Collateral Brain Damage – The Hollywood Propaganda Ministry
By Alex Constantine
July 2002 issue of High Times
“Without censorship, things can get terribly confused
in the public mind.”
–General William C. Westmoreland,
Time, April 5, 1982
During the filming of Black Hawk Down, the Pentagon persuaded its producers to change the name of Army Ranger John Stebbins, portrayed by Ewan McGregor, because the true-life “patriot” had been convicted to a 30-year prison term for the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. (Megan Turner, “WAR-FILM `HERO’ IS A RAPIST,” NY Post, 12/18/01) In the movie, “John Grimes” stands in for pedophile Stebbins. Despite this and numerous other revisions to the record of the famed Somali military fiasco, Black Hawk Down met with widespread acclaim. The film’s Washington premiere was attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Oliver North and a division of generals. It grossed $75.5-million in its first three weeks.
But jeering protestors — including Brendan Sexton, an actor in Black Hawk Down — decried the movie, a riot of Hawkish clichés (“C’mon, let’s roll!”), as crude war propaganda, a drug intended to stupefy the country into supporting covert operations and oil company maneuvers in Somalia, still more dead civilians. The Pentagon’s heavy hand in the making of the film was condemned as a manipulation of public sentiment recalling the Goebbels propaganda mill.
A glance that way is instructive. “Films,” Heinrich Goebbels opined, constitute a “scientific means of influencing the masses,” of molding attitudes, and he cautioned, “a government must not neglect them.” Movies were central to the Nazi regime’s domestic propaganda blitz. Under Nazi rule, some 1,300 movies were approved or commissioned by the Reich. Robert Hertzstein, a former consultant to the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, notes in The War that Hitler Won that Goebbel’s ministry salted popular films with repetitious words and symbols that stirred the emotions of the German populace: “heroism,” “sacrifice,” “mass murder,” “hatred for Germany.” (in Robert Edwin Herzstein, The War that Hitler Won: Goebbels and the Nazi Media Campaign, New York: Paragon, 1987, p. 272.) A half century later, Black Hawk Down — with its profuse “heroism,” “sacrifice,” “mass murder,” “hatred for America” — swept the next bellicose right-wing “homeland.” The parallels were glaring.
And obnoxious. Brendon Sexton, speaking at an anti-war forum held at Columbia University, recalled that in preparation for his role, he and a fellow actor flew to Georgia for `Ranger Orientation Training’ at Fort Benning in Columbus. From Atlanta, they shuttled to the training site and “on our flight there were a bunch of guys with Marine haircuts speaking Spanish. It took us a few moments to realize these guys were `students’ of the School of the Americas, the U.S. Army’s own terrorist training camp in Latin America.” This experience “put things into perspective: warlords, dictators and terrorists are normally okay with the U.S., as long as they do the bidding of U.S. corporate interests.” (“What’s wrong with Black Hawk Down? — Black Hawk Down Actor Brendan Sexton on what really happened in Somalia,” Z-Magazine Web Site, http://www.zmag.org/ZNET.htm)
Those interests lurked beyond Ridley Scott’s klieg lights in geopolitical obscurity. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Somalia was ruled by the decrepit Mohamed Siad Barre. Bowing to the dictates of American Oil, President Barre crushed all dissent. He leased nearly two-thirds of oil-rich Somalia to four American petroleum companies: Chevron, Conoco, Phillips and Amoco. Somalia, a tiny country in the Horn of Africa, is also of interest to the U.S., a direct route to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia erupted in turmoil and the oil companies’ land contracts were rendered useless paper. At the same time, there was no shortage of misery in the world. A military adventure to Somalia would have appeared whimsical. Citing famine in Mogadishu and the South, President George Bush, Sr. let the dogs out. The Los Angeles Times noted that Bush’s envoy during the operation made the Conoco compound his base. (“Black Hawk Down: Shoot first, don’t ask questions afterwards,” Independent, 2-2-02)
On May 7, 1993 Canadian newspapers reported that Airborne Commandos had torture-murdered a Somali teenager. Then came subsequent news of murders by Canada’s peacekeepers. As many as 1,000 civilians (or “Skinnies”s) were massacred by American troops sent to “restore order” and grab Barre’s successor, Mohammed Aideed. Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the military operations in Somalia as “a paid political advertisement” for the Pentagon. (Michael L. Tan, “Only a Movie,” INQ7, Philippine news web site, http://www.inq7.net/opi/2002/feb/26/opi_mltan-1.htm.)
