"If you wanted to invite 12 people to spend the rest of your life with you on a desert island, I wouldn't suggest you invite spies," muses David Atlee Phillips, former Western Hemisphere division chief for the CIA, in the film documentary "On Company Business." He shrugs and smiles. "But someone has to do intelligence work."
After you see the chilling "On Company Business," which opens a one-week run today at the West End Circle, you may be reluctant to invite a spy to dinner, let alone to your desert island.
Poison comes up a lot in this film. For instance, says former CIA man John Stockwell, when the CIA considered poisoning Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, the agency wanted to do it indirectly. "You can't invite him to a cocktail party and give him a drink and have him die a few hours later," says Stockwell. Eventually, Stockwell contends, a CIA station chief talked to Joseph Mobutu's people, who had Lumumba killed.
CIA watchers will say that director Allan Francovich doesn't reveal anything that hasn't already been chronicled -- partially in the books written by the former agents interviewed in the film. But whether or not you have diligently kept up with congressional hearings and newspaper and book accounts of the last 30 years, the film presents an appalling picture.
Throughout the film, former agents nonchalantly discuss the CIA's attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, their alleged attempts to prevent Marxist Chilean President Salvador Allende from being inaugurated and then, once he was in power, their attempts to get him out.
When the CIA wanted to effect political change in a country, according to the documentary, it bribed the country's government officials, paid workers to strike, fed newspaper columnists and reporters stories, and even set up political parties.
In addition, the film alleges that the CIA sometimes supplied torture equipment -- and lessons on how best to use it -- to whatever side it was supporting. The portrait of former Indiana policeman Dan Mitrione, who became an Agency for International Development adviser to police forces in Brazil and Uruguay, resembles the image of Latin American military torturers drawn by human rights organizations. Mitrione, who was killed in Uruguay by Tupamaro guerrillas in 1970 and was eulogized by U.S. officials here, is depicted as a wielder of torture weapons. According to the film, he taught the Brazilian police that the key to successful torture was "precise pain in the precise place at the precise time."
"On Company Business" is about 3 hours long, but it's well worth the time. A good portion of it is a travelogue of CIA activities from Uruguay to Brazil to Chile to Angola, presented through newsreel footage and interviews.
The film, finished in 1980, cost about $350,000, put up by Francovich and other private individuals, according to the director. It has been shown in movie theaters in Boston, Austin and Albuquerque, plus once in San Francisco and once at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York. It has also been seen on public television in several cities including Washington, but Ward Chamberlin, president of the local PBS station WETA, says he now regrets airing it.
Chamberlin wrote a letter of apology in which he called the film, "A one-sided, biased presentation which we probably shouldn't have aired . . . We often air controversial programs and we should, but not programs like this one."
Obviously, all of the agents interviewed are former ones. Philip Agee, the former CIA agent who travels the world revealing information about the CIA and who has had his U.S. passport revoked, figures prominently in this film. Agee is zealously committed to abolishing the CIA, and even many CIA critics object to his methods.
Agee is also listed as a special consultant in the film credits. Director Francovich said such credit was Agee's condition for being interviewed.
But the CIA gets its say, too -- there are interviews with former CIA Director William Colby throughout the film. And Colby's predecessor, Richard Helms, is seen repeatedly in excerpts from congressional testimony.
Francovich, who spent five years making this film, has found scenes of everything from supposed Iranian torture cells in a suburb of Tehran to mercenary trials in Angola. The film also includes newsreel footage showing how changes in power in countries such as Cuba and Guatemala were ominously portrayed to heighten anticommunist feelings in the United States.
The film is such a chronological history of the CIA and its relations with Congress that we get to see former Sen. Frank Church (former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee) age from a lean, dark-haired senator to a grayer, paunchier, wearier-looking one.
One of the film's best vignettes is an interview with American mercenary David Bufkin, who looks hokey enough to have stepped out of a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Bufkin, who fought in Angola, sits in a San Francisco motel room in dark aviator sunglasses, beret, and camouflage fatigues, smoking cigarettes. "Let me tell you why I do it," he says about his line of work. "I don't want to wash dishes. I don't want to drive a truck. I don't want to carry a lunch bucket . . . It just isn't my style."
Francovich's film points out that the CIA has had little supervision and quotes Colby giving one reason why. "Some senators said they didn't want to know," Colby says in the film. "One senator said, 'If you're going to have a Central Intelligence Agency, you just have to close your eyes.' "