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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 6 - The Level of Politicization

At times the DOD has shown itself unwilling to see or hear the most durable and well-evidenced facts from history, where they run contrary to its political interests. The entertainment industry and the examples that follow demonstrate that the CIA and DOD are primarily and explicitly concerned with promoting a positive self-image and propagating a useful version of history and politics where they play a critical and benevolent role.

They have repeatedly sought to have dialogue, scenes and sequences that contradict this desired image changed or removed from scripts in the development phase. While this observation will not be surprising to some, it is not made clear in public pronouncements and available historiography. While the usual justification for involvement in the entertainment industry is recruitment to the armed services, the following examples establish that the DOD’s agenda is broader and more politically motivated:

- Thirteen Days (2001): Negotiations fell through between the DOD and the producers. After reading the script, the DOD demanded several changes that, if implemented, would have resulted in the film being factually in opposition to the historical record of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. White House audio tapes demonstrate that as the President was leaning towards a Naval blockade of Cuba, Joint Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay was aggressively arguing in favour of an invasion. Strub wrote, ‘Both General LeMay and General Maxwell Taylor are depicted in a negative and inauthentic way as unintelligent and bellicose’ (Robb, 2004).

Likewise, Strub asked the producers to remove one scene in which a U2 reconnaissance pilot is shot down and killed over Cuba. The reasoning provided for this request was that it didn’t happen, even though the DOD’s own records show that this pilot was posthumously honoured for his final U2 flight over Cuba. The film’s producers sent Strub a copy of the letter of condolence that President Kennedy had written to the widow of the pilot but they received no reply (Robb, 2004: 55).

- Windtalkers (2002): The DOD negotiated with the producers to ensure that the film did not explicitly say that the Marine command ordered its men to kill its Navajo soldiers if captured, even though Robb shows that this is an historical fact established by Congress (Robb, 2004).

Two other sequences were excised from the original script as a result of DOD demands. Firstly, a sequence where a Marine stabs a dead Japanese soldier in the mouth to retrieve a gold filling. ‘The activity is unMarine’, was the view of the DOD, insisting on its removal and trying to pin the blame for such activities on conscripts. This is despite National Archives footage, cited by Robb, of a Marine yanking teeth from the jaw of a dead Japanese soldier. Secondly, the original script sees the hero (Nicolas Cage) kill an injured Japanese soldier who is attempting to surrender by blasting him with a flame-thrower. The DOD complained and the scene was deleted (Robb, 2004: 64). In keeping with the overall image of the DOD as a positive force in a dangerous world, another scene is retained in which a Marine is brutally shot in the back by Japanese soldiers while he is handing out chocolates to children is retained.

- Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016), Contact (1997), Hulk (2003): In these three films elements were changed or removed in order to demilitarize aspects at the DOD’s behest. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot the DOD’s database describes how, ‘[t]he script portrayed a US Army transport brake failure, resulting in it hitting a group of Afghani shoppers in Kabul, killing and injuring them. This was changed to an NGO vehicle’ (DOD, 2017).

On Contact the Pentagon thought that there was ‘[o]riginally a fair amount of silly military depiction’ so they ‘[n]egotiated civilianisation of almost all military parts’ (DOD, 2017). For example, when the protagonists are discussing whether to build a machine based on extraterrestrial blueprints, the panicky line ‘It could just as easily be some kind of Trojan Horse. We build it and out pours the entire Vegan army’ was ultimately given to a National Security Advisor rather than the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

For Hulk the DOD requested ‘pretty radical’ script alterations in exchange for Marine Corps support including: changing the desert lab where the Hulk is created into a non-military, privately-owned facility; making the ‘baddie’ an ex-military character who runs the lab, rather than a serving officer; removing dialogue about ‘all those boys, guinea pigs, dying from radiation and germ warfare’; and changing the codename of the operation to capture the Hulk from ‘Ranch Hand’ to ‘Angry Man’ since Ranch Hand had been the name of a real chemical warfare programme during the Vietnam war (USMC, 2017).

- Clear and Present Danger (1994): The original script depicted US foreign policy in less favourable terms than the final movie. For example, the US President says of the Columbian drug lords in the movie, ‘Those sons-of-bitches… I swear, sometimes I would like to level that whole damn country – and Peru and Ecuador while we are at it’ (Robb, 2004: 35). The offending line was deleted along with any Presidential references to ‘payback’, ‘Bustin’ some butt’ and his calling the dealers ‘monkeys and jabaloneys’ – all as a result of the demands of the DOD, according to Robb (2004: 37).

The DOD also made clear its ‘obvious objections to portraying the highest level of US government engaging in illegal, covert activities’ (Hogel, 1993). Two notable ideas suggested by the DOD were for the on-screen President to establish to the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘that young Americans are dying in the streets because of this illicit drug activity in South America. The audience will clearly understand … the drug runners will not be seen as “innocent” or “unarmed”.’ Similarly, The DOD asked for the on screen F15 fighter jets to be shown to be under direct threat from the drug barons (Greer, 1993). Both ideas were implemented.