The “humanitarian” operation devolved into wholesale bloodshed. “In one incident,” the Independent reported in 1998, “Rangers took a family hostage. When one of the women started screaming at the Americans, she was shot dead. In another incident, a Somali prisoner was allegedly shot dead when he refused to stop praying outside. Another was clubbed into silence.” Mark Dowden, author of Black Hawk Down, wrote the article — yet his book, released a year later, makes no mention of these atrocities. (Independent, 2-2-02) Further nips and tucks in the film script were made at Pentagon request.
Letters from the studios to Pentagon officials declassified last year reveal that Hollywood routinely rewrites history at the dictate of DoD officials with the authority to grant access to military hardware and property. If the script changes are not made, assistance is denied, the film suffers. Films that have won Pentagon approval include Armageddon, Air Force One, The Jackal, Top Gun, Pearl Harbour and Bad Company. Some movies that didn’t make the grade: The Thin Red Line, Apocalypse Now, Sgt Bilko, Platoon, Independence Day and Spy Game. (Duncan Campbell, “Top Gun versus Sergeant Bilko?,” The Guardian, 8-29-01.)
The national security-entertainment complex is as driven by greed as it is hypocrisy, so on September 15, 2000, the New York Post reported: “BUSH MADE BUNDLE ON MOVIE VIOLENCE.” President Bush has scolded panderers of film violence and is given to public pronouncements that there should be “a sense of urgency in our society about the pervasiveness of violence” (excluding the current spate of gory war movies, of course — these he applauds). “I think it starts with reminding moms and dads that they’ve got to be mindful of the games and movies and music that their children are listening to.” Most moms and dads had no idea that, for ten years, moralist Bush sat on the board of Silver Screen Management Co., a company operated by New York businessman Roland Betts, a fellow Skull & Bones frat brother. Silver Screen has financed a score of R-rated flicks, including The Hitcher, a bloodfest. Bush joined the board of SS in 1983 and was a director until 1993, when he planned his candidacy for the Texas governor’s office. Bush received over $100,000 in directors’ fees and bonuses from the firm.
In the last election cycle, Bush’s starched supporters regaled Al Gore for his friendship with Pulp Fiction producer Harvey Weinstein, and soliciting campaign funds in Hollywood. They selectively forgot that Colin Powell sat on the corporate board of Time-Warner before his appointment to the State Department. Time-Warner Cable offers hardcore pornography. In 1992, the ultra-conservative American Family Association named Time-Warner “the third leading sponsor of sex, violence and profanity on broadcast TV.” (Robert Peters, “Time Warner Still a Major Cultural Polluter,” Morality in Media Web Site: http://www.moralityinmedia.org/index.htm?mediaIssues/timewarn.htm.)
Martin Kaplan, a former speechwriter and Disney executive, allowed at a recent news conference that between Hollywood and Washington, “there’s a combination of distrust and affection. There has been the culture-wars side of it, but there’s also been quite a passionate relationship with legislative outcomes. They understand each other in a fundamental way.” (Doug Saunders, “Films of War,” Globe and Mail, 11-17-01)
This intimacy was conspicuous when screenwriter E. Howard Hunt was tapped for spy duty. It was conspicuous in 1952, when Actors’ Guild president Ronald Reagan was recruited by the Crusade for Freedom, a CIA front, to star in a series of televised appeals for viewer donations to resettle East European Nazi collaborators — “freedom fighters,” Reagan said — in the U.S. (John Loftus, The Belarus Secret, New York: Knopf, 1982, pp. 107-41.)
And it was conspicuous twenty years later at the world premiere of The Godfather, an event attended by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Robert Evans, the film’s producer, a Kissinger crony, had known Mafia ties — his attorney was Sidney Korshak, the legendary West Coast mob fixer — but this didn’t deter the world’s most prominent war criminal. Evans writes in his memoirs that when Kissinger arrived at the screening, the paparazzi “became so unruly that extra police were called in to physically push them back.”
A reporter shouted, “Dr. Kissinger, why are you here tonight?”
Kissinger croaked with a grin, “I was forced.”
The theater’s lights dimmed, the theme rose, Evans gushed: “my whole life seemed to pass before me. Here, sitting between Henry and Ali [McGraw], watching this epic unfold, I felt that everything my life was about had led up to this moment.” (Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, London: Aurum Press, 1994, pp. 9-10.)
The mutual admiration was still evident in November, 2001 when senior White House advisor Karl Rove and several dozen studio executives met in Beverly Hills to discuss the war on terrorism. “It’s important to hear what Hollywood has on its mind,” Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleisher explained at a daily press briefing. The names Bill Maher, Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty or Larry Flynt did not come up.
