New Book Alleges CIA Manipulates Hollywood to Promote War on Terror
Journalist Nick Schou argues that movies like 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'Argo' are vehicles for CIA propaganda.
You won’t actually see the words, “made with the cooperation of the CIA” in the credits of Zero Dark Thirty or Argo, but these films carry the Agency’s seal of approval, which is less about authenticity and more about myth-making. That’s what journalist Nicholas Schou calls it in his new book Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood. “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend,” is what newspaperman Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) tells Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard at the end of John Ford’s classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Hollywood and the media always are in pursuit of a good story. And the CIA has stories it's eager to tell with the help of Hollywood, says Schou.
“It’s a joint partnership between Hollywood and the CIA in terms of image making. Zero Dark Thirty was...an illustrative case where you didn’t just have the CIA trading access to Langley, to consultants, for a big powerful Hollywood project like it did with Argo, but they worked very closely with the producers of that to try to get the story out there the CIA wanted. That comes pretty close to propaganda,” Schou tells The Hollywood Reporter of the 2012 film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty enjoyed abundant access to CIA headquarters, including people whose role in the mission was still classified, as well as a private dinner with some of those involved in the bin Laden takedown — among them CIA chief Leon Panetta, who reportedly was starry-eyed at the prospect of Al Pacino playing him (James Gandolfini ended up in the role instead).
While Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein got over what they perceived as Zero Dark Thirty’s promotion of torture, in Schou's view they were missing a larger point — the film’s cat-and-mouse game that led to a bin Laden courier never took place. Instead, the Pakistanis had the Al Qaeda chief under house arrest when an agent from Pakistani intelligence (ISI) contacted the CIA and offered to turn him over for the $25 million reward. Pakistani guards were recalled from the Abbottabad compound and, in a pre-dawn raid, Navy Seals met almost no resistance in taking bin Laden.
Managing editor of the O.C. Weekly and author of Kill the Messenger (the basis for the 2014 movie of the same name), Schou centers his argument on an article by legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that appeared in the London Review of Books in May 2015. Known for breaking stories like the My Lai Massacre and the Abu-Ghraib torture scandal, Hersh is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker. His piece on bin Laden, which relies heavily on an anonymous retired senior U.S. intelligence official, has been discredited by most mainstream news outlets as well as the CIA.
“Seymour Hersh’s story has been widely attacked for being very thinly sourced and relying on too few [and] unnamed sources. But it’s been borne out by other prominent national security reporters and even former CIA officials who have said this is something that has been discussed in back channels for a long time,” says Schou, whose other sources include VICE Media reporter Jason Leopold’s articles, culled from government documents made available under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as New York Times Magazine reporter Carlotta Gall, who heard a similar account from ISI sources while doing research in the region.
The shaky relationship Zero Dark Thirty has with the truth is rivaled by Argo, the 2013 best picture winner about the clandestine removal of a handful of American citizens from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. “If you talk to CIA officers like Bob Baer, he says that movie’s just complete fiction. The guy who’s turned into a hero in the movie was actually a makeup artist. The whole narrative is basically something that is highly convenient to the CIA, that they collaborated with Hollywood on making this story,” says Schou, who goes on to mention points about the downplayed role of the British, New Zealanders and Canadians in favor of CIA heroism.
The author argues this matters not because Argo is meant to be more factual than other Hollywood movies but because its deviations from the truth shed an unduly favorable light on the agency that had a hand in the hostilities in Iran. “Both the CIA and Hollywood end up as main characters in this heroic story. But this wasn’t the way it actually happened.”
But Schou believes the Agency's power is on the wane in Hollywood. The last time the author met with press people at the CIA, he says, they were despondent over publications like The Intercept and Wikileaks, which famously released information the agency would have preferred to keep classified. Case in point is the upcoming Oliver Stone movie Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as NSA leaker Edward Snowden (already the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras). Stone has held several clandestine meetings with Snowden, and moved production on his film to Germany to escape NSA scrutiny, which only partially alleviates Schou’s concerns about Hollywood getting the story wrong. “They have a way of doing that, don’t they?”