Brooke Gladstone For decades, the Central Intelligence Agency has cultivated its appeal as an organization shrouded in secrecy, engaged in cutting edge tech and no holds barred espionage in defense of the United States of America. It's an image that sells in Hollywood.
TAPE Over the next few months. We're going to teach you how to deceive, role play psychologically, assess, sell, exploit. We're going to hand you the tools for black arts. Not witchcraft trade craft. You will be able to kill with a variety of weapons or none at all, that you will become a bond. James Bond. Thank you, Mr. Clay. You're already role playing. That's good. Are they still following us? Yes. Is there one of them? Is he looking at us? Does he have just one hand on the steering wheel? And when you hear something that sounds like a gunshot drive.
Brooke Gladstone The CIA will also assist in the making of some movies about some real life operations like the Oscar winning 2012 film Argo, about an operation in Iran.
TAPE And telling me that there is a movie company in Hollywood right now that is funded by the CIA. Yes, sir.
Brooke Gladstone But as the agency ages, it strives to stay hip to the jive, as it were. And so in 2022, when the CIA turned 75, the agency launched Operation podcast.
TAPE Welcome to everyone out there who was intrigued enough to press, play and listen in on this very first episode of The Langley Files.
Brooke Gladstone The podcast promises to reveal the agency's inner workings. Maybe, but according to David Seamus McCarthy, author of Selling the CIA Public Relations and the Culture of Secrecy, it's more likely just another effort to win public favor. Because it seems you got to have a podcast.
TAPE At CIA, there are truths we can share and stories we can tell. Stories of duty and dedication, stories beyond those of Hollywood scripts and shadowed whispers.
Brooke Gladstone The hosts are a woman named Dee and a man named Walter. And together, we're really excited to have you come along with us on this adventure.
TAPE And we know many of you might be wondering, why is this unveiling a podcast? Isn't the whole point to be secret? Didn't you guys invent? Neither confirm nor deny.
Brooke Gladstone And I can confirm that. Yes, we did invent that same. Welcome to the show, David.
David Shamus McCarthy It's great to be here.
Brooke Gladstone I'm sure you heard when they introduced the podcast, the hosts invoke the inscription that's carved in marble at Langley. And ye shall know the truth. And the truth shall make you free.
David Shamus McCarthy Yes, that's right. They're in the lobby of CIA headquarters.
Brooke Gladstone The CIA has billed this podcast as the first unclassified podcast from the agency. I assume they don't have any classified ones, right? Either way, it's far from the first time the agency has used radio or audio production as a means of PR, right?
David Shamus McCarthy Sure. You know, using Radio Free Europe, that was a big part of Cold War history. This was often referred to as the Mighty Wurlitzer. The idea that they could broadcast any tune that they so desired and this would be effective in countering the communist threat.
Brooke Gladstone You wrote about 1954 when the CIA used film in a similar way with anti-communist propaganda. It was the film Animal Farm, and it was funded by the agency. Well-funded?
David Shamus McCarthy That's correct. They actually changed the story a little bit to make the capitalist look a lot better than they do. And the actual book by George Orwell.
TAPE The Animals Revolution was only dimly remembered. Outwardly, Animal Farm appeared prosperous, but the animals themselves were no better off, with the exception of the pigs and their supreme leader Napoleon. To the animals, it now seem that their world, which may or may not someday become a happy place to live in, was worse than ever for ordinary creatures. And another moment had come when they must do something about it.
Brooke Gladstone But there wasn't any public relations office for any of that that only came into existence in the late seventies after what you call the year of intelligence. That's 1975 and 76, when the key intelligence agencies were being investigated by Congress for abuses and wrongdoing.
David Shamus McCarthy In the summer of 1974, Seymour Hersh of the New York Times publishes a pretty major story on the CIA, Operation Chaos. And that operation was targeting Vietnam War protesters. Now, this is in direct violation of the CIA charter. The CIA prohibited from engaging in domestic operations. And that article from Seymour Hersh launches the Year of Intelligence. You have three major investigations of the intelligence community. You have the Church Committee led by Senator Frank Church, a Democrat of Idaho. You had the Pike Committee, and then you have the Rockefeller Commission led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. And this is a major time of upheaval for the CIA.
Brooke Gladstone Let's talk about some of those revelations. It was revealed that during the Cold War, the CIA performed illegal experiments on people.
