CIA whacks at Hollywood spy agency myths

CIA says it may have cool spy tools that even James Bond would be proud to use but real CIA is quite different

The CIA had a few problems with the agency's portrayal in the recently released "Zero Dark Thirty" movie about the successful hunt for Usama Bin Ladin, so much so the acting director issued a statement about the film and the organization wrote up an interesting top "Hollywood Myths vs. the Real CIA" list.  

First on the movie, acting CIA director Michael Morell in part, wrote: " I would not normally comment on a Hollywood film, but I think it important to put "Zero Dark Thirty," which deals with one of the most significant achievements in our history, into some context.  What I want you to know is that "Zero Dark Thirty" is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts.  CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product."

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He highlighted a number of issues including:  

  • The hunt for Usama Bin Ladin was a decade-long effort that depended on the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers. The filmmakers attributed the actions of our entire Agency-and the broader Intelligence Community-to just a few individuals. This may make for more compelling entertainment, but it does not reflect the facts. The success of the May 1st 2011 operation was a team effort-and a very large team at that.
  • Second, the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.

So beyond Morell's comments, the agency  set about to dispel what it called Hollywood Myths vs. the Real CIA. "While the CIA may have cool spy tools that even James Bond would be proud to use, such as a robot fish that samples water and insect-sized listening devices, the CIA is a lot different than Hollywood portrays it to be."

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Indeed.  The list reads as follows:

Myth: Everyone at the CIA is a spy.

Reality: The case officers commonly depicted in Hollywood are just one specialized occupation in the CIA. These officers recruit people in foreign countries who have access to valuable information (spies), but the officers themselves are not spies. To carry out its mission of collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence, the Agency has a diverse workforce that includes analysts, case officers, support staff and technology experts. This breadth of expertise is one of many things that make the CIA unique.

Myth: The CIA spies on US citizens.

Reality: 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. The CIA does not collect information concerning the domestic activities of US citizens, but its foreign intelligence collection mission can be conducted anywhere.

Myth: The CIA is above the law.

Reality: The National Security Act of 1947 and multiple Executive Orders provide the authority for CIA activities. The CIA reports to two Congressional oversight committees, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which ensure that the Agency operates legally and within the scope of its charter. In addition, the CIA Office of the Inspector General provides independent oversight of the CIA. The OIG performs independent audits, inspections, investigations and reviews of CIA programs and operations.

Myth: The CIA arrests people who break the law.

Reality:  The CIA, unlike the FBI, has no law enforcement authority. The Agency's mission is foreign intelligence collection and analysis. If you have a law enforcement issue, contact your local police department or the US Department of Justice.

Myth: The CIA makes foreign policy.

Reality: 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.

Myth: [When you work for the CIA] you don't get to see your friends and family.

Our employees' lives are fast-paced and the work they do is secret. But that doesn't mean they live anonymously and never see friends and family. Many of the careers at the CIA are similar to those of any major company. We have IT and communications specialists, doctors, lawyers, librarians, analysts, scientists, researchers, and inventors, among others. And though their lives are busy, their family and friends are part of their daily lives.

Myth: [When you work for the CIA] you drive a fancy sports car with machine guns in the tailpipes.

Though some of us wish this were true (I'd like mine in red, please), car chases through the alleyways of foreign cities with machine gun fire shooting from the tailpipes are things of Hollywood soundstages. There are certain careers at the CIA that will put you in touch with world events and the international stage, but our main mission is to collect intelligence. Every CIA employee is part of that effort, whether they work in an office or in the field.

Myth: [To work for the CIA] you have to be superhuman.

We've all seen the movies or read the books where a CIA operative withstands a huge electric shock, and within seconds is karate-chopping his (or her) way out of danger. Well, to work at the CIA, you don't have to know karate or have superhuman strength. All our employees, however, must possess intelligence, have the ability to make good decisions, and be dedicated to serving the United States. We collect and analyze intelligence, which means our work involves assessing and monitoring international developments, from political and environmental to scientific and technological.

Myth: You attend parties with billionaires and show off your tango skills.

We do have employees who travel around the world and do exciting - often extraordinary - things. But, truth be known, our employees are normal, everyday people who lead normal lives. Many of our employees perform essential administrative office functions. We depend on these administrative managers and staff for our operational success at home and abroad.

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