National Security

Langley Goes Hollywood

Are America's spies watching too many spy movies?

For fans of spy movies and television shows, a visit to CIA headquarters will be disappointing. America's best-known intelligence agency looks nothing like the sleek, high-tech headquarters of Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer. The entrance has no fancy retina scans or fingerprint devices, and the place has something of a shabby, office-building-circa-1970 feel. The National Counterterrorism Center is another story. Created after 9/11 to fuse terrorism threat reporting across the U.S. intelligence community, NCTC looks like it came straight out of Hollywood. Because it did. Government officials actually flew out a Disney team to help design the operations center.

Fake spies are influencing real intelligence policy in ways both large and small. Over the past 15 years, the spytainment industry has skyrocketed. Tom Clancy video games have sold 74 million units worldwide, the number of spy-themed hit television shows has increased six-fold, and spy movies have become big business on the big screen, earning nearly $2 billion in U.S. theatres alone. Today, the relationship between Hollywood and Washington is cozier than ever, with the CIA pitching movie storylines on its web site and the Pentagon forward-deploying to Los Angeles, setting up entertainment liaison offices there. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the award-winning team behind The Hurt Locker, have gotten better access to operational details of the bin Laden raid for their upcoming flick, Zero Dark Thirty, than most intelligence officers or members of Congress.

Don't get me wrong. I love being transported to imaginary worlds where congressional oversight works and spies always look like Daniel Craig. But the blurring of fact and fiction makes for great entertainment at a hidden cost: Americans are steeped in misperceptions about what intelligence agencies actually do and have misplaced expectations about how well they can do it. A 2006 report from the nonpartisan Intelligence Science Board concluded that spy-themed entertainment had become adult education. I found the same thing when I surveyed UCLA undergraduates three years ago. Those who said they always watched the now-departed hit television show 24, which depicted torture often and always favorably, were statistically more likely than their peers to approve of torture. Of course, surveys cannot prove that watching 24 actually caused these attitudes. But the dean of West Point was so concerned that it did, he asked the show's writers to make some episodes where torture backfired.

Even government officials sometimes have trouble knowing where the real world ends and creative license begins. In the fall of 2002, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the senior military lawyer at Guantanamo Bay, ran a series of brainstorming sessions about interrogation techniques that might be used on terrorist detainees held there. She later told British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands that Jack Bauer "gave people lots of ideas," noting that the show "was hugely popular" at Gitmo. She later recommended, and senior Pentagon officials approved, the use of dogs, sexual humiliation, and other controversial interrogation techniques. Confirmation hearings for Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and Obama's former CIA Director, Leon Panetta, both discussed Hollywood-inspired "ticking time bomb" scenarios -- despite the fact that experts have long argued these situations are the stuff of fantasy. Panetta, when asked what he would do if a terrorist had vital information about an imminent catastrophic attack, reassured the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would seek "whatever additional authority" was necessary. The policy was quickly dubbed by the press, the "Jack Bauer exception" to President Obama's ban on the use of harsh interrogation techniques. In a 2006 Heritage Foundation panel discussion of 24, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff praised Jack Bauer and the show as "reflecting real life." During the 2008 presidential campaign, Bauer was a major topic of conversation on Washington's most venerated Sunday news show, Meet the Press. The week's guest was not a Hollywood producer or actor, but former President Bill Clinton, who was asked to comment on public statements made by his wife, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, on interrogation policy.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia even suggested -- twice, in public -- that he would turn to Bauer to resolve legal questions about interrogation methods. At a 2007 international conference on torture and terrorism law, a Canadian judge offhandedly remarked, "Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra, ‘What would Jack Bauer do?'" Scalia rushed to the fake operative's defense, referring to details of the show's Season 2 plotline, where Bauer tortures a suspected terrorist to prevent a nuclear attack on Los Angeles. "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles," Scalia remarked. "He saved hundreds of thousands of lives." Arguing that law enforcement officials deserve latitude in times of crisis, Justice Scalia challenged the panel, "Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? ... I don't think so." Somebody needs to watch a little less TV.