David Shamus McCarthy Yeah, it was revealed that the CIA had been conducting Operation MKULTRA using LSD and other experiments to see if they could control minds. This is, believe it or not, not some wild conspiracy theory. We do know that MK-ULTRA was real. In fact, when former CIA Director Richard Helms left the CIA, he frantically tried to destroy all the documents on MK-ULTRA, but he made a mistake. There were a few boxes that were not destroyed, and that's the only reason we know about MK-ULTRA today.
Brooke Gladstone Would you mind going through a number of the other revelations? Because this created an all time high in anti CIA sentiment in the U.S..
David Shamus McCarthy The CIA was revealed to have developed this gun to administer toxin that could be used to assassinate people. Now, to be clear, there's no evidence this gun was actually used. And during the public hearings, Senator Frank Church famously displayed that special. Gun for photographers. And this was the iconic image of the year of intelligence. So I would say one of the major revelations, the interim report of the Church Committee on Assassinations, and this is where they for the first time reveal the many assassination plots against Fidel Castro. You know, they're revealing CIA involvement in the lead up to Zuma's assassination back in 1963. And that really paved the way for the escalation of the war in Vietnam in terms of American involvement in Vietnam. So there were many of these assassination plots shared with the American people for the first time in 1975, leading to a backlash against the CIA.
Brooke Gladstone In the sixties after the Bay of Pigs. John F Kennedy said he wanted to, quote, splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.
David Shamus McCarthy The CIA was fearful that maybe they would be shot down or perhaps maybe Congress would shut down covert operations. And the CIA director at the time, William Colby, fought pretty extensively to protect the CIA and to protect covert operations. I just to go back to the Bay of Pigs. So you're mentioning that famous quote from President Kennedy. It's true that after the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy fires Allen Dulles, one of the most legendary figures in the history of the CIA. And then, of course, after Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Allen Dulles joins the Warren Commission. And that's an ultimate conflict of interest for Dulles to accept that invitation. There's no question that Dulles despises Kennedy. And during the Warren Commission, Dulles is not sharing information in terms of CIA operations in Cuba that may or may not have been relevant to what the Warren Commission was trying to do.
Brooke Gladstone That's fascinating. So the year of intelligence, this all time low of popularity of the CIA and thus the need to generate public support. At the time, these efforts were framed as a way to be more transparent. But really, the public relations effort was launched, you say, to protect the culture of secrecy and divert attention away from the mistakes the agency made.
David Shamus McCarthy I argue in my book that there is this fundamental relationship between the culture of secrecy and CIA public relations, that they are using public relations to protect the future of the CIA and specifically the culture of secrecy. Now, there is a discussion in 1975 and 1976 that the proposal is to maybe establish a modern office of Public Affairs. And Colby is reluctant to do that because he argues it will be perceived as nothing more than a domestic operation. And of course, that's how the idea of intelligence got started in the first place. With that Seymour Hersh article in 1974 that revealed the existence of Operation Chaos. It's not until 1977 that you do have the establishment of the Modern Office of Public Affairs. There's been tremendous continuity in CIA public affairs since 1977. They have focused on the mystique of the CIA, emphasizing the importance of secrecy. And, you know, as you mentioned earlier, this mantra about our failures are known. Our secrets must be hidden. And they have consistently used that in the last 46 years or so.
Brooke Gladstone Well, speaking of secrecy, how responsive was the CIA to the investigative efforts of the oversight committees that had been created by Congress?
David Shamus McCarthy It's hard to say. I think there's no question that William Colby was willing to cooperate with the investigation because he saw no other option. Colby makes the argument that if we stonewall the Church Committee, then we may be faced with the end of covert operations. But he was really keeping the focus more on, you know, sensational revelations like MK-ULTRA. So, I mean, I think there was a lot withheld on some of the earlier operations, like in Iran, for example. It's not until years later that we are able to see most of the records on the Guatemala operation from 1954.
Brooke Gladstone What about the CIA? With regard to the Freedom of Information Act, was it responsive to those requests in the way that the law required when it was created in the seventies?
David Shamus McCarthy The CIA initially was completely exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, but that changes in the 1970s, and that is pretty scary for the CIA to be receiving all of these FOI requests all of a sudden in the 1970s. And this leads to a campaign that culminates in the CIA Information Act of 1984. And this is when they are able to get an exemption from any files considered to be operational in nature, which of course makes it quite difficult to research the history of covert operations.
