Requester's Voice: National Security Cinema's Tom Secker

Requester’s Voice: National Security Cinema’s Tom Secker

The story of how two researchers used FOIA to show Uncle Sam’s secret producer role

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

Tom Secker and Matthew Alford spent years digging into a secret that was hiding in plain sight. Or rather, hiding in movie theaters, television sets, and streaming services everywhere: The secret influence the Department of Defense and intelligence community had on Hollywood.

In this Requester’s Voice, Secker shares what he learned researching for their book National Security Cinema.

Plus: Win a free copy of the book and free MuckRock requests by imaging how the CIA would revise a classic film. See below

How did you first got interested in this topic?

Well I was one of those people who always liked spy stories. I read a lot of spy stories, watched a lot of spy films as a kid and as a teenager. And as I got more into them, I started wondering how much of this is true? I mean even the Roger Moore James Bond films are kind of ridiculous and camp, but there are still true elements in terms of what MI6 agents actually get up to.

So I wondered about that and I wondered to what extent are these things being used as a kind of public image for these services and these agencies that we know so little about. Because even on just a basic historical level, they didn’t formally admit the existence of MI6 until the ’90s. By that point there had been at least 15 James Bond films. So like I say, to what extent were those films a kind of fill in for that gap in our knowledge about what these agencies are and what they actually do?

And then around 2011, 2012, I started noticing that there was quite a lot more media coverage and a lot of academic books and things being written on this topic, and so I thought it seems like a good topic to delve into. By that point I was already relatively proficient with the Freedom of Information Act and National Archives searches and the sorts of research you have to do to get this information so that just seemed like a next logical step. And that’s when I set up the site, and started archiving everything I could find.

How did you first get into using the Freedom of Information Act and other public records?

That was in my research into terrorism essentially. In the first ten years or so after 9/11, the main focus of my research was trying to understand what is this thing, the War on Terror? What is this supposed enemy that we’re allegedly fighting? And just trying to understand the history of Al Qaeda, the history of terrorism more generally. And so that involved requesting records from the FBI, searching court records and other data bases, all these sorts of things. And so that’s how I first got into it I guess.

When you’re kind of digging into the relationship between Hollywood and the Central Intelligence Agency, the DOD, what sort of techniques did you find useful from prior research

This was quite different because in the terrorism research, a lot of that stuff I was essentially requesting I found references to in books, you know when you’re reading through the footnotes and you see, Federal Bureau of Investigation document or FBI file. And I’d just stick in a request for it. But this was largely stuff that had already been released before to someone but wasn’t available online or it was stuff that there were clear references. It was quite easy to see this is what I’m asking for, this is what I’m trying to get.

With the DOD, which is where I’ve had the most success in this whole government involvement in Hollywood area, it essentially involved asking for everything and anything I can think of and then going through the documents that come back, finding references to other documents within those documents, asking for that stuff and so on and so forth. So it’s been more of a scavenger hunt approach, rather than a method of confirming a bunch of stuff that I read in books, if you like.

Right. You’ve got a tremendous amount of material. How many requests roughly do you think sort of when into gathering all this?

Well I guess over the last three, four years since I’ve been doing this in a focused way, we’re probably talking about maybe a hundred? Maybe more like 150? Because a lot of these requests didn’t find anything, or they came back with something that wasn’t quite what I was looking for so I had to followup with a more specifically tailored request, trying to get something else. And so yeah, we’re talking a long period of trial and error, a lot of stuff where like I say following up on what they did or didn’t release already and so on.

Some of these turned up 1,700 pages of stuff, but a lot of the time, when you get 1,700 pages, 1,500 of those pages are a bunch of guff.

So in all honesty sometimes it’s been the very, very specific ones, where I’ve been able to get say copies of scripts notes, the actual notes that different branches of the DOD liaison offices have sent to film or TV producers and said, “This is specifically what we want you to change or remove from your script.” Very, very hard to get but in some instances we have been even been able to get those and they are half a dozen pages of absolute gold in terms of this area of research. So it really does depend from request to request how useful it’s been.

So you couldn’t ask for, “I want all script production notes”?

