The CIA's Operation Hollywood
'Company of Spies' Wins Raves From Image-Conscious Agency
By Vernon Loeb
"In the Company of Spies," scheduled to air Oct. 24 on the Showtime cable channel, may not go down as a classic of the genre. But it sure looked like Hollywood outside the CIA's main entrance in Langley, bright with klieg lights. Black rope lines and a long red carpet led from the lobby to a parade of black stretch limousines.
Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet; his wife, Stephanie Glakas-Tenet; and their 12-year-old son, John Michael, waited for the stars to arrive, warmly greeting Tom Berenger, who plays a swashbuckling CIA operations officer, and Ron Silver, who plays, well, George Tenet by another name.
"They were great to work with," Tenet said. "They portray us in a good light, and I want the American people to know the values we believe in. Our work is secret and it will always be secret. But every now and then, we should take the opportunity to portray ourselves. A little bit of fun--there's nothing wrong with that."
Tenet could relax minutes later, when the lights dimmed inside the CIA's main auditorium and the camera rolled. He knew there was no celluloid CIA assassin, no evil CIA director, looming to ruin the evening. His people had made sure of that.
Never before has the CIA so fully embraced a movie--it even allowed director Tim Matheson to shoot inside the agency's sprawling Langley headquarters and provided 60 off-duty employees to serve as extras.
And never before, it's fair to say, has a film been quite so to the agency's liking. The story revolves around a former CIA operative (Berenger) who is coaxed out of retirement to rescue a colleague arrested in Pyongyang by North Korean intelligence.
The diabolical North Koreans torture and ultimately hang their CIA prisoner. But Berenger and his team of daring and patriotic CIA officers and analysts use the latest spy technology to figure out what their chum was onto before he was killed.
When all is said and done, the president of the United States smiles knowingly and tells his skeptical national security adviser: "By God, when the agency is good, it's spectacular. And no one even knows!"
Bill Harlow, the (real) CIA's director of public affairs, said senior CIA officials realized several years back that assisting sympathetic filmmakers and authors was one way the agency could be more open and accountable to the tax-paying public without divulging operational secrets.
They even persuaded Chase Brandon, a veteran paramilitary officer who has jumped out of airplanes for the CIA all over the world, to take a job in the public affairs office as the agency's liaison to Hollywood in 1996. The hope was that some reasonable facsimile of the CIA's covert successes would emerge, fairly and accurately, for public consumption.
Their thinking, Harlow said, was influenced by a growing trend in the entertainment industry to "typecast" CIA officers as "evil, terrible, malicious folks." He cited the 1993 film "In the Line of Fire," in which John Malkovich plays a psychotic former CIA officer who tries to murder the president, and Jeffrey Archer's most recent novel, "The Eleventh Commandment," whose hero, a CIA assassin, is forced to kill the wrong people by the evil director of central intelligence.
"If somebody wants to do a movie about CIA assassins, it's a free country and they can make that movie," Harlow said. "But that's not something we do. That's not what we're about, and we're not going to spend our time" helping somebody make it.
A Showtime press release trumpeting "In the Company of Spies" says its "realistic" portrayal of the CIA "helped the producers become the first filmmakers to gain the secretive organization's permission to receive true access to the operational world of the agency.. . . Showtime attributes such access to the CIA's "policy of increased openness and accountability."
Lest anyone miss the message about "increased openness and accountability," the film opens with a scene in which the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence tells the CIA director: "We always appreciate your candor. We are, after all, entering a new era of openness and accountability."
Advocates for increased openness and accountability remain skeptical.
"We've actually seen a reduction in openness and accountability when it comes to the most important criterion, which is the amount of money that we spend on intelligence," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy. He is suing the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act to force the agency to divulge the intelligence community's aggregate expenditures for the fiscal year that just ended.
"That was a public figure in 1997 and 1998, but in 1999 the CIA is refusing to disclose that information," Aftergood said. "For people who get their information from government documents, not from television and the movies, there has actually been a reduction in accountability."
Aftergood said he finds it encouraging that the CIA wants to be perceived as open and accountable. "That has not always been the case in the past," he said, "and that means there is something to work with that might provide real accountability and openness."
But he added: "They're going to have to do better than TV movies."
Milt Bearden, a former high-ranking CIA operations officer who published his first novel last year, said he believes the agency's pre-publication review board did indeed exhibit new openness in reviewing both the novel and portions of a book that Bearden is writing about the Cold War. (However open the CIA may be, it requires all employees to sign lifetime pledges that anything they write about intelligence will be submitted for agency review, and possible censorship to protect secrets, before it is published.)
But Bearden warns that the CIA should be very careful when it comes to promoting films and books that the public may view as agency propaganda.
Harlow said the agency doesn't want propaganda, only a willingness on the part of filmmakers and authors to look at the facts and at least consider the possibility that the CIA is not an evil organization and may actually play an important part in protecting national security.
And that, he said, is basically what the CIA got from the creative team behind "In the Company of Spies," which was scripted by Roger Towne, who wrote the screenplay for "The Natural," and was produced by David Madden and Robert W. Cort, who is himself a former CIA official.
"Is it favorable? Yeah, I think so," Harlow said. "But it's not entirely so. They worked hard on it, and they didn't come in here with the preconceived notion that we're the bad guys."
Harlow also pointed out that there were, and will continue to be, clear limitations on how much the CIA is willing to cooperate with any filmmaker or author. "In the Company of Spies" was allowed to come in on one Saturday and film scenes in the CIA's lobby and public corridors only. And the CIA provided the 60 employees to serve as extras for security purposes, Harlow said, fearing otherwise that it would have to perform background checks on 60 people off the street.
"We want to make it very clear that we're not going Hollywood," Harlow said. "Our mission is still a very secretive mission. The vast majority of people here will never meet an actor."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company