FBI seminar hosts H'wood scribes


FBI memo to Hollywood: If it's not too much trouble, could you please portray our counterterrorism efforts with a bit more realism?

Hoping for an answer in the affirmative, the FBI hosted its first workshop for screenwriters Wednesday at the Federal Building in Westwood.

"FBI -- Crime Essential for Writers" played well with the standing-room-only audience of executives and writers from several major and minor studios. Enthusiastic attendees had more questions than time allowed answers for, and few if any left the four-hour event early.

The FBI, more so than even the Department of Homeland Security, is the primary agency designated to investigate terrorism in the U.S., and the terrorist threat it is most focused on comes from radical Islam, FBI special agent Greg Wing said.

With that in mind, Wing, along with an undercover agent who asked that his identity not be revealed, presented a whirlwind history of Islam, beginning with Sunni-Shiite hostilities in 682 AD.

The major terrorist group aligned with Sunni Muslims is al-Qaida, while Hezbollah, "the best terrorist organization there is," are Shiite Muslims, the undercover agent said.

He showed flags and logos of terrorist groups and explained that the colors of turbans worn by terrorism suspects could have significance. He also showed photos and video of al-Qaida training camps and torture rooms and pictures of unfortunate Americans who had been captives there. He showed photos of the suicide bombers who killed 17 U.S. sailors aboard the USS Cole in 2000 and pictures of the house where they built their bombs.

The undercover agent played phone messages from passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which went down in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, and inspired the film "United 93." He also played audio from the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11, the airplane Mohamed Atta flew into the World Trade Center that day.

"Amazing," attendee Dave DiGilio said after the event.

DiGilio wrote the film "Eight Below" and created the upcoming ABC series "Traveler," about a couple of graduate students who might have been framed for a terrorist attack. He said his show portrays both "the good and the bad" about the FBI.

"Seeing the extent of the organization, and the passion and intellect of the agents, was impressive," he said after the event. "They're very creative. It's not the way they're usually portrayed."

Quite the point, which is why FBI public affairs specialist Betsy Glick helped create the workshop. She said that last year the FBI helped lend authenticity to 649 projects, usually films, TV shows and books.

Michael Kortan, section chief for the office of public affairs, gave attendees a brief lesson in the history of the FBI in film and TV, beginning with the 1935 James Cagney movie " 'G' Men," which he said was one of the first gangster movies to tell a story from the FBI's perspective.

Shortly thereafter, J. Edgar Hoover conceived of something he called "The Dillinger Rule" -- the FBI had great stories to tell, so Hollywood ought to tell them, and make sure that the FBI were the good guys. And he wanted to know about anything FBI-related that Hollywood had in the works.

The 1965 Disney film "That Darn Cat!" really had Hoover on edge, Kortan said, because he feared that a film about an allergic agent assigned to follow around a cat would make the FBI look a tad silly, a reputation the bureau didn't need during the tumultuous 1960s.

Too often, Kortan said, the FBI is seen on film, unrealistically, as heavy-handed, bumbling and antagonistic toward other law-enforcement agencies. Of course, Hollywood isn't always unfriendly to the bureau.

Witness "The Silence of the Lambs," for example. The 1991 film earned Jodie Foster the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of FBI agent Clarice Starling, and Kortan credited the movie for some of the FBI's success in recruiting women.

"This is half the reason people get in writing -- to live vicariously and absorb the details," said attendee Luke McMullen, who wrote an episode of "Alias" and is developing a project called "Samurai Girl."

FBI agents also showed off a map of the 779 real investigations of potential terrorist activity ongoing in Los Angeles and photos of a list of possible targets that included Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood sign and Disneyland. They also showed photos of some of the equipment the FBI will have on hand as they stake out the 64th annual Golden Globe Awards on Monday.

Hollywood has been considered a potential target of Islamic terrorists since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the FBI warned that a major film studio might be next.

Special agent George Steuer recalled Wednesday how FBI agents met with studio heads back then to tell them, "Hey, you're in this fight on terrorism."

He said the threat emanated from telephone and e-mail intercepts between suspected terrorists. Although the FBI sifts through about 300 terrorism leads a day, the one against film studios was initially deemed credible after some corroboration and background checks. Details, though, remain classified.

"Eventually we vetted it and decided that there were no links here, just overseas chatter," he said.

Nevertheless, the studios were encouraged then to beef up their security measures. Some, including Disney and Warner Bros., quickly hired FBI agents on their security staffs.

Steuer, who has been helping Hollywood with FBI requests for five years, said he was in Baghdad in 2005, witnessing the locals buying and selling pirated copies of "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" the day it was released theatrically, making the point that the FBI is uniquely aware of Hollywood's influence even in a war zone.

Speaking after the symposium, the undercover FBI agent whose identity is protected said he purposely avoids Hollywood's treatment of modern terrorism, staying away from such movies as "World Trade Center" and "United 93" as well as TV programs like "The Path to 9/11."

"Movies don't come close," he said. "We lived a very traumatic event. It's never far from my heart."

His primary message to screenwriters? "Keep the FBI out of politics," he said. "Don't tag me Republican or Democrat. Don't suggest the FBI was better or worse under this president or that one. What we care about is protecting American lives."