Brooke Gladstone So let's skip ahead to the nineties. Sure. You've said that the agency attempted to regain some cultural influence, you know, like they tried with Animal Farm in the fifties, but this time it was in a more direct way establishing an official entertainment liaison office in this, weren't they walking in the footsteps of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI back in the thirties?
David Shamus McCarthy They were, yeah. After the Cold War ends, the CIA have to justify their existence, and this is a moment of transition for the CIA. When Robert Gates became CIA director in 1991, he has what's called the CIA Openness Task Force. The idea was, well, how can the CIA be more open to the American people? And they actually put together a report. Well, reporters get wind of this openness report and they ask to see a copy. But the reporters are told, sorry, you cannot see the report because it is classified. And then ultimately this becomes so embarrassing for the CIA. They end up releasing the report of the openness task force.
Brooke Gladstone So what was his strategy back in the the nineties?
David Shamus McCarthy Robert Gates, you know, he is increasing these pre existing PR initiatives. They actually hold a conference at the CIA looking at the history of the Cuban missile Crisis. This is on the 30th anniversary of the missile crisis.
Brooke Gladstone I'm a little confused. What did the CIA have to do with the Cuban missile crisis? JFK averted that crisis or the possibility of a nuclear conflict by cutting a deal to remove similar missiles from Turkey?
David Shamus McCarthy Well, in terms of the CIA involvement, the CIA was very instrumental in analyzing the U-2 surveillance photography.
Brooke Gladstone Oh, the presence of the missiles and Exactly. So, yeah, that would be a definite success. GATES The strategy as a whole, though, how did it want to depict the agency and its spy work ultimately?
David Shamus McCarthy And this happens after Robert Gates has left the CIA, the CIA establishes the Hollywood film liaison, and that is Chase and Brandon. That's in 1996. And this was a major turning point because now the CIA, they're really directly getting involved in Hollywood movies, getting involved in television shows.
Brooke Gladstone Like what? What show might people remember?
David Shamus McCarthy Chase Brannon was heavily involved in the show Alias starring Jennifer Garner. And actually Jennifer Garner agreed to do a recruitment video for the CIA in 2003.
Brooke Gladstone In the real world.
TAPE The CIA serves as our country's first line of defense in the ongoing war against international terrorism. But since the tragic events of 911, the CIA has an even stronger need for creative, innovative, flexible men and women from diverse backgrounds with a broad range of perspectives. Right now, the CIA has important, exciting jobs for U.S. citizens.
Brooke Gladstone So it's fair to say that when we get to say 2000, 2 to 2017, the CIA's biggest problem was damage control after some of its torture methods were exposed by journalists in the years after 911, correct?
David Shamus McCarthy Yes. This was very damaging for the CIA revelations about so-called enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. And the CIA really went on the defensive in terms of those accusations. They were determined to control as much as possible the script for Zero Dark 30. They invite the screenwriter and the director. To the CIA, and they are trying to convince the screenwriter, Mark Boal, that these tactics, although unpleasant, that they were successful in leading the CIA to Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.
Brooke Gladstone And this was reflected in the film.
David Shamus McCarthy There's no question if you watch Zero Dark 30, you see pretty clearly the evidence of CIA involvement in trying to shape that narrative. It's pretty terrifying. They begin with some of the 911 calls from September 11th. There's no one here yet and the floor is completely engulfed. People are calling 911 frantically from the Twin Towers and then say, I'm going to die. Immediately after that, you hear a metal door slam and you are taken inside one of these CIA secret prisons. And it's very interesting what they're setting up. They're trying to really get the audience on the side of the CIA interrogators. If you don't look.
TAPE At me when I talk to you, I hurt you. You step off this mat. I hurt you. If you like.
David Shamus McCarthy This argument put forward and Zero Dark 30, the idea that torture leads the CIA to bin Laden is simply not supported by the historical record. And unfortunately, many of those records are still classified. We only have the executive summary of that Senate report on interrogation. It remains to be seen whether that full report will ever be released. I'm very skeptical of that.
Brooke Gladstone During the same period when they were dealing with the exposure of torture through Hollywood. The CIA was also trying to influence reporters. I think that was a less successful operation. You write about an exposé that ran on the front page of The Washington Post in 2005 that revealed details of the agency's foreign prisons. And so then they moved on to the strategy of countering the narrative by helping to edit and release memoirs from former agents.