Well for one thing, my co-author Matt had already tried that approach to some extent and had not really gotten very far. So what I tended to do on the script notes was to go through the reports from the Entertainment Liaison offices. They’re effectively office diaries of what they got up to week to week, what projects they were working on, how far they’d got, blah, blah, blah. And I went through and essentially requested every single time one of those diary entries mentioned communications with the filmmakers or mentioned script notes, I asked for them.

So that they couldn’t then turn around and say, “Oh, no, no. We don’t know what you’re talking about.” Their own documents said that they sent these things. I asked for those. In a lot of cases, they didn’t come back but in some cases they did. So like I say, it’s quite a sort of laborious process but sometimes you can pry loose the most amazing stuff.

For DOD, it seems like a lot of these things are very relationship driven and sort of given to very few individuals a lot of leeway. Is that your experience diving into this?

Yeah, I mean we don’t know exactly how many people the DOD have working in these liaison offices. It could be three and it could be fifty. So exactly what all of these people are up to and how many of them there are, it’s difficult to say. I suppose you’re not talking about a huge number of people even if it is the upper end of that. They actually have quite a formal process when it comes down to the support that they give to Hollywood and the way that they rewrite scripts is a byproduct of that or possibly even the main intention of that.

When it comes to their more general activities in Hollywood, they’re out hobnobbing with studio executives. They’re going to retirement parties at Warner Bros. They’re having meetings with senior executives to try and get more involved at earlier stages in the production process. Outside of that formal support process, they seem to have quite a lot of time on their hands for doing other things and they seem to have a huge amount of leeway in terms of what they actually decide to do day-to-day and who they decide to target as someone they want to build a relationship with in Hollywood.

Yeah and I guess on the CIA side, I was kind of surprised about some of the stories and the influence that Chase Brandon had in terms of being to like essentially be writing scripts, be rewriting and helping set the plot lines. Was that kind of influence surprising to you and that sort of individual power surprising to you?

I suppose you’ve got to go back to when I first started looking into this. Yes, it was quite surprising when I first came across this and for example, when I read Tricia Jenkins book because she covers a lot on Brandon in that book. She’s done some great work into that period in the CIA’s history. I was certainly surprised when I find out that he effectively ghost wrote The Recruit, the Al Pacino and Colin Farrell movie which is all about a guy who gets recruited into the CIA. Because my understanding of it was that they would probably operate the same way that the DOD would but they essentially wait for these requests to come in. And then they try and deal with a script that’s already there and say, “We want this scene change. We want this bit of dialogue removed and so on.”

But Brandon, he seems to have spent huge amount of his time just phoning up writers and producers and saying, “What about this idea?” Or “Have you considered implementing that?” Or “Would you like to work together on a script about this?” I mean he was like a one-man liaison office. I’m not even sure who he answered to. I guess it would have been the Director of Public Affairs but it seems the Director of Public Affairs didn’t know what he was up to most of the time.

I think this has continued since Brandon left - I think in late 2006, maybe early 2007 because the 2012 CIA Office of the Inspector General report that looked at working in Hollywood basically in the period after Brandon left up to 2012, they said they hardly kept any records. They didn’t know what these people were doing most of the time. You had active CIA officers meeting outside of Langley, just like they were meeting with Hollywood producers and writers in coffee shops, restaurants under cover identities, sometimes even in disguise. No one knows what they were talking about. No one knows what the influence that this had, really. I mean what were the results of this? Even the IG doesn’t know.

So yeah, it does seem certain that when it comes to the CIA, they’re kind of cowboying around, doing their own thing, not really answering to anyone.

Is there guidance or assessment when you have agencies kind of engaging in something that has First Amendment implications like you’ve outlined?

No, there isn’t, nothing as specific as that that we’ve come across. I mean the IG’s report that I just mentioned does say that they subsequently issued some kind of guidelines, but most of those guidelines were just about keeping records. They don’t seem to have been about what you’re actually allowed and not allowed to do in terms of influence and entertainment products. Phil Strub, the head of the DOD’s liaison offices, he said, “We have no formal guidelines. We have no straight forward process where a filmmaker is allowed to do this but anything beyond that we would have to say no.” Or like you say, regarding their own behavior, they don’t seem to have any strict guidelines saying, “You’re not allowed to do this.”

