Fact-Checking the CIA's Fact-Check on ‘Zero Dark Thirty
By J.K. Trotter | The Atlantic Wire – Fri, Dec 28, 2012
“The CIA is a lot different than Hollywood portrays it to be,” reads an official explainer issued today by the Central Intelligence Agency — a thinly veiled attempt to continue debunking Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial Oscar favorite that its director admittedly hates. Referring to James Bond, the fictional MI6 agent, depictions of “shootouts and high speed chases,” and scenes of “CIA officers chasing terrorists through the American heartland,” the memo goes on to try and dispel an array of “myths” pertaining to the agency's operations, from its impact on foreign policy to its ability to spy on Americans. The effort follows a December 21 letter addressed to CIA employees from the agency's acting director, Michael Morrell, concerning the “artistic license” of Zero Dark Thirty. Today's release touches on the same themes: whether the CIA of our popular imagination corresponds to the CIA of reality, and how movies like Zero Dark Thirty (which isn't name-checked directly) blur the distinction between fact and fantasy. Should you believe the CIA's interpretation of Hollywood? We break down each agency claim with actual details from the movies — and Homeland, obviously.
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Below the line: each of the five “myths” and Robert Steele's “best truth” answer, Steve Coll's negative review of film.
WARNING NOTICE: Robert Steele left CIA in 1988, the Marine Corps in 1993, and last saw a secret document around 2003. His comments are informed speculation buttressed by a great deal of non-fiction reading. Learn more about “designed to fail” intelligence here: Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Intelligence (Most). Those interested in doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing wronger, will find the playbook here: 21st Century Intelligence Core References 2.8.
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Myth No. 1: “Everyone at the CIA is a spy”
CIA says: “These officers recruit people in foreign countries who have access to valuable information (spies), but the officers themselves are not spies.”
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Zero Dark Thirty says: Maya, the film's protagonist, is not depicted as a “spy,” in the sense that she must go undercover for a long period of time. She does, once or twice, change her appearance in preparation for an interrogation, but that's not quite the same as, like, espionage.
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Reality: OK, so not everyone at the CIA is a spy. That's fair. Still, “recruiting” a source in a foreign country seems to involve a degree of lying about one's identity. That doesn't make the recruiter a full-blown spy — they're not on an actual covert mission — but it does mean they're party to some form of secrecy.
ROBERT STEELE: CIA consists of roughly several thousand full-time employees, a thousand or so annuitants (retired employees double-dipping) and a much larger number of contractors. Among all of those a tiny fraction are fully-trained clandestine case officers, and among those an even tinier fraction have served more than two tours overseas and are fluent in a foreign language. CIA is a bureaucracy. Case officers are spies, but they live immunity (official cover) rather than real cover, and 90% of what CIA passes off as being acquired by its spies is actually from foreign liaison (hand-outs from one intelligence agency to another) or the work of the domestic collection division that does debriefings and document exploitation from anyone accessible within the USA. The protagonist in the film is an analyst, not a case officer. Analysts do not operate under cover — they are in true name and can even have business cards (but CIA will not reimburse them for that cost). They generally do not have advanced degrees, do not have real world experience, and do not speak the relevant foreign language or have any serious understanding of the culture, history, or the whole systems view of whatever target they are responsible for. They are not allowed to talk to the real experts on their target — or to foreign intelligence experts — because of out-dated security concepts. With the growth of the drone program, and the latest idiocy, creating a cadre of body guards for spies who cannot handle themselves in moderately dangerous areas, CIA is comatose. Assuming for a moment that it really was Bin Laden that was killed (I do not think so — see Bin Laden Show: Entries 00-90 UPDATED 15 Oct 2012 and especially Bin Laden Show 14: Dr. Steve Pieczenik Nails It–Bin Laden Died of Marfan in 2001–Reiterates (Has Proof) 9/11 Was a Cheney-Led Stand-Down False Flag Operation. Impeachment Now!) but just for grins, if Abbottabd were real, it should have been five guys with slencers from the safehouse CIA says it had in the neighborhood, not a long cross-border flying operation from Afghanistan. I continue to believe that CIA lied to JSOG and this was a PSYOP. DNA is not tested that fast, no member of the crew was allowed to see the body or the burial at sea, and a number of those in the raid have since died under questionable circumstances.
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Myth No. 2: “The CIA spies on US citizens”
CIA says: “The Federal Bureau of Investigation has the lead on intelligence matters in the United States, especially those directed against US citizens. However, the CIA and the FBI work together as needed to protect the interests of US national security.”
