John Rizzo (Creative Commons-licensed photo from Project on Government Oversight)

The film, Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatized the hunt for Osama bin Laden that ended in his execution by SEAL Team 6, made it apparent how valuable Hollywood could be for the CIA.

Declassified memos showed the CIA valuing the film written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow because, although it was a fictionalized version of true events, it would “help promote an appropriate portrayal of the Agency and the Bin Laden operation.” The agency even successfully pressured Boal to edit an interrogation scene and a scene of CIA officers engaged in objectionable behavior during a rooftop party in Islamabad.

In a new book, Company Man, from former top CIA lawyer, John Rizzo, who worked in the agency for thirty-four years, he describes the attitude of the CIA toward Hollywood and why it is so valued.

…the CIA has long had a special relationship with the entertainment industry, devoting considerable attention to fostering relationships with Hollywood movers and shakers—studio executives, producers, directors, and big-name actors. There are officers assigned to this account full-time, which is not exactly a dangerous assignment but one that occasionally produces its own bizarre moments.

In my early years at the Agency, a veteran CIA liaison with Hollywood first explained it to me this way: These are people who have made a lot of money basically creating make-believe stuff. A lot of them, at least the smarter and more self-aware ones, realize what they do makes them ridiculously rich but is also ephemeral and meaningless in the larger scheme of things. So they’re receptive to helping the CIA in any way they can, probably in equal parts because they are sincerely patriotic and because it gives them a taste of real-life intrigue and excitement. And their power and international celebrity can be valuable—it gives them entree to people and places abroad. Heads of state want to meet and get cozy with them.

Rizzo openly boasts that the agency can take advantage of films in production to essentially plant agents so they can use the production as cover for operations in countries they would not typically be able to easily enter.

Their film crews are given free rein everywhere, even in places where the US government doesn’t normally have it. And they can be the voice of a US message that will have impact with foreign audiences so long as the audience doesn’t know it is coming from the US government…

Except, by writing about it in this book, with no specific examples, it not only will now be understood that this is something the CIA does but people all around the world may suspect Hollywood film crews in their country have CIA agents conducting operations from within them.

Rizzo apparently tried to get the pre-publication review board of the CIA to approve the disclosure of the name of a “major film star” who found another “big star’s production company had an association with the CIA’s clandestine service over the years” and wanted to offer his name and services—”free of charge.” But the agency would not allow this disclosure.

Likely one of the episodes that inspired his view that this work with Hollywood can lead to “bizarre incidents,” Rizzo did not know why the head of the Agency’s Hollywood account came to him to ask if this actor could assist the CIA.

And then he got to the kicker. “There is one little catch,” he said. “The actor refuses to take any money, but told us that instead all he wants is for us to score him the best fifty-thousand dollar stash of cocaine we can find. He seems to think we can get the real primo stuff. So that’s why I’m here. Is it okay for us to do it?”

“Uh, no,” I managed to get out of my agape mouth.

“We know a way to get some easily,” our guy added hopefully.

I definitely wasn’t eager to learn how, so I just repeated my response. “No. No way. Forget it.”

“Yeah, well, I thought so, but I thought I’d ask anyway,” he said, looking only slightly crestfallen as he left my office.

I later learned that the actor did provide some assistance to the CIA on a particular project. I was assured that his services were totally gratis.

Yes, the head of the account that handles work with Hollywood had thought there may be some scenario where helping an actor get $50,000 of the best blow could be legal. That should make one seriously wonder what they might have done, which the agency’s lawyers gave the green light (or, for that matter, not given the green light).

Rizzo told Ken Dilanian of the Los Angeles Times, the CIA is not necessarily working with conservative actors in Hollywood. “People one would normally associate with liberal causes have assisted CIA.” He also added the CIA has recruited actors to “give more visibility to propaganda projects abroad, such as a documentary secretly produced by the agency.”

“The agency sometimes takes advantage of the door-opening cachet that movie stars and other American celebrities enjoy. A star who met a world leader, for example, might be asked for details about that meeting,” Rizzo acknowledged.

Rizzo is a big supporter of Hollywood’s role in creating a positive image of the CIA. According to Tricia Jenkins’ book, The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Films and Television, he said in 2007 that “In the Line of Fire functioned as a ‘hell of a recruitment tool’ for the Secret Service and articulated the hopes that Langley would soon find its cinematic equivalent.”

He also acknowledged that same year that Hollywood had a “‘very active’ network of people in Hollywood helping ‘in whatever way they can to give back.’” For example, Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams were apparently more than willing to do whatever it took to show the CIA “in as positive a light as possible for Mission Impossible III.”

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall was dismantled, there were members of Congress like Senator Pat Moynihan, who wondered if there was still a need for the CIA. That led CIA director Robert Gates to launch a task force to promote “openness” (propaganda) about the CIA.

As Jenkins wrote, the “CIA feared a serious image problem and wanted to find more media-savvy ways of enhancing its public support under the guise of ‘greater openness.’” [See this 1991 memo.]

But the CIA took awhile to warm up to the idea of working on films with Hollywood. It understood if the agency provided assistance to one film production then it would have to provide assistance to all film productions.

This is the same reality the Pentagon, FBI, and Secret Service faced, however, and it did not stop them. They embraced going beyond advice and consultation on films to violating the First Amendment by privileging certain projects with particular opinions over other projects with less favorable views.

The CIA is even willing to openly criticize projects, which it does not like. Syriana, directed by Steven Soderbergh, loosely adapted from former CIA officer Robert Baer’s memoir See No Evil was criticized by Rizzo for not being based on actual events.

He helped the agency discredit Baer as some disillusioned operative by stating Baer “left the agency rather embittered. It’s unfortunate but it does happen; more unfortunate is that officers of this kind write books. But you get this; you get disgruntled people. He was a talented officer, and for all I know, he was not used well. But CIA is like any other profession; you get screwed sometimes.”

What the agency objected to was how it showed the CIA using faulty intelligence to assassinate Prince Nasir. As Baer said at the time of the film’s release, the CIA actually engages in this kind of assassination even though Executive Order 12333 is supposed to prohibit US government employees from engaging in assassination. The CIA fires missiles into cars in Yemen. He noted the CIA was trying to kill bin Laden with Predator drones. So, this trigger-happy depiction is not based in fantasy.

But that is what bothers the CIA. It does not want Americans and people around the world to see a portrayal of what the CIA actually does because most people would be bothered or repulsed by what they saw on screen.

Zero Dark Thirty, which celebrates the vigilantism of the CIA and covert military operations in the “war on terrorism,” now that is a film Rizzo could get behind:

It was a mixed bag, but it was a terrific movie. And you know, I think it did really take no sides and Miss Bigelow and Mr. Boal, I think, skillfully teed up the complicated moral questions of all of this we’re facing, especially in those first few scary months after the 9/11 attacks.

Hollywood aside, Rizzo is someone who insists waterboarding is not torture, maintains certain abusive interrogation techniques were justified, and it would have been acceptable for the Obama administration to continue to use some of them. He has become that disgruntled person he suggested Baer had become.

Rizzo apparently knows some liberal filmmakers eager to glorify the CIA out of a sense of “patriotism.” It is probably only a matter of time before his memoir on his time in the CIA inspires a production for the silver screen.