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New evidence for the surprisingly significant propaganda role of the CIA and the DOD in the screen entertainment industry

This article reassesses the relationships of the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense with the American entertainment industry. Both governmental institutions present their relationships as modest in scale, benign in nature, passive, and concerned with historical and technical accuracy rather than politics. The limited extant commentary reflects this reassuring assessment. However, we build on a patchy reassessment begun at the turn of the 21st century, using a significant new set of documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. We identify three key facets of the state-entertainment relationship that are under-emphasized or absent from the existing commentary and historical record: 1. The withholding of available data from the public; 2. The scale of the work; and 3. The level of politicization. As such, the article emphasizes a need to pay closer attention to the deliberate propaganda role played by state agencies in promoting the US national security state through entertainment media in western societies.

Part 2 - The Withholding of Available Data from the Public

The largest library archive about the DOD’s influence on entertainment is held at Georgetown University and curated by Lawrence Suid. The authors and several colleagues of different ages, genders, and levels of academic experience requested access to these files. Suid rejected each request. In his clearest refusal to share material, Suid explained that, ‘I trust you will understand the difficulty I would have in opening my files while I am still using them’,1 though he has not generated any new analysis since 2005.

In 2004, Robb highlighted some egregious examples of the DOD exerting political influence over Hollywood scripts. Despite his extensive discussion of the archived documentation, Suid’s books have made no direct reference to the politically-motivated changes on numerous films, including: Clear and Present Danger (e.g. removal of racist language by the President); Tomorrow Never Dies (e.g. removal of a joke about the US losing the Vietnam War); Contact (e.g. changing a scene that makes the military appear paranoid); Thirteen Days (e.g. an attempt to convince the producers that the Joint Chiefs had behaved responsibly during the Cuban Missile Crisis); Windtalkers (e.g. a scene depicting a historically accurate Marine war crime was removed) – as discussed below – as well as Tears of the Sun (the military prevented the depiction of ‘nasty conspiracies’); The Green Berets (e.g. references to the illegal US bombing of Laos were removed); Rules of Engagement (e.g. the lead character is ‘toned down’); Black Hawk Down (e.g. a scene depicting the military machine gunning wild boar is removed); and Goldeneye (the nationality of a duped American Admiral is changed), as discussed in Alford and Secker’s 2017 book. Although Suid gives good coverage of film releases that have been denied cooperation, he chooses not to comment whatsoever on productions that were terminated due to the DOD’s refusal to cooperate, including Countermeasures, Top Gun II, and Fields of Fire.

Direct approaches to the DOD’s ELO have also proven to be of dubious utility. Strub claimed ‘I stopped keeping paper records long ago. I don’t maintain electronic ones, either’ and that a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request could only disclose, at best, a ‘brief entry in an incomplete data base’. He suggested we contact Suid, which only serves to highlight how the presence of Suid has helped insulate the DOD from the FOIA (Strub, 2014).

Actually, although the ‘incomplete data base’ is mostly lacking information about the degree of political influence and script changes brought to bear by the DOD, it does contain some relevant new data and it helped clarify the scale of DOD support to entertainment products. Despite this, the overwhelming majority of the new data concerns what the military provided to the filmmakers in terms of access to people, locations and vehicles and does not record what the Pentagon asked for in return. Similarly, our request to the US Navy for copies of script notes on recently-supported productions resulted, after well over a year’s delay, in a response saying that they do not keep copies of script notes (2017). We appealed and provided them with a copy of their own notes on Lone Survivor, released to another requester, but no further information has so far been forthcoming.

The available CIA records regarding their involvement in and influence on entertainment products are even more scant. While hundreds of pages of emails and memos regarding Zero Dark Thirty were released in response to a FOIA lawsuit, the equivalent records regarding other CIA-supported productions have never been released. Secker and others have requested files on Argo and Top Chef – which unlike Zero Dark Thirty were even granted permission to film at CIA headquarters – but the CIA’s responses say they cannot find even a single document.

The same problem applies to the Chase Brandon era (1996–2006) in the CIA’s liaison office. According to his successor, Paul Barry, when Brandon left the Agency in late 2006 he took all his papers with him, and so ‘nothing remains from the past’ (quoted in Jenkins, 2009). Tricia Jenkins’ work suggests two alternative reactions to this hole in the CIA’s records: (1) that it does not make much difference because, as producer Michael Beckner put it, ‘everything he did with the CIA was done on a handshake and a phone call’ (Jenkins, 2016: 69) and so Brandon’s paper-trail was probably minimal anyway; and (2) that it might matter enormously because extensive memos show that Chase Brandon was responsible for essentially ghost-writing the film The Recruit and so, presumably, he used this written method for a considerable body of material. The 2016 edition of Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood cites documents from an unspecified court case proving how:

[Brandon’s] role far exceeded the one that even an aggressive studio executive or producer would play in the development of the film … one can’t help but wonder why [writer Roger] Towne and [producer Jeff] Apple allowed Brandon to have so much creative control over the original script unless it was always understood to be a CIA written film disguised as an independent production. (p. 87)

Jenkins concludes that ‘it is clear that Brandon was far more involved in some films’ actual development than anyone outside of the industry previously imagined’ (p. 87).

Overall, then, institutional secrecy makes it impossible to assess the true scale and nature of the political influence wielded on Hollywood by these two institutions, especially the CIA. We only know that in some well-documented instances it is fundamental to the politics of these entertainment products (we discuss some examples below). The CIA seems to have taken its popular refrains like ‘the secret of our success is the secret of our success’ and applied them to its work on entertainment productions. In the wake of Robb’s criticism, the DOD further limited public access to source materials that reveal script changes by replacing the twentieth century style of paper trail with more circumspect and anodyne diary-style activities reports. This lack of transparency could presumably be quickly reversed, were it not for a mindset that does not want the public to know.

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