The thoughtful movie moguls represented CBS, HBO, MGM, Showtime, Dreamworks, Viacom and other multinational cartel dream factories. The New York Times assured, “several executives emphasized … that they were not interested in making propaganda films.” CNN mentioned that MPAA president Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association, “hoped the White House representatives weren’t planning `to tell us what kind of movies to make.'” Rove wanted “concrete information, told with honesty and specificity and integrity.” But most reports of the closed meeting note that “patriotic” movies were the topic of discussion. The studio executives offered to turn out flicks in the tradition of Why We Fight, a documentary made during World War II, and The Battle of San Pietro; they also committed to public service projects on biological terrorism and “homeland security.” (Rick Lyman, “White House Sets Meeting with Film Executives to Discuss War on Terrorism,” New York Times, 11-8-01.) Among the volunteers to the war effort, count directors David Fincher (Fight Club), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Randal Kleiser (Grease), and Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. De Souza.
Never mind that Hollywood was already tummy-tuck deep in the propaganda biz. A few days before Rove’s summit, actor Tom Cruise met with CIA officials to discuss ways of burnishing the agency’s image in the upcoming Mission: Impossible 3. (Editorial, “Unease over Hollywood Washington pact,” Guardian Unlimited, November 14, 2001.) Truth is, the nation’s political and entertainment capitals had been on intimate terms for decades when the studio moguls issued their denials.
“For many years,” Canadian media critic Doug Saunders writes, “Hollywood’s most prominent products, its major studio films and TV series, have been almost indistinguishable from government-funded propaganda. With rare exceptions, whenever men in uniform appear on-screen, Hollywood has been singing Washington’s song from the beginning.” The grave flaws in American foreign policy “may loom large in history, but 50 years of cinema and TV have painted [the CIA and DoD] in bright and unmottled hues.” And reaped immense profits with their art: CIA expenditures alone on propaganda during the Cold War ran to hundreds of millions of dollars each year. (Alex Constantine, And Now a Word from Our Sponsor — the CIA, Virtual Government) “If Bush were to erect a soundstage on the White House lawn, he could not do a better job getting the official line across than movies and TV shows have been doing for years.” (Saunders)
Two years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency opened its headquarters to Showtime and Paramount for the making of In the Company of Spies. The program aired on Showtime. To celebrate the completion of this collaborative project, the CIA’s George Tenet invited everyone involved to a private screening at CIA headquarters in Langley. “The CIA’s objectives were clear,” screenwriter Roger Towne told the Associated Press. “They hoped to see a human face put on the agency and we had just the story to do it.” (“Hollywood Whores for Washington,” http://www.xmag.com/archives/7-08-feb00/antiDrug.html and http://www.xmag.com/archives/7-08-feb00/antidrugCont.html) This is an agency, mind you, with two faces, an international Gestapo that has trained death squads around the globe, assassinated a score of foreign leaders, plotted coups, conducted illicit human experimentation, peddled LSD, sprayed disease on Cuban crops, dragged the country into Vietnam, created bin Laden, etc. Tenet boasted that the movie “portray[s] us in a good light, and I want the American people to know the values we believe in.”
“Never,” noted the Washington Post, “has the CIA so fully embraced a movie.” (Vernon Loeb, “The CIA’s Operation Hollywood,” Washington Post, October 14, 1999, Page C-1.)
The Langley-Hollywood romance began during World War II, when the Office of Strategic Services (the nascent CIA) and a Disney make-up artist designed disguise kits for agents on jungle assignment. In the postwar period, make-up artists were also recruited for the start-up of Studio Six Productions, a full-fledged CIA front complete with business cards, an office, movie posters and trade ads. Studio Six was run by John Chambers, who won an Academy Award for his make-up wizardry in Planet of the Apes, his partner Tom Burman and the CIA’s Tony Mendez. (Robert P. Laurence, “Into the Shadows: The CIA in Hollywood,” television review, San Diego Union-Tribune, 12-04-01.)
The CIA, soiled by a half century of PR disasters, hired Chase Brandon, a 26-year veteran paramilitary officer with experience “all over Latin America” — also a cousin of actor Tommy Lee Jones, Al Gore’s college roommate — in 1996 to fill the newly-created position of Entertainment Liaison Officer. “The popular image of us is of some kind of rogue organization creating mayhem and madness on a whim,” Brandon told the press a week prior to the World Trade Center air assaults. “We hate to see ugly imagery of us in television and films.”