Look, Hollywood will be Hollywood. It's up to the press and the academy to fill the knowledge gap. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Despite widespread coverage of the bin Laden operation, Facebook users in 2011 were more interested in "sharing" news stories about the death of Jackass television star Ryan Dunn and how not to dress your girls like tramps. My own profession has always pooh-poohed intelligence research and teaching as too "real world" and not theoretical enough, and it shows. Twice as many of the top-25 universities ranked by US News & World Report this year offered courses on the history of rock n' roll than intelligence, giving undergrads a better chance of learning about U2 the band than U2 the spy plane. Since 9/11, political scientists have written nearly 2,000 articles in the top three academic journals. Only three pieces examined intelligence topics. While policymakers have been grappling with warrantless wiretapping, targeted killing, interrogation techniques, detainee policy, and intelligence reform, political scientists have been busy researching just about everything else.

Is the public going to get a better idea of how intelligence really works any time soon? As Justice Scalia would say, I don't think so.


National Security

No Easy Day for Secrecy

The Navy SEAL tell-all vs. our government's classification complex. 

The brouhaha over No Easy Day, the Osama bin Laden raid-and-tell book written by an ex-Navy SEAL, got me thinking about Fawn Hall. Remember her? In 1986, as the U.S. Justice Department's Iran-Contra investigation was gearing up, Hall and her boss, Lt. Col. Oliver North, started sneaking documents out of their classified filing cabinets. They were convinced that if only they destroyed the papers, nobody would ever know about the arms-for-hostages deal. There she was, with all that hair, at the National Security Council shredder, with all those documents. Papers. Shredders. Filing cabinets. It was all so 20th century.

Twenty-six years later, we are facing a 21st-century cyberworld with the same old secrecy regime. At the core of this antiquated system is the idea that secrets can be clearly distinguished and tightly controlled. This may have been viable in World War I, when the Espionage Act was passed. Or in 1951, when President Harry Truman established the modern "confidential/secret/top secret" classification system for people who wrote memos on manual typewriters and "made copies" using carbon paper. But distinguishing and controlling secrets has become much more problematic in the wired world of today. Now, information is easy to get out and hard to take back. A guy with a fake Lady Gaga CD can surreptitiously download hundreds of thousands of classified pages at lightning speed. And keeping the lid on anything -- from the Stuxnet virus in Iran to the Bo Xilai scandal in Beijing -- seems almost unimaginable.

"Mark Owen," the pen name of the ex-SEAL who wrote No Easy Day, faces potential prosecution, seizure of all his profits, and other punishment if Pentagon and CIA officials conclude that his book contains classified information. But what exactly constitutes "classified" information? The question is not some philosophical musing, but a growing policy problem. This summer, a federal judge ruled that several State Department cables posted on WikiLeaks were still technically classified, even though my 12-year-old son, along with millions of other people with Internet access, can click on them. For a while, a State Department official advised graduate students at Columbia University to avoid tweeting or posting on Facebook about WikiLeaks documents if they ever wanted a government job. The Air Force went further, telling personnel that if a family member accessed WikiLeaks from home, Little Johnny could be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. Thankfully, the Air Force soon realized that sending family members to the slammer for clicking on a New York Times link might not be the best idea, and the guidance was rescinded.

This classification messiness is pervasive. When President Barack Obama announced that CIA drone strikes had killed terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last fall, he could not utter the words "CIA" or "drone" because that information was classified. In February 2011, I had to cancel my testimony about the 2009 Fort Hood terrorist attack before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Why? Because the FBI decided at the eleventh hour to classify the name of the foreign terrorist who was communicating with Maj. Nidal Hasan before his alleged rampage -- and I had planned to speak, in a public hearing, in detail about the FBI's failure to pursue that connection. How did I know this foreign terrorist's deep, dark secret identity? From an earlier public hearing by the same Senate committee, which was posted on its web page, and from dozens of mainstream media news reports carried online. Former interrogator Matthew Alexander had to sue the Pentagon to get his book, How to Break a Terrorist, out of classification review. Defense Department officials later insisted on 93 redactions, "nearly all of them ridiculous," Alexander says. "In one case, they blacked out something that was on the Army website. They told me I couldn't say that soldiers were riding on the outside of a helicopter and in what configuration. But the Army flew guys into a NASCAR event on the outside of helicopters and made a YouTube video about it!" Scott Shane of the New York Times calls this new information universe "public but classified." It's Fawn Hall 2.0: Pretend nobody knows and hope nobody notices.

