The CIA has a long history of “spooking the news,” dating back to its earliest days when the legendary spymaster Allen Dulles and his top staff drank and dined regularly with the press elite of New York and Washington, and the agency boasted hundreds of U.S. and foreign journalists as paid and unpaid assets.
In 1977, after this systematic media manipulation was publicly exposed by congressional investigations, the CIA created an Office of Public Affairs that was tasked with guiding press coverage of intelligence matters in a more transparent fashion.
The agency insists that it no longer maintains a stable of friendly American journalists, and that its efforts to influence the press are much more above board. But, in truth, the intelligence empire’s efforts to manufacture the truth and mold public opinion are more vast and varied than ever before. One of its foremost assets? Hollywood.
The agency has established a very active spin machine in the heart of the entertainment capital, which works strenuously to make sure the cloak-and-dagger world is presented in heroic terms. Since the mid-1990s, but especially after 9/11, American screenwriters, directors, and producers have traded positive portrayal of the spy profession in film or television projects for special access and favors at CIA headquarters.
Ever since its inception in 1947, the CIA has been covertly working with Hollywood. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the agency formally hired an entertainment industry liaison and began openly courting favorable treatment in films and television.
During the Clinton presidency, the CIA took its Hollywood strategy to a new level—trying to take more control of its own mythmaking. In 1996, the CIA hired one of its veteran clandestine officers, Chase Brandon, to work directly with Hollywood studios and production companies to upgrade its image. “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian,” Brandon later told The Guardian. “It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”
The flag-waving Tom Clancy franchise became a centerpiece of CIA propaganda in the 1990s, with a succession of actors (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and finally Ben Affleck) starring in films like Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears, which pit the daring agent Jack Ryan against an array of enemies, from terrorists to South American drug lords to nuclear-armed white supremacists.
The long relationship between Affleck, a prominent Hollywood liberal, and Langley seems particularly perplexing. But the mutual admiration has paid off handsomely for all concerned. According to The Guardian, during the production of The Sum of all Fears, the 2002 Clancy thriller starring Affleck, “the agency was happy to bring its makers to Langley for a personal tour of headquarters, and to offer [the star] access to agency analysts. When filming began, [CIA liaison] Brandon was on set to advise.”
Brandon, the CIA’s man in Hollywood was also a frequent presence on the set of Alias, the TV espionage series starring Affleck’s then-wife, Jennifer Garner. The series, which debuted in September 2001, reflected the pervasive paranoia of the post-9/11 era—that climate of permanent anxiety so beloved by national-security agencies. Created by the Hollywood powerhouse J. J. Abrams, who would go on to reboot the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, the show featured Garner as Sydney Bristow, a CIA undercover agent who infiltrated a global conspiracy.
In March 2004, the CIA announced that Garner—reflecting the growing merger between Langley and Hollywood—had filmed a recruitment video for the agency. “The video emphasizes the CIA’s mission, and its need for people with diverse backgrounds and foreign language skills,” the agency’s press release stated.
“Ms. Garner was excited to participate in the video after being asked by the Office of Public Affairs. The CIA’s Film Industry Liaison worked with the writers of Alias during the first season to educate them on fundamental tradecraft. Although the show Alias is fictional, the character Jennifer Garner plays embodies the integrity, patriotism, and intelligence the CIA looks for in its officers.”
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