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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

The CIA vs. Hollywood

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Central Intelligence Agency

CIA officials are not happy about the way the agency and its employees are portrayed in Hollywood. Not at all. Which is kind of funny, considering the CIA's employees often are depicted in the movies as almost superhuman in their ability to extract intelligence and take out bad guys all over the world.

The immediate problem, from the agency's perspective, is the film Zero Dark Thirty, depicting the attack on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  Last week, acting CIA Director Michael Morell took the unusual step of issuing a statement to agency employees declaring the movie was "not a realistic portrayal of the facts."

Morell was particularly concerned about on-screen depictions of torture. "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," Morell wrote. "That impression is false."

Morell also said Zero Dark Thirty focuses too much on the efforts of a handful of individuals, when in reality the Bin Laden operation "was a team effort -- and a very large team at that." But Morell acknowledged that orienting the film around the actions of a heroic few "may make for more compelling entertainment."

This week, in the wake of the Zero Dark Thirty response, the CIA has issued another statement, more generally comparing what it calls "Hollywood myths" with "the real CIA." Among the myths:

  • Everyone at the CIA is a spy.
  • The CIA spies on US citizens.
  • The CIA is above the law.
  • The CIA arrests people who break the law.
  • The CIA makes foreign policy.

As if that wasn't enough of a buzz-killing effort to demystify spy operations, the CIA linked to a 2007 fact vs. fiction list aimed at prospective employees in which it really bursts the bubble of those who might be under the impression the agency is home to jet-setting superspies. The misconceptions it debunked included:

  • You don’t get to see your friends and family.
  • You drive a fancy sports car with machine guns in the tailpipes.
  • You have to be superhuman.
  • You attend parties with billionaires and show off your tango skills.

If all of that makes it sound like the CIA is just another bureaucratic backwater, the agency does note that it has developed "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."

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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