Inside the CIA's Troubling Collaboration With Hollywood

“All art is propaganda … sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately,” Upton Sinclair once wrote. While that’s undoubtedly true, some pieces of art are more deliberately propaganda than others, as documents recently obtained by Vice News’ Jason Leopold reveal.

According to a 2012 audit report on the CIA’s engagement with the entertainment industry obtained by Leopold as part of a Freedom of Information request, the CIA has had its hand in at least 22 entertainment projects between 2006 and 2011, which run the gamut from books and movies to reality television. It’s all part of the CIA’s effort to work with entertainment professionals “to debunk myths about CIA and intelligence work, present a balanced and accurate image of the CIA and lend authenticity to entertainment industry projects,” according to the report.

The report names only seven of these projects, including the novel The Devil’s Light, by Richard North Patterson, the USA Network drama Covert Affairs, the History Channel documentary Air America: The CIA’s Secret Airline, and the BBC’s 2011 two-part series The Secret War on Terror. Two of the projects listed, the 2012 Oscar contenders Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, are not surprising given the major role played by the CIA in both films, although the CIA’s hand in the making of Argo was not known prior to this.

Arguably the most bizarre inclusion on the list is the 10th episode of the seventh season of the cooking show Top Chef, titled “Covert Cuisine,” which featured contestants serving “disguised” dishes to CIA officers and staff, including its “esteemed director” at the time, Leon Panetta.

The episode features Panetta making humorous chit-chat with the show’s judges—“For once, I know something you don’t,” one judge tells him. “They would have captured this individual,” Panetta jokes of another contestant’s poorly disguised beef Wellington, until he is abruptly forced to leave when “business calls.” Cue ominous music and concerned faces. “Are you used to Director Panetta having to dine and dash?” one judge asks. “It happens often,” a staff member replies.

According to the report, the CIA receives anywhere from five to seven requests per week about projects, mainly dealing with questions about “CIA culture or historical events.” However, as the Top Chef episode makes clear, some of the projects worked on by the CIA also tend to humanize and bolster the reputation of the agency whose name today is synonymous with lawlessness and the toppling of democratic governments.

Argo, for instance, is a thrilling, heroic tale about the CIA’s rescue of six Americans from Iran during the 1979-'80 hostage crisis. But while the movie’s opening notes the United States’ role in overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953, an event that eventually led to the hostage crisis depicted in the film, it conveniently leaves out the fact that it was the CIA—the film’s heroes—who helped engineer the coup. After its release, the film was also criticized for playing down the major role of the Canadians in helping the hostages escape, with the former Canadian ambassador to Iran saying that he was worried “that we’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.”

Zero Dark Thirty took even more controversial liberties with the facts. The film portrays its hero, Maya, as a dogged, hyper-competent CIA agent who refuses to give up on the hunt for Osama bin Laden despite the objections of her naysaying superiors. The actual analyst she was based on, however, reportedly “gleefully participated in torture,” lied about its effectiveness to Congress and was repeatedly involved in major intelligence failures, including failing to notify the FBI that two of the eventual 9/11 hijackers had entered the country. The movie was also controversial for propagating the falsehood that torture led investigators to find bin Laden, despite Panetta’s own words to the contrary. These errors are somewhat curious if the CIA’s goal is to “debunk myths about CIA and intelligence work.”

A Double Standard on Disclosure

The audit report also raises questions about the CIA’s handling of classified information, suggesting that on multiple occasions, the entertainment professionals the agency worked with may have been exposed to information they were not at liberty to learn.

“OPA [the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs] and other CIA employees did not always comply with Agency regulations intended to prevent the release of classified information during the interactions with entertainment industry representatives,” the report states.

The report goes on to note that several of the officers involved in three of the listed projects “did not receive guidance from OPA concerning their interaction with entertainment industry representatives,” and during the interviews for Zero Dark Thirty, they were “unclear concerning what information could be discussed in the interviews and uncomfortable with the information being discussed.” They believed they should have been better prepared by the OPA, which should have “exercised greater control of the interviews.”

In one instance, contrary to the CIA’s own guidelines, an entertainment industry representative was allowed to attend an agency event that included discussions of information classified as “Secret,” the U.S. government’s second-highest classification level. According to the government, “Secret” information is that which “reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security” if disclosed without authorization. There is no suggestion in the report that the officials involved were disciplined for these lapses.

The CIA’s feeding of classified information to entertainment industry representatives, both purposeful and accidental, stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s zealous prosecution of national security leaks viewed as damaging or embarrassing to the government. The administration has used the nearly 100-year-old Espionage Act to prosecute more than double the number of leakers and whistleblowers as all other administrations combined. One of these individuals, former State Department official Stephen Kim, was prosecuted for merely talking about—not even handing over—a classified report with a journalist, one that government officials described as “a nothing burger.”

Lights, Camera, Espionage

The CIA and the entertainment world have a long and tangled history, which began in the 1950s when the agency tried to influence film productions by working with hyper-patriotic anticommunist industry members, such as John Wayne and director John Ford. It was around this time that the CIA recruited Paramount Pictures’ head of censorship, Luigi Luraschi, who worked at the agency’s behest to remove scenes from films that showed Americans in a bad light, insert “well dressed negroes” into films to offset Soviet propaganda, and help ensure left-leaning films like High Noon didn’t receive industry awards. The CIA also bought the rights to George Orwell’s anti-Soviet Animal Farm, which it turned into an animated film in 1954.

Since then, the CIA has played an advisory role on numerous entertainment projects, including the 2001 CBS series The Agency, and the films Enemy of the State, Bad Company and The Recruit.1 The marriage of Hollywood and the CIA was mirrored by the marriage of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, both stars of heavily CIA-advised projects: 2002’s Tom Clancy thriller The Sum of All Fears and ABC’s spy drama Alias, respectively. Affleck would go on to direct Argo.

The CIA is far from unique. Several other government agencies have recognized the value of inserting themselves into the making of entertainment projects, such as the Department of Defense, which has had its hand in an array of films, including Top Gun, the Transformers series, True Lies and Rules of Engagement.2 It regularly provides filmmakers with the military resources they need for scenes, allowing it to subtly influence the screen portrayal of U.S. forces. In return for the Pentagon’s help on the film Black Hawk Down, for example, the filmmakers omitted the fact that one character was a child rapist in real life. Likewise, after the Department of Defense complained about a scene in the movie Windtalkers where an American soldier steals gold teeth from the corpses of Japanese soldiers, it was cut.

It’s no wonder, then, that the CIA’s portrayal in today’s entertainment media is a far cry from the far more cynical 1970s, when films like Three Days of the Condor portrayed the agency as a sinister, shadowy entity that was virtually a state in and of itself.3 For the sake of results like these, it seems the CIA is happy to violate its own standards of secrecy and non-disclosure. Perhaps this tweet sent by the CIA after the release of Argo sums it up best:

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