the CIA's deception until seventeen years later when the Agency asked Mendez to tell his story. George Clooney's Smoke House production company is now scheduled to turn the story of the operation into a dramedy with Warner Bros. backing. The film, originally called Escape from Tehran but now titled Argo, is a joint effort between Clooney and Grant Heslov (who previously collaborated on 2005's Good Night and Good Luck), and is scheduled for release in 2012.
These examples do not cover all of the CIA's work during the Cold War, but they are representative, since each demonstrates that the Agency collaborated with the entertainment industry to promote American ideologies abroad and formulated an alliance with trusted artists to help carry out covert operations. The end of the Cold War, however, brought about a rapid and dramatic shift in the CIA's relationship with Hollywood. Instead of using motion pictures for psychological warfare directed at communists living abroad, the Agency primarily began to use film and television to improve its own public image at home. This shift in focus was complete by the mid-1990s, when Langley hired its first entertainment industry liaison officer and had an officially backed television series in development. In order to understand why this shift took place and how the CIA now works to affect popular media, the rest of this book explores the CIA's post–Cold War and post-9/11 involvement in the entertainment industry.
Outline of This Book's Structure
Because the CIA often claims that it began working with Hollywood to reverse its negative image in film and television, The CIA in Hollywood begins by providing an overview of how the American motion picture industry has historically depicted the Agency. The first chapter, "Rogues, Assassins, and Buffoons," specifically explains that the CIA has been represented in five main ways: As an outfit (1) intent on assassination, (2) comprising rogue operatives who act with little oversight, (3) failing to take care of its own officers and assets, (4) operating on morally ambiguous and perhaps morally reprehensible grounds, or (5) bedeviled by its own buffoonery and hopeless disorganization. The chapter then explains how the CIA's actual history, the demands of cinematic storytelling, and the political nature of the Hollywood community have all contributed to these representations, before arguing that such negative images are only part of the reason for the CIA's current involvement in Hollywood—even though they are, by far, the most cited.
Chapter 2, "Opening the Doors," picks up on this thread by explaining why the CIA's negative image in film and television grew to be of greater concern during the end of the Cold War and the Aldrich Ames case of 1994. These two events were what primarily caused the CIA to establish a formal relationship with filmmakers in the mid-1990s and led to its first major Hollywood collaboration—a little-known television series called The Classified Files of the CIA that was heavily modeled after ABC and J. Edgar Hoover's television series The FBI. The chapter then explains why the CIA hired Chase Brandon as its first entertainment liaison in 1996, outlines what this job entailed, and unveils how the CIA is now able to influence texts in both the production and preproduction stages of filmmaking.
The third chapter, "Necessary and Competent," takes an in-depth look at two of the CIA's earliest collaborations that actually made it to viewers: Showtime's film In the Company of Spies and the CBS television series The Agency. Both of these projects were granted unprecedented access to CIA personnel and Agency headquarters for filming, and were even scheduled to premiere at red-carpet events at Langley. Drawing on internal CIA documents and interviews with the shows' writers, technical consultants, and assistant producers, this chapter outlines the exact nature of support that the CIA lent these projects. Further, I explore how that support helped improve Langley's image at a time when the news media were either highly critical of the CIA's intelligence gathering or questioning the need for the Agency's very existence. The chapter also explains how Chase Brandon worked with The Agency's creator to intimidate terrorists through the show's narratives and may have even used the series to workshop threat scenarios on the CIA's behalf.
Building on the information presented in the previous chapter, chapter 4, "The Chase Brandon Years," explores several other post-9/11 media collaborations in order to demonstrate further the scope and nature of the CIA's relationship with Hollywood. Placing a special emphasis on Enemy of the State, The Sum of All Fears, Alias, and The Recruit, this chapter specifically explains the CIA's motivations for working in Hollywood, especially as they relate to recruitment, intimidating or misinforming its enemies, improving its public image, and boosting employee morale and its industry connections.
Perhaps the most critical chapter of this book, chapter 5, "The Legal and Ethical Implications of the CIA in Hollywood," engages with many of the legal and ethical issues at play within CIA-Hollywood collaborations. More specifically, it argues that the CIA's refusal to support all filmmakers seeking its assistance constitutes a violation of the First Amendment's right to free speech. The chapter also posits that CIA efforts in Hollywood should be defined as propaganda, rather than the educational campaigns that the CIA often claims them to be, and that Langley's actions violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the publicity and propaganda laws, which forbid the government from engaging in self-aggrandizing and covert communication.
Chapter 6, "The Last People We Want in Hollywood," takes a departure from officially assisted works to analyze the role of the retired CIA officer in Hollywood, exploring the advantages and drawbacks of their work from the perspectives of the viewers, filmmakers, and the CIA itself. The chapter focuses heavily on Milt Bearden and Robert Baer's work on The Good Shepherd, Syriana, and, to a lesser extent, Charlie Wilson's War as case studies. Because Agency retirees have no obligation to provide a positive or even fair image of Langley, the CIA has often claimed that retirees are the "last people" they want to represent them in Hollywood. The CIA's dissatisfaction with retirees has also been compounded by the fact that some of their most successful collaborations have fallen into the category of the docudrama, causing viewers to see these more negative films as historically accurate. As such, this chapter explores the CIA flak aimed at discrediting these men and their films, but it ultimately argues that their work in Hollywood is actually valuable. A brief conclusion that highlights many of the book's main ideas follows.
In total, then, this book aims to give readers a look at the CIA-Hollywood relationship from multiple perspectives and to explore an under-studied topic. It is my hope that The CIA in Hollywood will also encourage more critical media consumption and shed additional light on the topic of government propaganda.