My just published article in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers
By Joel Whitney
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, fear gripped the United States, and it wasn’t only conservatives who wanted to publicly show that they were committed to patriotic ideals. Filmmakers might be excused if, in that context, some nationalistic, propagandistic images made their way into theaters. But long before that fateful September day, liberal Hollywood had a long relationship with the CIA, the 1990s having just seen an obvious upsurge in collaboration. Former clandestine officer Chase Brandon joined the CIA in 1996 as a liaison between Hollywood studios and production companies, with the intent of crafting a positive image of the covert department, founded in 1947, that has overthrown dozens of regimes around the world since the 1940s and caused the death of innumerable people. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once called for the agency to be abolished.
Brandon later told the Guardian that the CIA had “always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian. It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”
After 9/11, Hollywood rushed to embrace the CIA. Joel Surnow, creator of the pro-torture TV show 24, gushed to The New Yorkerin 2007 that “people in the [Bush] Administration love the series, too. It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.” The program circulated widely among US troops in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. Blatant propaganda, the series argued repeatedly that torture produced actionable intelligence, which has long been understood to be untrue, and which was dismissed as a lie by the landmark 2014 Senate report on torture. But it was too late, because the toxic message had already seeped into the bloodstream of the American public and US forces. Torture is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in the arsenal of the US government. It’s why President-elect Trump can claim he may accelerate its use.
The Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty had direct CIA assistance in its production and script. The central message of the movie, though, was false: that torture assisted the US in finding Osama Bin Laden. Both director Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal were given unprecedented access to CIA personnel and facilities, and they welcomed it. For the Hollywood duo, the CIA was the perfect host to strengthen their belief that the men and women of the CIA were committed to the noble pursuit of fighting terror in every corner of the globe. No matter that this “war on terror” involved many illegalities, such as extraordinary rendition, torture, black sites, and prisoner abuse. The risk of global terrorism is now far higher due to these immoral acts.
The CIA must have been pleased with the final product: Zero Dark Thirty was a huge commercial and critical success that solidified the legitimacy of the agency’s secretive work. Truth got lost on the cutting room floor.
In Finks: How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers, Joel Whitney, co-founder and editor-at-large of Guernica: A Magazine of Arts and Politics, has written an essential book on a small but key part of the prehistory of this hijacking of culture: the story of how TheParis Review and other magazines from the 1950s on were funded and backed by the CIA and became a central force in pushing leading writers of the day to produce propaganda for a hungry yet unsuspecting audience. The CIA even developed a large art collection in its curious approach to cultural hegemony.
Whitney explains in his introduction that the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, along with backing publications in Britain, India, Germany, France, and beyond, helped The Paris Review play a
“small role in the Cold War’s marshaling of culture against the Soviets […] We understand vaguely that our media are linked to our government still today, and to government’s stated foreign policy; and this understanding is enhanced by eavesdropping on The Paris Review’s bit part in this massive secret performance that drove a nation for nearly two decades, and whose hangover drives us still.”
Whitney succinctly explains how, during the Cold War, the US government was constantly worried about citizen morale and a fear that some would be attracted to the Soviet system. “Militant liberty” was the term for inserting propaganda into magazines, film scripts, and popular culture, pushing American-style values and decrying life under Communism in Central America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well as at home. The Pentagon and other government arms believed that it was possible for populations of these areas to ignore US violence if they read about the supposed glories of life in small town USA. Little has changed in the mindset of today’s propagandists, who still aim to deceive people through wartime lies.
The CIA-backed coup of Guatemala in 1954 was a classic case of misguided and criminal policy dressed up as a noble act. Whitney shows how any number of US publications were pushed to support it, despite vast evidence of its failure. A magazine called The New Leader encouraged US meddling in the country, claiming a Soviet plot to design land reforms unfavorable to US interests. The result was decades of instability and violence in the nation, culminating in the genocide of the 1980s by US-trained thug Efraín Ríos Montt.
Whitney’s writing burns with indignation at the fact that few cultural figures who worked with the CIA ever faced accountability for their actions. Like journalists on the White House drip-feed today, these writers’ work helped legitimize deluded US policies that had direct and devastating impacts on millions of people’s lives. By the late 1960s, with the United States’s antiwar movement surging and the Vietnam conflict increasingly unpopular, the antiwar press seriously challenged the establishment points of view. Money didn’t always buy success or moral superiority, and the CIA struggled to win the battle of ideas. But this resistance proved “disposable and ephemeral” as the CIA renewed its efforts in film and television.
Perhaps the strangest and most compelling of Whitney’s revelations are how the founding managing editor of The Paris Review, John Train, worked with the CIA-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, to finance a film on the war and against the Soviet presence. The author correctly argues that Train, in a small way, played a role in backing the very forces that eventually founded al-Qaeda.
“From Guatemala to Afghanistan, the American record on Cold War invasion and intervention had been a long string of failures that had to be rewritten by the propagandists. These little magazines, the television crews instrumentalized for warfare, and other secret propaganda instruments played an important role in erasing — and collectively forgetting — these mistakes.”
I think Whitney is being too kind here. These were not CIA “mistakes” but in fact crimes conducted with the full backing of the state.
Finks is a fine historical book, reviewing propaganda’s long and tortuous history in the world of art. With huge contemporary relevance, Whitney recalls what many look back on as a far more innocent media age, before the internet, and yet the effects of government-backed lies were just as deadly then as now.
Whitney urges The Paris Review and other similarly tainted magazines to honestly examine the past without fear or favor. That radical accounting of history is yet to be realized. In the age of President-elect Donald Trump and fake news, truth is an increasingly valuable commodity, agreed upon and deeply contested by nearly equal numbers of people.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian contributor, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).