David Shamus McCarthy It's a book right on my bookshelf here. Jose Rodriguez Hard Measures is the name of the book. He is making the argument that these techniques are very unpleasant and very brutal, but they are necessary. But what we now know from the Senate investigation, Rodriguez was not telling the whole truth in that book. Hard Measures. He was presenting a very misleading account of those techniques.
Brooke Gladstone So what was the response to his memoir? Did it change congressional or public opinion on CIA's practices? When did it work?
David Shamus McCarthy Well, his book became a bestseller. It's always hard to gauge how these books shape opinion. But there's no question this was a bestseller. You definitely see the influence of Jose Rodriguez's argument in the movie Zero Dark 30. There is no question about that.
Brooke Gladstone But ultimately, did people pick up on the fact that the CIA was rewriting its history in this way?
David Shamus McCarthy Oh, I think some people were fully aware of what they were trying to do. But I mean, I think given the popularity of Zero Dark 30, you know, many people who watched that film and did not read the accounts in The New York Times about the Senate investigation, most people are left with the impression that these techniques were totally effective in terms of the backlash against Zero Dark 30, that politicians are really, really critical of that movie, saying that this is not reflecting the actual historical record. And also, it's worth pointing out that Jose Rodriguez, he destroys all of the videotapes depicting these interrogation sessions. The CIA attorney had instructed him not to do that. So in direct violation of the CIA's Office of Legal Counsel, Jose Rodriguez puts all of these videotapes through the shredder. And therefore, we're never going to see actually what those sessions look like in those secret CIA prisons.
Brooke Gladstone How do you think the CIA looks broadly overall in the public eye as a result of these PR efforts?
David Shamus McCarthy It seems to me that the CIA has repaired much of the damage that was done in the 1970s as a result of the era of intelligence. Americans are still distrustful of the intelligence community. There's no question about that at. All. But even though there is this level of distrust, Americans have really bought into the mystique of the CIA, especially in the aftermath of 911. And there's no question that popular culture has played a role.
Brooke Gladstone How about now? I think I understand what happened in the media, especially entertainment media, and how effective it was after 911. But we have entered into a kind of profound suspicion of all government institutions. I mean, not just the Congress, which usually ranks pretty low, but the Supreme Court. Right. And surely the CIA has been affected by that.
David Shamus McCarthy It's true that these initiatives have helped the CIA guard against, you know, the situation becoming even worse in terms of how they are perceived by the American people. I'm not saying that these are perfect victories for the CIA. That's not true. But they are basically giving the message to people that the CIA is there for national security, that they may not always engage in activities that are pleasant, per se. But they are necessary in terms of confronting the terrorist threat, for example.
Brooke Gladstone So let's end on mistakes. You wrote that, quote, The CIA has implemented a public relations strategy that directly threatens American democracy. How so?
David Shamus McCarthy Well, you have to go back to the beginning of the CIA. When the CIA began, there were a lot of concerns about domestic operations. World War Two was a very recent memory. There were fears about creating an American Gestapo. In fact, if you look at the congressional debate surrounding the establishment of the CIA in 1947, that was a huge concern. And I argue that these public relations initiatives are certainly undermining the spirit of the CIA prohibition against domestic activity. Now, I'm not saying in that statement that the CIA is trying to overthrow the government. That's obviously not what I'm saying. But it's certainly very dangerous when you have a secret agency trying to shape American public opinion.
Brooke Gladstone And how about the Langley Files, the CIA podcast? Threat or menace?
David Shamus McCarthy I would say the jury is still out on the Langley files. It seems to me a much more low key PR initiative. It's not as aggressive as some of their earlier campaigns. I do commend them for showcasing the work of the CIA history staff. They do fantastic scholarly work. Unfortunately, much of their work is not declassified as soon as it should be. It's classified way too long. So hopefully they will continue to highlight some of those achievements. But I'm reserving final judgment on the Langley files until they have many more episodes released.
Brooke Gladstone David, thank you very much.
David Shamus McCarthy Oh, you're very welcome.
Brooke Gladstone David Seamus McCarthy is the author of Selling the CIA Public Relations and the Culture of Secrecy. Thanks for listening to this week's Midweek podcast. And while I have you here, a quick reminder to sign up for our newsletter. We've got some new writers this year who are bringing you some takes on the media that are cool and we can't fit into the show. Check it out.