Classification has long been used for noble purposes (protecting vital national security information) and less noble ones (silencing critics, avoiding embarrassment, and advancing careers). In the Senate's Fort Hood report, the FBI was not protecting information. It was protecting itself, an instinct that started with J. Edgar Hoover and never left. Alexander's experience is not new either. Security people have been making silly classification decisions for years. One of my all-time favorites was a document about U.S. strategic nuclear forces that was declassified by the Pentagon in 1971, discussed openly by four defense secretaries over the next 35 years, and then, incredibly, reclassified in 2006. The nongovernmental National Security Archive had to protest to get the reclassified document declassified again.

What's different today is that the entire secrecy system has become so publicly dysfunctional. It used to be that fights over secrecy were often quiet affairs, the stuff of intelligence wonks and lawyers. Before wikis, blogs, tweets, Facebook, LinkedIn, apps, links, clicks, and other snappy-sounding ways of transmitting information all the time, everywhere, to everyone, a book about a secret operation or agency would simply appear one day in the local bookstore. The sordid details of how it came into the public domain were themselves often kept in the shadows. In the 1950s, for example, the National Security Agency classified and banned publication of Roberta Wohlstetter's award-winning book about the intelligence failures at Pearl Harbor even though all her sources were unclassified. She was told to destroy every copy. Fortunately, she didn't. John F. Kennedy's administration finally authorized publication five years later, and we are still learning from her analysis today. But when Wohlstetter was trying to get her book into daylight, nobody was blogging or reporting about her ordeal. By comparison, No Easy Day's no easy time is unfolding in a public drama all its own. It is a telling moment: Information is so hard to control that even the fight to keep things secret is not secret anymore. And the whole information cycle is spinning ever faster. It took decades for Americans to learn key aspects of the Cuban missile crisis, months to get details of the highly classified bin Laden operation, and just hours to learn Mark Owen's real identity after word of his book first surfaced in the media.

It is an uncertain and unsettling time for secrecy. As an academic who relies on public information about secret agencies to teach students the lessons of history, I am optimistic about this new information universe. As a citizen who wants the U.S. government to develop every advantage against adversaries to protect lives and advance national interests, I am deeply worried. Secrecy and openness have always been in a tenuous dance because one is essential for security while the other is essential for democracy. But the world is changing. The disconnect between America's 20th-century secrecy regime and 21st-century information realities is growing, making secrecy seem increasingly arbitrary and less meaningful. And in the end this threatens both security and accountability.


POST-SCRIPT: Since this article was published, several readers in the military and Intelligence Community have told me that the SEAL team's role in the bin Laden operation should never have been publicly acknowledged -- by the White House, "Mark Owen," or anyone else. As one former special forces operator put it, revealing the unit that carried out the mission "greatly dilutes the mystique and ‘fear factor' that we do want to elicit in all groups or individuals around the world that seek to do us harm. We want them to feel uncomfortable about not knowing quite what we are really capable of achieving operationally.... This is a powerful construct that is only leveraged by silence." Unfortunately, he said, "the generation of operators that appears to have followed my own does not comprehend the matter of the deed being greater than the glory." Sure, the world can suspect that Navy SEALs were responsible for taking out bin Laden. But there's a big difference between suspecting and knowing for sure. And as one Navy friend once said, "I never want a fair fight. When you're up against an adversary, you want every advantage you can get."

-/AFP/Getty Images