Brandon’s office was conceived on December 20, 1991 by the “Task Force on Greater CIA Openness” in a study undertaken at the request of then CIA director Robert Gates, a Bush, Sr. appointee, and immediately classified, though a few copies were leaked. The report proposed an image upgrade to neutralize public hostility. The task force was in “substantial agreement that we generally need to make the institution and the process more visible and understandable rather than strive for openness on specific substantive issues.” Forget openness, the Openness Task Force advised. The report “seems to recommend no real change in attitude,” complained The Excluded Middle, an anti-CIA Internet site, “only in the way that the agency presents itself to a hostile or at least an indifferent public.” The authors of the report boast arrogantly that the CIA’s Public Affairs Office (PAO) censored and had buried projects that it found objectionable in the past. Chase Brandon hails from the PAO. Contact with “every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly, and television network in the nation” was advised by the panel. The result was the Entertainment Liaison Office. (Anonymous, “CIA MEMO ON GREATER OPENNESS REVEALS CONTRADICTIONS,” Excluded Middle, http://www.elfis.net/tem/ciaduh.htm)
The CIA’s PR campaign was calculated to convince viewers that programs like The Agency on CBS — praised by Brandon for portraying “the bravery and decency of the men and women who work here” — were true-to-life. Wolfgang Peterson, an executive producer of the spook show, observes that Americans “are questioning whether we need a CIA, and this is a great opportunity to get the word out.” With CIA oversight, of course. Michael Frost Beckner, creator of series, worked closely with Brandon and submitted the product for Agency approval. (Duncan Campbell, “Hollywood helps CIA come in from the cold,” The Guardian, September 6, 2001.) The premiere episode of The Agency featured agents thwarting a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, a smoke-belching storyline fit for Rupert Murdoch’s delusional Fox cable channel, or perhaps Nickelodeon.
A plausible script was suggested by Guardian media critic John Patterson: “Think of a movie that chronicles the fortunes of a secretive, murderous, criminal organization, deeply prone to the pathologies of masculinity and paranoia, all seen over the course of four decades with excess followed by hubris followed by dead reckoning. The CIA awaits its version of Goodfellas.” (John Patterson, “The Caring, Sharing CIA,” The Guardian, October 5, 2001.) A working title for this version might be:
The raw material for a true-life CIA classic already exists in the life and untimely death of Hollywood scriptwriter Gary Devore (The Dogs of War, Raw Deal). In the early morning hours of June 28, 1997, Devore drove his SUV off the highway near Palmdale, California, plunged into the California Aqueduct and drowned, Chappaquiddick-style. It wasn’t a blowout. He didn’t nod off at the wheel. Shortly before the fatal plunge, Devore bragged to his wife by cell phone that he was wide awake, riding on “adrenaline” because he was hard at work on the final draft of Solo, a film script about the military occupation of Panama, and was headed for their beach home in Santa Barbara to complete it. The body would not be found for over a year.
In the meantime, his disappearance summoned up a multitude of conspiracy theories, including CIA assassination. Wendy Devore, his wife, still considers this the most likely explanation and ignores the snickers of the press. Her husband wrote spy thrillers for the screen and had intelligence contacts. Police found a surveillance wire hidden in a bedroom drawer. Devore disappeared in the Antelope Valley, on the outskirts of Palmdale, a CIA enclave. And shortly after the writer went missing, the Agency’s Chase Brandon popped up at the house to request private access to the scriptwriter’s office and computer — as though the spook had good reason to believe that Devore, then officially a missing person, was dead. (Ivor Davis and Sally Ogle Davis, “Disappearing Act: A Big Comeback…A Big Mystery,” E-Online, http://www.eonline.com/Features/Specials/Screenwriter/Three/index3.html)
In July, 1998 Devore’s Explorer was hauled from the aqueduct. The driver’s window was down. “He must have been unconscious when he hit the water,” she told reporters. “Otherwise, if the window was open, why couldn’t he get out?” From the start, police have refused, despite Wendy’s pleas, to investigate the case properly.
The Los Angeles Times reported on June 29, 1998 that Devore made frequent calls over a period of several weeks before vanishing to “a longtime friend,” Chase Brandon, “at the CIA in Langley, Va., to ask him about the U.S. invasion of Panama, former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and about Noriega’s involvement in drugs and money-laundering.” Brandon: “I remember talking to him about a lot of elements of Panama and Noriega’s regime and the drug money that Noriega was alleged to have had stashed in safes in his offices and that’s the money that, in his script [Solo], soldiers stumble across and steal. From that, we sort of drifted off and sort of talked about U.S. counter-narcotics programs in general. I may have mentioned a couple things about the agency’s role in providing increased U.S. intelligence efforts to provide support to U.S. law enforcement.”
On May 6, 1997, Devore made a note in his day-planner: “Undersecretary for int’l narcotics makers. Chase [name crossed out]. Crime and Narcotics Center. CNC. Largest center in CIA. Espionage agents work with local police, gov’t, etc. Do cover work on problems locals won’t handle. Airfields, burn labs, fuel storage.”
