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Hollywood a longtime friend of the CIA

High-level access granted to filmmakers researching a movie about the Osama bin Laden raid is just the latest episode in an increasingly close, cooperative arrangement that has spanned administrations.

May 26, 2012|By Ken Dilanian and Rebecca Keegan
  • A crew works on a scene depicting Abbottabad, Pakistan, in Kathryn Bigelow's forthcoming film on the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
A crew works on a scene depicting Abbottabad, Pakistan, in Kathryn Bigelow's… (AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Some Republican lawmakers were outraged when federal records released last week showed that the White House, CIA and Defense Department granted high-level access last year to a pair of acclaimed filmmakers researching an action thriller about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The documents tell "a damning story of extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration" between the filmmakers and the Obama administration, fumed New York Rep. Peter T. King, GOP chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The Defense Department's inspector general is investigating whether any classified information was improperly disclosed. But barring that, the episode is just the latest in an increasingly close, cooperative arrangement — spanning administrations — that gives Hollywood extraordinary access to military assets and CIA operatives. In turn, the Pentagon and CIA have exercised subtle and not-so-subtle influence on scripts and helped burnish their images on screen.

Peter Berg, who directed the recently released science fiction film"Battleship," was allowed to use five Navy warships during production, and cast Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a cameo role. Mabus later helped launch the film at a Washington screening for Navy brass and service members.

The Navy weighed in twice for changes, Berg said.

"At one point, we hired an actor who was a little overweight to play a sailor," he recalled. "They said, 'This kid could not be on a ship,' and we changed the casting." In another scene, a sailor got into a fistfight. "It was important to them that he be held accountable."

Berg clearly has good relations with the Navy. He embedded for a month with Navy SEALs in western Iraq as research for an upcoming military film, "Lone Survivor." Few journalists have gotten that access.

Filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd was granted an hour with President George W. Bush for Showtime Networks' "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," a patriotic 2003 docudrama about the White House response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The latest flap concerns more than 250 pages of CIA and Pentagon emails and other records showing how national security officials cooperated with Hollywood director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for an election-year spy thriller expected to portray President Obama in a positive light.

Nothing in the documents — obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Judicial Watch, which describes itself as a conservative organization — indicates that the filmmakers were given classified material.

But David Robb, author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies," sees other dangers.

"When the CIA or the Pentagon says, 'We'll help you, if you play ball with us,' that's favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda," he said. "The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin."

The military's symbiotic relationship with movies dates to the 1920s; the Pentagon regularly traded warships, bombers and technical expertise over the decades for a chance to glamorize the military and boost recruitment.

The CIA has kept an entertainment liaison on staff only since 1996. At that point, the Cold War had ended, and the agency was fighting for its budget and its existence on Capitol Hill. The new mission was clear: to overcome the CIA's image in popular entertainment as incompetent, evil or rife with rogue employees.

"I made that a big priority, and we did a lot more with Hollywood than ever before," said Bill Harlow, the CIA public affairs chief from 1997 to 2004. "The reason is that the American public gets a lot more of their information about the CIA from Hollywood than it does the from the news media, and much of what they see about the agency is negative and wrong."

These days, the CIA even posts potential story lines on its website, according to spokesman Todd Ebitz.

"On some occasions, when appropriate, we arrange visits to the agency for unclassified meetings with some of our officers," he added. "Rarely, we have allowed filming on our premises under very tight parameters."

In 1999, the CIA allowed producers of "In the Company of Spies" to film at CIA headquarters, a first for the agency. About 50 CIA employees joined the cast as extras, and hundreds packed a premiere at the headquarters.

In 2001, the agency allowed crews from "The Agency," a CBS television drama, to film inside CIA headquarters. The CIA planned a red-carpet reception before the show first aired, but the party was canceled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"These are smart people," said Michael Frost Beckner, who wrote and produced "The Agency." "They have their agenda in mind, and if you're serving their agenda, they play ball with you."

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