And so as a result, their influence on some of these films is massive. They’re fundamentally changing the creative process that brings about these films. So yeah, there is something in the works though. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is supposed to be producing a report anytime now where they review all of these different agencies’ involvement in Hollywood. So we’d be talking about certainly FBI, NSA, CIA and I assume the DOD as well because they are technically, they fall under this if you look at the legislation. We can only hope that report will shed some light on all of this and actually review some of these practices and maybe ask some of these questions.

But I mean you brought up the First Amendment. There is nothing in the DOD’s instructions on their liaisons in Hollywood, on their support for entertainment media that even mentions the First Amendment. That simply isn’t a consideration so I can only assume, it’s not really part of the dialog when this process is going on, it’s not something that’s even in their mind.

So going back to the documents that you were able to get: production assistance agreements, these sort of daily work diaries. What categories of records were you able to kind of target and sort of how did you use those different categories?

When I started, I simply asked for a bunch of lists. I just asked all the different branches of the DOD and the Central DOD office themselves for lists of productions that they’d supported and they’d granted assistance to. And a bunch of partial - well we now know were incomplete - records came back that were just effectively lists of titles. Then I found on a website called Government Attic some of these office diary reports from around 2004, 2005. So in 2014, maybe 2015, I filed a bunch of requests basically asking for everything they had in terms of these diary reports from about 2006 onwards. And what came back - in some instances - was over 1,000 pages. I mean we got over 1,000 pages from the Army and the Marine Corps. The Navy are still avoiding releasing any of those diary reports or indeed, almost any documents to me at all.

So that was something that allowed us to I guess calculate the scale of this thing. I mean that was one of the major discoveries of our book, National Security Cinema, is that along side hundreds of films, the Pentagon has worked on over a thousand different TV series. And no one realized this before, no one realized it was on that kind of scale until we did this research. So it was very important that we got those reports for that. Then the next step was trying to get more information on script changes and that was something that required a much more targeted approach, like I said, and a much more sophisticated and persistent approach because a lot of the time it doesn’t turn up anything. Sometimes it doesn’t turn up anything useful, so you have to just keep battering away and battering away until you finally get the real pay dirt, you know, the stuff you’re really looking for.

So these different categories of documents, you mentioned the production assistants’ agreements as well which they are largely the same, to be honest, across the different, the 20 or so that we’ve managed to get. But they do illustrate for example that they bend the rules for a franchise that they’re really happy to work on, like Transformers, they’re quite happy to sign these agreements before the script is even finished, they’re that confident that the finished script will conform to all of their requirements. So things like that, it shows that they’re bending the rules of their own instructions governing how they’re supposed to go about this. So once again, this proves that they’ve got quite a lot of leeway in terms of what they can and can’t do.

And yeah, different bits of information came together from all of these different documents. The diary reports mostly illustrated the scale, the production assistants’ agreements provided us with further evidence of which production that actually supported. In some case we got these agreements with films that they deny providing assistance to so make of that what you will. And the script notes I think are the real gold, ‘cause they’re the bits where you see what did they actually change? What did the script originally look like and how did this process change it into the thing that we ended up seeing in the cinema and why?

Did you find evidence or did you get the sense that there was sort of a larger, strategic view of these efforts by the DOD and the CIA or was more of it driven by sort of these individual people in the liaison offices?

Well certainly when you read in the office diary reports, they do mention quite often like how well a film did on its opening weekend or how many people watched a particular TV broadcast, so they are monitoring the impact of these things, at least in that way, in that sense that like you say, a marketing firm would. In terms of the more general impact, I’m not sure. I’m genuinely not sure from reading these documents whether they have a longterm propaganda strategy or merely a series of short term propaganda objectives because they do also monitor to some extent audience responses and critical reception to these products. So it is something they’re thinking about but like I say, I can’t tell from the information that we have whether that’s a longterm or a short term thing. I don’t know.

“What kind of documents do you feel like you were not able to get that you should have been entitled to? Any sort of thing that you requested and you were frustrated about those rejections and felt like they were really kind of out of bounds?

Oh, all sorts. For one thing, like I said, the Navy just doesn’t seem to want to release any documents to me. I have a request with them going back nearly two years now. Still no response from them. And the Marine Corps, they completely screwed up several of my requests when it came to asking for script notes and the production folders. They actually have an archive which has more than 90 boxes of this stuff which must comprise what hundreds, maybe thousands of folders on different productions. So I asked for again, quite targeted requests, I was asking for very specific ones from this archive, they screwed up several of those and they refused to release some material from those.