Chase Brandon snickers at conspiracy theories, but offered the Times one of his own: “Gary was one of those people who met a horrible, tragic quirk of fate. He was simply victimized by people who wanted that car.” (Robert W. Welkos, “Without a Trace,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1998.) A conspiracy to steal a moving automobile on an open highway. Case closed. Then again, as filmmaker Barbara Trent (The Panama Deception) pointed out to The Colorado Daily last year, a CIA spokesman is “paid a lot of money to lie. I mean, how many times do we have to learn that lesson?” (Terje Langeland, “Filmmaker to speak on media deception,” Colorado Daily, January 27, 2000, http://www.empowermentproject.org/codaily.htm) Gary Devore’s death remains a mystery.
The Manchurian Moviegoer
The proliferation of pro-American films and television programs might be described as a cynical mind control operation, a psyop. John Rendon, a “strategic communications” firm hired by the Pentagon (at $100,000 a month) in the war on terrorism, describes himself as “an information warrior and a perception manager.” (Jeff Stein, “Propaganda, the Pentagon, and the Rendon Group,” TomPaine.Com http://www.tompaine.com/feature.cfm/ID/5188)
Perception management is the mission, under a $45 million Army grant, of the Institute for Creative Technologies, an interactive virtual-reality warfare simulation center and think-tank in Marina Del Rey, operated by the University of Southern California. Richard Lindheim, former vice president of Paramount Television Group, is executive director of the center. The keynote address at the ITC’s opening in 1999 was delivered by Jack Valenti, who observed in his opening remarks, “Los Angeles is not the entertainment capital of the world. Washington, DC is the entertainment capital of the world!”
James Der Derian, director of the Information Technology, War and Peace Project (ITWP), was sitting in the audience at the ITC’s opening in 1999. “I did not want to rain on the parade,” he wrote in an ITWP newsletter, but had to ask “whether the linking up of Hollywood and the Pentagon might not repeat the World War II experience, when training films were mixed with propaganda films, and military simulations became a tool for public dissimulation?”
Valenti came back with a response that “made up in pugnacity what it lacked in nuance.” The MPAA president “contrasted my view to the decision to drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese. `Some might have seen that as a heartless and terrible thing to do, but not the 150,000 American boys whose lives would have been lost. This is a lesson in Philosophy 101 that I am giving to you right now.'” But Der Derian came away with another lesson: “Valenti, like many in power today, are all too ready to drop the bomb on dissident viewpoints.” Death on the battlefield or simulated on the screen “gives war its special status. This fact can be censored, hidden in a body bag, air-brushed away, but it provides, even in its erasure, the corporal gravitas of war. However, everything I witnessed that day at the ICT was dedicated to the disappearance of the body, the aestheticizing of violence, the sanitization of war. Will this latest alliance of brass, silicon and celluloid be any different? It would seem not.” (James Der Derian, “Dreams, Lies and Video Tapes,” INFOintervention, Watson Institute Web site, December 18, 2001, http://www.watsoninstitute.org/infopeace/911/jdd_videos.html)
Sanitizing war is the primary aim of the patriotizing media. When the bombs began to fall in Afghanistan, killing and mutilating innocent civilians, a policy of suppressing the body count (or “propaganda”) was adopted by Donald “Precision Bombing” Rumsfeld and the government’s “information warriors.” In Hollywood, self-censorship is the rule. Rarely have the Feds had reason to step in and silence the studios by threat of force. (A rare exception was an episode of Murphy Brown concerning the medical benefits of marijuana — DEA Director Thomas Constantine threatened a “criminal investigation” of the program. See “Pushing propaganda”, from the About website, 7/17/00, http://civilliberty.about.com/library/weekly/aa071700a.htm?iam=dpile&terms=cia+propaganda+movies)
Nevertheless, an atmosphere of aggression and fear has fostered an industry, argues San Francisco Examiner film critic Michael Ryan, “in which ideology predominates and contrary voices are silenced. What happens when someone wants to make a film about Abdul Nabi and his family, Afghans who were forced to become refugees when U.S. bombs killed 28 people in nearby villages?” The managers of perception will interpret such a storyline “as `stupid meddling,’ and `should be stifled.'” (“Unease over Hollywood-Washington pact,” Guardian Unlimited, November 14, 2001.)
On Black Tuesday, the national security cult’s pentagram was breached by a jetliner and the demons of mass persuasion let loose. Expect generous servings of “heroism,” “sacrifice,” “mass murder,” and “hatred for America” at the matinee.
© 2002 Alex Constantine