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Zero Dark Thirty Homeland says: The C.I.A. can and will spy on a Congressman if it thinks he's a legitimate terrorist threat.
Reality: The CIA's answer is silly. Their answer is, literally, “Well, we don't, but the FBI does!” The Senate extended the warrantless wiretapping program today. It does not matter which three-initial agency is able to spy — or is in fact spying, at this very moment! It matters if that spying is permissible in the first place.
ROBERT STEELE: In theory, the CIA is free to spy on US citizens overseas or in the USA as long as it has “reasonable grounds” for suspecting that the US citizens are in any way assisting or supporting a foreign power or declared threat. In reality, prior to 9/11, CIA did not spy on US citizens very much [other than the Church Committee stuff) — but had and still has “non-official cover” patsies all over the place; after 9/11, CIA got so much money, and proved to be so incompetent as creating non-official cover companies and non-official cover case officers, that a lot of people ended up being posted within the USA that should have been going overseas, with nothing to do (and being paid domestic housing allowances to boot). CIA has joined the FBI and DHS in treating Occupy as a radical group and potentially an ally of terrorism, and with the various laws passed by the Obama Administration, any US citizen can now be locked up and the key thrown away without due process. [To it's enormous credit, CIA has been very tolerant of my well-intentioned tough love, perhaps because marginalizing me has been so successful.] As we also now know from the rendition, torture, and drone program, as well as from the books by, among others, Susan Lindauer, Extreme Prejudice: The Terrifying Story of the Patriot Act and the Cover Ups of 9/11 and Iraq (CreateSpace, 2010), CIA does spy on Congress, liberally funds various Congressional staffers, and probably has “special relationships” with selected Members of Congress who are wildly indiscriminate about where their campaign funding comes from. CIA and FBI both continue to put people into psychiatric care and forced drug “rehabilitation” and this should be a major investigation starting with Susan's experience, while we also investigate every person in the last ten years that has worked for the national security community and been “suicided.”). The CIA also has the Saudi Arabia and other slush funds (see Search: Seven CIAs [Steele on the Record]) and there are many bi-lateral arrangements across national intelligence communities (the British/Canadian GCHQ listens to US politicians, the US NSA returns the favor on Canadian officials).
Myth No. 3: “The CIA is above the law”
CIA says: “The National Security Act of 1947 and multiple Executive Orders provide the authority for CIA activities. The CIA reports to two Congressional oversight committees … which ensure that the Agency operates legally and within the scope of its charter.”
Zero Dark Thirty says: Using “enhanced interrogation techniques” — e.g., waterboarding, which simulates drowning — the CIA obtained information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
Reality: The CIA isn't said to have waterboarded anyone since March 2003. And as Scott Shane reported in The New York Times, a new classified Senate report concludes that brutal interrogation was not “a central component” in capturing bin Laden. And much of the CIA's operations remain classified, which many of the film's critics (not the movie kind) will no doubt remind you.
ROBERT STEELE: First, off, waterboarding never ever produced any real leads — the people who say it did either believe people who have lied to them or are liars themselves. Torture does not work, something real professionals such as Col Stu Harrington and many others who have actually dealt with false leads from torture. Second, yes, all elements of the national security community believe they are above the law. Mike Hayden violated the Constitution at NSA and then again at CIA. The Department of Justice is on the written record as telling the US Court that it has the right to lie to the Court whenever it deems necessary in the interest of national security. The federal government — CIA, FBI, DHS — and NYPD — and all private military contractors — all consider themselves to be above the law and all of them are not being held accountable for renditions, torture, extrajudicial killings, the “suiciding” of whistle blowers going back to Viet-Nam and the Iran Contra, with the Marine Corps sometimes doing the deed (I am reminded of Col James Sabow, USMC) and more recently, at the hands of contractors, the suspicious deaths of several Colonels and one contractor family in Herndon, VA). In my view, the Inspectors General were castrated at birth and are worthless. Nobody in this town, least of all the two pretend oversight committees, is serious about a) creating decision-support or b) keeping the secret world accountable for both extraordinary incompetence and extraordinary crimes against humanity. Historically speaking, CIA has been above the law since Allen Dulles treated it as his personal fiefdom and created the “secret team” as a parasite inside of CIA that recruits its successors and passes from generation to generation without any Director of CIA being any wiser. George Bush appears to have institutionalized the criminality of this sub-set of CIA, there are also a number of letters signed by George Bush on the Internet that explicitly waive all laws for the CIA or contract person being able to go out and do “whatever it takes” to recover documents or do the dirty deed that has been ordered. See Search: Seven CIAs [Steele on the Record].
