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The New York Times
May 6, 2001

Cameras Are Being Turned On a Once-Shy Spy Agency


Central Intelligence Agency headquarters is a sleepy place most weekends, but one recent Saturday it was forced to call in dozens of reinforcements to stave off a 20-hour siege.

The invasion was not mounted by Iraqis, North Koreans or terrorists with phony passports but by CBS.

Swarms of producers, cameramen, soundmen, writers, technicians, makeup artists and caterers were descending in dozens of trucks, trailers and vans. Cries of "We're locked up!" and "It's a cut!" echoed across the secured area in front of the main entrance.

CBS is deep into filming a pilot for a series this fall that would tell stories of everyday life inside "The Agency." So it is understandable that CBS producers wanted to film opening scenes at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that the C.I.A. is cooperating.

"We've sort of been discovered," said Chase Brandon, a public affairs officer and longtime agency operative who has exchanged the work of collaborating with foreign informants for collaborating with Hollywood.

"This is such a different place than what it used to be. We've got a store and a fine arts commission and a museum. We've really become more, well, normal in our daily course of events as we continue to remain what we are, a secret intelligence organization helping policy makers and military planners carry out their mission."

As part of its new mission, the C.I.A. is working regularly with filmmakers, television producers and writers it considers sympathetic.

By doing so, it hopes both to get out what it calls the truth about the agency and to explain to a skeptical public why, in the absence of an overarching national enemy, it needs a budget of about $30 billion a year for its operations and those of its sister intelligence agencies.

The C.I.A. is picky about its projects. In a written statement, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, said that the agency cooperated "where feasible" to help "members of the entertainment industry willing to accurately portray the work of the intelligence community." Bill Harlow, the agency's chief spokesman, is more specific, saying: "If they appear to be interested in accuracy, if they do not misportray the role of the agency, and we can do so without interfering with our mission, we will consider providing assistance. We decide on a case-by-case basis."

As a result, the C.I.A., which receives about a dozen scripts a month, has rejected more collaborations than it has accepted. It declined to cooperate on the film "Clear and Present Danger," for example, because it linked the agency with drug trafficking.

Critics of the agency's unwillingness to be more open scoff at the collaboration with Hollywood. "There's a big difference between openness and P.R.; what we've got here is P.R.," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "All of this perception management is probably harmless, but at best irrelevant. Advertising and accountability are completely different things."

Collaboration with television and movies is not new to government agencies with classified missions. As head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover was extensively involved with the early television series "The F.B.I." The Pentagon has used its planes, aircraft carriers, helicopters and troops to help filmmakers make war films more realistic, from "Top Gun" to "The Hunt for Red October."

But the C.I.A., governed by a culture of secrecy, was slow to get on the bandwagon. Four years ago it created a special position in its public affairs office to work with Hollywood and put Mr. Brandon (no longer undercover) in the job. The real breakthrough came two years later when the agency cooperated with the makers of the Showtime cable television channel on "In the Company of Spies."

A dream film for the C.I.A., it tells the story of a former C.I.A. covert operator who is coaxed out of retirement to rescue a colleague imprisoned by North Korean intelligence. At the end of the film, the president exclaims: "By God, when the agency is good, it's spectacular. And no one even knows!"

The C.I.A. liked the film so much that it allowed it to be screened for the first time in its main auditorium, sponsoring the first Hollywood premiere in its history. Mr. Tenet, who greeted the actors Tom Berenger and Ron Silver, still calls the film "our movie."

The production staff of last year's hit "Meet the Parents" consulted the agency about how to ensure the plausibility of a polygraph test that Robert De Niro's character, a former C.I.A. officer, administers to his potential son-in-law, played by Ben Stiller.

The agency is acting as a consultant to Paramount on "The Sum of All Fears," based on the novel by Tom Clancy. Ben Affleck, who plays the role of Jack Ryan, the agency's top Russia analyst, spent a day at the agency interviewing real Russia analysts. And both Mr. Brandon and Mr. Harlow, a former Navy captain, have visited the main set in Montreal.

"We were escorted though parts of Langley so we could properly construct our sets," Stratton Leopold, the film's producer, said. "I don't know what fantasy people have about the C.I.A., but it looks like an ad agency with desks with dividers and computers with screen savers."

In "The Agency," the often-mundane world of analysis and everyday decision making is showcased. "It's less 'Mission Impossible' and more about the families and lifestyles and personal day-to-day lives of the men and women of the C.I.A.," said Michael Beckner, the CBS screenwriter.

Paige Turko, for example, who played a recovering alcoholic single mother on Fox's "Party of Five" and a pregnant lesbian police officer on "N.Y.P.D. Blue," has been cast in the role of a graphics analyst in the office of technical services who is reinventing herself after a divorce.

Will Patton plays a senior analyst who longs to go overseas as a covert operator; Gil Bellows plays a counterterrorism official on the operations side. The plot of the pilot deals with the agency's efforts to thwart a terrorist plot to blow up Harrods in London.

Along the way, Ms. Turko's character prepares phony documents for the Syrian family of an informant the agency has recruited.

No fast-action scenes were filmed at the C.I.A., just two discreet scenes, one of real C.I.A. personnel, their security passes visible, entering the building, and another of real actors, Mr. Patton and Mr. Bellows, strolling across the main lobby with the giant C.I.A. seal on the floor.

Much to the delight of the agency, CBS clearly has become an agency booster. The network bought 250 baseball caps emblazoned with the agency seal and custom-embroidered "The Agency" on the back for the crew. And on filming day, the security police escorted the crew to the gift shop, which was open especially for the occasion.

The agency would not let CBS use regular extras because it would have had to have so many security people (and lots of overtime) to watch them. So it let real officials (none of them covert operators) with real security clearances volunteer to play those roles.

A fresh-faced 29-year-old woman with long black hair, dressed in a well-cut black suit, was not, it turned out, a Hollywood import. She identified herself as "a chemical weapons analyst for the Middle East in Winpac," the agency's Weapons Intelligence and Non-Proliferation Arms Control Center. Officials from the law, science, security, Congressional relations and recruitment departments were also on hand.

One current big-draw film dealing with spying, "Spy Kids," was produced with no input from the C.I.A. It made mistakes. The film refers, for example, to agency officers as agents, when only foreigners hired by the C.I.A. are called agents.

And the two parents (she American, he from an unnamed Latin country) are former covert operators whose missions were to rub each other out. They fell in love and got married instead, a highly implausible scenario in real C.I.A. life. "To marry an enemy officer is not what we would call a career-enhancing move," said Mr. Harlow, who wrote a novel titled "Circle William," which is described on his Web site as a naval thriller with a sense of humor.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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