For example, they won’t give me scripts. Some of these folders contain draft scripts that were submitted to the Marine Corps and we presume that have annotations on, which again would tell us what kind of influence they had over these productions. They won’t release those to me for supposed copyright reasons, so now I’m having to go through the long route of going to Hollywood studios and asking, “Can you give me permission for a script that you wrote seven years ago? There’s a copy of it in the Marine Corps that they won’t give me.”

So things like that, you just think I mean you must know this. If they can find an excuse to not give you something, they’ll generally use that excuse. So whether it’s commercial confidentiality, whether it’s so-called national security concerns, they’ll redact anything they can get away with redacting and they’ll not release anything they can get away with not releasing. That even as I say under the FOIA this is actually the opposite of how it’s supposed to work, that they’re actually supposed to err on the side of releasing more stuff than they should rather than hold back, but they don’t. That’s clear.

What do you think worked for you that other people didn’t try or didn’t do?

That’s a good question. I guess other people probably didn’t do it on the same scale that I did. They just didn’t file as many requests and often with FOIA you have to try the side door and the front door and the back door and one of those actually leads to the thing that you’re looking for. So there’s that element to it. There’s the fact that I was working with an academic who’s been working on this subject for I don’t know, several years before I even came to it, so over a decade now. So he very much helped in terms of focusing, what is it we actually want here? What is it we’re trying to get? Rather than just kind of filing off random requests looking for anything and everything. So there’s that.

There’s also I did develop a relatively good relationship with the senior FOIA official at the Marine Corps and that relationship has now gone rather sour. But nonetheless, for a time, she was actually very helpful in explaining what kinds of records they had, because sometimes you can just ask them these questions and bizarrely they will tell you. So then you can followup saying, on the basis of this email, I’d like to request this, this and this. So those are the techniques that I’ve used. They’ve been reasonably successful, not as successful actually even as I would have hoped but certainly like you say, I seem to have done better than most people who tackled this topic.

So that would be my only advice to people is persist, keep filing more and more requests and don’t let up or lose enthusiasm, lose hope. And keep asking questions because when you get a reply from these officials, it’s quite often via email and you can just email them back and ask them some straight forward polite questions about something that might even clarify what’s going on here and where this stuff is and therefore what you have to put in your subsequent FOIA request in order to try and get it.

Any techniques, you got back a lot of material, going through it all, making sure you didn’t miss any of those clues?

Well firstly, OCR (optical character recognition) everything that comes back because you know what they’re like. They quite often will not run a PDF through an OCR so that it’s actually digitally searchable. They’ll just send you scanned images cobbled together into a PDF. So I use a program - I think it’s called PDF Xchange Editor. It has a free OCR scanning function in it so I slap everything into that so that makes it easier to search through to find specific phrases.

Also when you’re going through, if you notice something that was phrased in a way that wouldn’t be something you’d naturally search for, write down that phrase so that you can search for it and see, oh does this come up somewhere else? What does this actually mean? Because sometimes they don’t call them script notes. Sometimes they’ll call them feedback to the producers so then you go through and search about all references to feedback or feedback to writers, so on and so forth. Emails to writers. That helps you just get to grips with what’s in these documents and what isn’t. How do they say things? Like I say write down those phrases and follow up on them.

Just again it’s about being persistent and being willing to devote the time to actually keep following up and sometimes keep hassling these agencies, because you know as well as I do, if you don’t followup, sometimes they just let them slide. They just kind of shove them at the bottom of the pile and pretend they’ve forgotten about them or something.

That genuinely seems to happen. I can’t understand their behavior otherwise.

One final tip actually that I found very useful is going through the FOIA logs for different agencies so you get like every request that they had filed in 2015 and you just look through the subject matter of those requests and anything that jumps out at you as relevant to your avenue of inquiry, your topic, whatever it might be you’re trying to find out about, just ask. Give them that reference number and say, “I want anything released in response to this request.”

So they don’t even have to conduct any big search or anything. They just have to see, did we release something in response to this one and if they did, they send you a copy. That’s also very, very useful and kind of a short cut or a side door way of getting some more stuff that might be relevant to what you’re trying to get and trying to find out about.

Image via Warner Bros.