Tom Secker is a British based writer, researcher and filmmaker who specialises in terrorism, the security services and declassified history. He has been writing on the philosophy and politics of fear since 2008. He will periodically be writing here on SmellsLikeHumanSpirit.com. He previously appeared on the Podcast in Episode 12. Below is his first article:
The history of the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird is by now quite well known, but it bears repeating. In 1948, World War Two OSS veteran Frank Wisner was appointed head of the newly created Office of Special Projects, a quasi-independent government agency for covert actions. It was soon renamed the Office of Policy Coordination, which was then merged with the CIA’s Office of Special Operations to form the notorious Directorate of Plans in 1952.
This office was then responsible for coups in Iran, Guatemala, The Dominican Republic, Ghana, Congo, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Greece, Cambodia, Chile – and others too many to list. The office was renamed in 1973 as part of the CIA’s rebranding efforts to the rather mundane Directorate of Operations. In 2005 it was renamed once more, becoming the National Clandestine Service.
Operation Mockingbird began in the late 1940s, as an explicit effort to influence the mainstream media. Within a few years the CIA had senior people on their payroll from the Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS and Newsweek, and the process continued to spread and infiltrate the ranks of virtually every major media organisation in the US.
However, it was not just journalists who were being bought, but entire cinematic productions. The most famous of these, the 1954 ‘adaptation’ of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was paid for by the CIA but produced by an animation company in Britain, to help create the necessary illusion of being an authentic production. In reality the script was carefully edited by the CIA, including by covert operations legend E Howard Hunt, who later be involved in the Watergate burglary and, according to his own confession, the John F Kennedy assassination.
The assassinations of the 1960s, as well the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam war and of course the Watergate scandal all put the CIA under the spotlight in the 1970s. The Church Commission, the best of a series of compromised investigations into the Agency, found that the Mockingbird activities cost $265 million per year, and that was in 1976. In the same year, when George Bush took over as the new head of the Agency he announced a new policy: ’Effective immediately, the CIA will not enter into any paid or contract relationship with any full-time or part-time news correspondent accredited by any U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station.’ He did leave the door open to the ‘voluntary’ cooperation of people within the mainstream media.
To this day the CIA have maintained an Office of Public Affairs for precisely this purpose. In particular they, like the different branches of the Pentagon, have an Entertainment Industry Liaison who assists film and TV producers in making flattering depictions of the Agency. In the mid 1990s they appointed Chase Brandon, a former covert action specialist in Latin America (and therefore a state sponsor of terrorism), as their Hollywood liaison. Since then he has been involved in the producing of films such as The Recruit, Enemy of the State, In the Company of Spies and has consulted for TV shows like Alias.
Alias is particularly interesting, as it began broadcasting just after 9/11. It features a white female protagonist (just like Zero Dark Thirty) who is shown to be struggling with the emotional demands of being a CIA agent (again, just like Zero Dark Thirty). Jennifer Garner’s character is shown having to adopt various identities, various aliases, in order to carry out her CIA missions, leading us to sympathise with her sense of a loss of identity in a seemingly complex world. Perfect post-9/11 television, though of course it was produced before the attacks.
In 2004 Jennifer Garner starred in a CIA recruitment advert
, both using her popularity to help promote the agency, and of course give her own career a boost by appearing patriotic. It was a masterpiece of PR, and one that the Office of Public Affairs was evidently very happy with, if their in house newsletter
is anything to go by. It notes how Garner ‘accepted the chance to film the recruitment video after being approached by OPA Film Industry Liaison [REDACTED]‘. However, the redaction has been done sufficiently poorly that it is easy to tell that the name being concealed is that of Chase Brandon:
In the Company of Spies
is also worth noting, though it is not worth actually watching. A 1999 made-for-TV movie starring Tom Berenger, it was another Brandon-assisted production with scenes filmed at the authentic CIA headquarters in Langley, with real CIA agents wandering around as extras pretending to be defending the nation. The film even premiered at CIA headquarters.
According to the CIA press release, ‘CIA hosted the presentation for employees and guests because it captures the profound dedication of the Agency’s men and women to the CIA’s mission and deep commitment to saving American lives and protecting American interests all over the world. It gives the viewer a sense of the effort and the expertise—the risks and the sacrifices—that the Agency’s essential intelligence work for the nation entails. Most important of all, it shows the integrity, excellence and bravery of Agency people. For the same reasons, CIA agreed to cooperate in the production of the film.’ It appears that the new policy announced by George Bush in 1976 isn’t worth the paper that it wasn’t printed on.
What we are seeing, to my mind, is a mutation of Operation Mockingbird, where the CIA no longer strictly has to contract newspaper editors and film producers, but simply offers them the benefits of collusion. No doubt, some are still bought, but as I have documented in some detail (here
) no money had to change hands for Zero Dark Thirty to portray the exact story that the CIA wanted them to portray.