The CIA functions with a comparable set of political preconditions as the DOD. When working on 2003 spy thriller The Recruit, Tricia Jenkins used a document leaked exclusively to her to report how Brandon scripted a scene depicting the head of the Clandestine Service addressing fresh recruits. The character states: ‘I know you have a lot of questions … and one of them may be whether or not there will be real operational work here now that the Cold War is over.’ He then uses former CIA Director James Woolsey’s refrain: ‘We did slay the great dragon. But in the new world order we are learning that there are a multitude of poisonous snakes’ and adds: ‘These dangerous serpents have deadly names. Can you identify some of them?’ The leader explains how countering terrorism is the Agency’s ‘number one priority’, echoing the response of one of the recruits, before others suggest the proliferation of mass destruction, transnational crime syndicates, and the theft of intellectual property rights, not to mention a list of set of state actors: North Korea, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Colombia, [and even] Peru (Jenkins, 2016).

This scene explicitly seeks to reiterate the importance of the CIA’s changed but still crucial role in the post-Cold War world. Other scenes in The Recruit encouraged viewers to believe that the Agency did not fail in the years leading up to 9/11 but was actually busy preventing numerous similar attacks, while the public remained unknowing. These elements of the film were almost certainly the result of Brandon’s influence, says Jenkins (2016).

There were similarly multiple changes made to Zero Dark Thirty. Documents obtained by Judicial Watch show how the CIA leaned on Boal to remove or change several scenes in the movie, including one where a drunken CIA officer fires an AK-47 into the air from the roof of a building in Islamabad. This was removed at the CIA’s request (CIA, 2012). They also asked that the filmmakers change a scene involving the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners and one showing the protagonist Maya physically carrying out torture.

The DOD has also played a critical role in preventing certain products from being produced. One was a screenplay called The Smoldering Sea, on which the DOD refused to collaborate because it ‘shows the Navy in a very objectionable light’ (Robb, 2004: 356). Another was a film based on the book by Clay Blair (Robb, 2004: 353–355), which portrayed Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover very well but which Rickover personally opposed as he was not allowed full production control.

Finally, there was Top Gun II, which was floated in the early 1990s but which the Navy refused to work on because the original film had been associated with the 1991 Tailhook Convention scandal in which over 100 US Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women and seven men, or had behaved in an ‘improper and indecent’ manner – leading to damning media coverage and a critical DOD Inspector General’s report (Robb, 2004: 182; see also DOD Inspector General, 1993). Predictably, Suid just uses the DOD’s own description of ‘rowdy behaviour’ to describe ‘Tailhook’ (Suid, 2002: 234).

Beyond these examples there are two other known instances of the DOD terminating productions: Countermeasures and Fields of Fire:

Countermeasures. In 1994 this film was in development but production was halted because the DOD refused to collaborate. The DOD refused on numerous grounds that were beyond technical and were, in fact, explicitly political. In Strub’s view the depiction of Navy personnel was ‘completely unrealistic and negative … unprofessional … and unapologetically sexist if not guilty of outright sexual harassment or assault’. He went on to note that, ‘[m]aking the principle villain an agent of the (then) Naval Investigative Service fosters a negative perception of the service, implicates all agents by association, and reinforces the allegations of a lack of professionalism that was widely reported by the media over the last few years’. The words ‘lack of professionalism’ probably refer here mainly to the aforementioned Tailhook scandal. One other reason for the DOD’s rejection of Countermeasures was references in the script to Iran-Contra, an operation where the CIA sold weapons to Iran and where some of that money was then used to support the Contras in Nicaragua. Strub commented, ‘There’s no need for us to denigrate the White House, or remind the public of the Iran-Contra affair’, which is again an explicit rejection of a proven political scandal (Strub, 1993). When the Spanish Navy heard that the DOD had turned it down, they followed suit. The filmmakers needed access to an aircraft carrier to be able to make the film so the DOD’s decision effectively terminated the production (Robb, 2004: 46).

Fields of Fire was a mid-1990s film-in-development under the direction of James Webb, a Vietnam veteran who became Secretary of the Navy and then Virginia’s state senator. In September 1993, Webb officially asked the DOD for assistance, specifically Marines to serve as background actors and access to shoot footage of aerial vehicles. The DOD refused because the script included numerous scenes that they found objectionable on the grounds of PR, not on the grounds of accuracy. Sequences depicting Marines fragging, committing arson, brutalizing and murdering people and posing for a photo with their arm around a dead Enemy Prisoner of War (EPOW) were all problematic for the DOD. A member of the Marine Corps’ Public Affairs Officer (PAO), Lt Col Jerry Broeckert, wrote to the Navy’s Director of Public Affairs J. M. Shotwell explaining that the Marine Corps had issues with supporting the film due to the ‘admission in this medium that those activities occurred in Vietnam’ (Broeckert, 1993). Surprisingly the USMC approved granting assistance to the script, but Strub wrote to W. E. Boomer, Commandant of the Marine Corps, saying that the audience, ignorant of the realities of war, ‘is very likely to conclude not only that these tragic events occurred routinely but also that they represent the typical behavior of our military forces when placed under the duress of combat’ (Strub, n.d.). These concerns were enough for the DOD to refuse assistance to Fields of Fire and so the film died on the vine.

The CIA has also managed to prevent the advancement of film projects, which seemed set to go ahead had they not become involved. The PAO retains the right to approve any publication by CIA personnel, so it is possible that prospective scripts are just completely unknown. In the early Cold War period, the Agency refused the producers’ requests for assistance on films like My Favorite Spy (CIA, 1951). There are several documented cases of CIA harassment of former employees turned authors, including Victor Marchetti, Frank Snepp and Phillip Agee (Moran, 2015). In 2016, Nicholas Shou substantiated a story that the CIA derailed a Marlon Brando picture about the Iran-Contra scandal by establishing a front company run by Colonel Oliver North to outbid Brando for the rights.

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