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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 7 - Conclusions

The existing literature on the operations of the DOD and CIA ELOs is inadequate because it fails to account for the enormous scale of the phenomenon and its politicized, secretive and proactive nature.

When we first looked at the relationship between the national security services and motion pictures around the turn of the 21st century, we accepted the consensus opinion that state propaganda in the entertainment industry consisted of little more than a small office at the Pentagon, which had assisted the production of around 200 films throughout the history of modern media. This was flat out wrong.

A recent CIA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report into the Agency’s engagement with the entertainment industry highlights the difficulties that academics and journalists face when trying to research this subject. The OIG’s review took place in the wake of the scandal over secret information being given to the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty. The report studied eight projects that the ELO had worked on, out of 22 in total between 2006 and 2011, including Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, documentaries for the BBC and the History Channel, the spy drama Covert Affairs and an episode of Top Chef.

The OIG criticized the ELO for poor record-keeping – there were no records on three out of the eight projects and only limited records for the other five. They also objected to the ELO for not having conducted an assessment of the consistency or effectiveness of their policies on granting or denying assistance to projects. Perhaps most seriously, the OIG admonished the ELO for breaching security protocols designed to protect classified information. The report notes how some meetings between entertainment industry representatives and CIA officers took place outside of CIA facilities, sometimes with the officers under cover, sometimes without any guidance from the Office of Public Affairs (OPA) before the meetings, and often without anyone from the OPA being present. This quasi-deniable relationship between the CIA and the entertainment industry means that even its own OIG cannot conduct a proper review of their operations, let alone researchers or the press. The lack of accountability is profoundly undemocratic. The number of 22 projects between January 2006 and April 2012 shows that after Chase Brandon’s departure the CIA’s operations in the entertainment industry continued on a similar scale.

The Pentagon has often intervened in the political and social dimensions of private-sector movies and entertainment products featuring military hardware or dramatizations of war and ‘national security’ matters. This has taken place especially in the preproduction phase, including in scripts, when withdrawal of military assistance may lead to cancellation of the movie project. While the CIA has far fewer cinematic assets and therefore less leverage over creative decisions, they have also demonstrated the ability to make substantial and politically-motivated changes to major movies.

Indeed, it appears the DOD have taken a leaf out of the CIA’s playbook as it has recently sought to become involved in entertainment productions from the earliest stages of the creative process. From 2010 to 2012 the Pentagon’s ELOs met with agents from William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest talent agencies in Hollywood, the heads of production for the ‘Group of 8’, and senior executives at Warner Bros and Columbia Pictures. The ELO reports state that the purpose of these meetings was for the DOD to find out how to better ‘enter studio projects early in the development stages when characters and storylines are most easily shaped to the Army’s benefit’ and so they could, ‘get involved early in the production timeline on potential projects and programs so we can help shape the topics before they are finalized by the studio executives’ (US Army, 2015). The most recently released documents show that the Air Force are inviting Hollywood executives on extended tours of military facilities to generate contacts and provide opportunities to ‘discuss Air Force storylines that [Air Force Public Affairs] is interested in highlighting’ (USAF, 2017). This more proactive approach is identical to the Chase Brandon era when, according to CIA chief of public affairs Bill Harlow, Brandon spent ‘many hours’ on the phone pitching ideas to writers (Jenkins and Alford, 2012). As such, while the CIA’s involvement in Hollywood is on a smaller scale than the DOD, the modus operandi of the two agencies is increasingly similar.

The CIA and DOD’s ability to alter the politics of our entertainment, without having to acknowledge publicly that they are doing so, raises fundamental ethical, legal, democratic and even epistemological concerns. In Alford’s own earlier work, building on Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model, an inherent assumption is that the media industry filters out material that challenges powerful interests in a typically passive manner. What this latest research shows is that we cannot be complacent. The state is substantially more involved in the active manufacture of consent through entertainment than has been previously demonstrated.

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