Myth No. 4: “The CIA arrests people who break the law”
CIA says: “The CIA, unlike the FBI, has no law enforcement authority. The Agency’s mission is foreign intelligence collection and analysis.”
Zero Dark Thirty says: True. The biggest “law enforcement” aspect of the film is the killing of Osama bin Laden, which was handled by a team of Navy SEALS.
Reality: Yup. Myth vanquished! The CIA can't handcuff anyone.
ROBERT STEELE: CIA does not arrest people, it just kidnaps them and puts them in secret prisons–and too often, kidnaps innocent people — or murders them by ill-advised very expensive drone attacks directed by children at Langley with the drones driven by children in the US Air Force. Once CIA got caught doing rendition, the job appears to have slipped to retired CIA case officers replaying their Bwana days in Africa, and private military corporations incapable of being discreet but all too willing to play Rambo under the loose supervision of case officers who have no idea what they are doing. CIA prefers to break the law, and fund people to break their own laws, but generally it is all for show as most CIA case officers under official cover are blown to local liaison within two weeks of being in-country, and most of the “agents” they are handling are known to local liaison within 30-60 days, and either doubled or neutralized. CIA case officers are not very good at recruiting — I was knocking down five a year, my understanding was that the division standard was one a year (at the time). The reality is that CIA is a monstrous travesty, exceeded only by NSA, which is a really expensive monstrous travesty.
Myth No. 5: “The CIA makes foreign policy”
CIA says: “The CIA informs foreign policy. It works with other members of the Intelligence Community to produce objective analysis on intelligence issues. The president and policymakers make all US policy decisions, not the CIA.”
Zero Dark Thirty says: The film features a number of heated, frustrating scenes in which Maya (the CIA agent) and her colleagues try to convince policymakers to go ahead with the mission.
Reality: This one's tricky. Is organizing intelligence and presenting it to policymakers “making” foreign policy? No. But it's not just “informing” it either. Best to say the agency influences (or attempts to influence) foreign policy.
ROBERT STEELE: First off, nothing CIA produces influences any policy–Paul Pillar nails it in his latest book. As we learned with Iraq, 935 now-documented lies trumped what good intelligence CIA's professionals (not to be confused with political prostitute George Tenet) produced. We appear to be staving off the same mistake on Iran but the jury is still out. Of course CIA makes foreign policy. EVERYONE makes foreign policy. George Shultz was constantly complaining about both the multiplicity of foreign policies, and the fact that nothing was every “decided,” it had to be re-argued every day. CIA has “The Secret Team,” free use of military assets (something I would stop, with full inspection of all approved loads), and its Chiefs of Station regularly lie to Ambassadors, lie to local officials, and generally do whatever they want. This was much greater under Bill Casey, less so under Webster, Woolsey, etcetera. The fact is that foreign leaders hear a completely different policy from direct White House liaison, Ambassadors, Chiefs of Station, visiting CEOs (Exxon, Goldman Sachs, etcetera). They go with whoever pays them off directly — cash from CIA is often more convenient that skimming from AID especially when it comes with personal banking services. The US does not have a “foreign policy” or a “national strategy” and generally it's every agency for itself. The Office of Management and Budget does not manage. CIA was certainly smuggling drugs in the 1980's and 1990's, something it learned in Viet-Nam, and its corporate “partners” such as Brown & Root (remember Buzzy Kronguard, George Tenet's dollar a year man? Brown & Root had its own DCI baby-sitting Tenet) are strongly suspected now by well-informed individuals such as Gary Webb (“suicided” with not one but TWO bullets into his brain), Mike Levine and Michael Ruppert of continuing to have a range of off-budget income sources. Harry Truman never intended for CIA to be anything more than an all-source decision-support capability. I keep hoping we will get a national security leadership that actually wants to do the right thing instead of the wrong things more expensively than ever before. “The truth at any cost lowers all other costs.” CIA — and the rest of the US secret world — is so far removed from the truth as to call into question why they continue to exist. Corruption at all levels, perhaps? When Rule One in Washington is “Lie to the President if you can get away with it.” what should we expect? Liars. Lots of them. Well-funded.
WARNING NOTICE: Robert Steele left CIA in 1988, the Marine Corps in 1993, and last saw a secret document around 2003. His comments are informed speculation buttressed by a great deal of non-fiction reading. Learn more about “designed to fail” intelligence here: Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Intelligence (Most). Those interested in doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing wronger, will find the playbook here: 21st Century Intelligence Core References 3.2.
Steve Coll, “Disturbing & Misleading” The New York Review of Books (7 February 2013)