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Ex-spies infiltrate Hollywood: Have you noticed that espionage TV shows and movies are multiplying?

January 24, 2015

The place in Brooklyn looks like a CIA safehouse. Red brick office building with peeling metal awning. No sign. Inside, writers are plotting out the popular Cold War espionage show “The Americans” — one of an assortment of Hollywood spy and national security dramas being driven by ex-spies.

The show’s creator and co-head writer, Joe Weisberg, is a former CIA officer who never fathomed that he would one day sit in an office with Soviet propaganda posters and a cutout figure of President Ronald Reagan, concocting television fiction.

Ex-spies infiltrate Hollywood as espionage TV shows and movies multiply

“When I left the CIA, if you were going to ask me, ‘Would you write about espionage?’ I’d say, ‘Absolutely not. It would be a betrayal,’ ” said Weisberg, 49, a spy-turned-novelist who got tapped by Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles to write television scripts. “I had never heard of CAA before. Now that’s like the CIA to me. It’s this huge thing in my life.”

The career afterlife of a CIA official has typically followed well-known paths: Work for a private military contractor. Launch an “intelligence-driven” LLC. Join a law firm. Consult for the CIA. Write a memoir. But the hunger for espionage on TV and movies in recent years is cracking open new career opportunities for ex-CIA personnel with a flair for drama, the kind that’s less clandestine.

“Hollywood tends to be a destination spot for a lot of Washingtonians,” said David Nevins, the president of Showtime, which produces the spy juggernaut “Homeland.”

“There was the ‘West Wing’ crowd of former politicos. I’ve met with more than one former Navy SEAL. And now, certainly the intelligence community has been the most recent in a long line of Washingtonians trying to come out and tell their stories.”

Weisberg, whose show begins its third season on FX on Wednesday night, is perhaps the most successful of the CIA alumni who have infiltrated Hollywood. “The Americans,” about two deep-cover KGB operatives living in suburban Virginia in the 1980s, was ranked by many television critics as one of last year’s top 10 shows.

But Weisberg, who left the CIA in 1994, is hardly the only ex-agency guy trying to cash in on the spy show craze. (Spy shows, one executive at a major Hollywood talent agency observed, have become as ubiquitous as cop shows.) Former senior CIA officials Rodney Faraon and Henry “Hank” Crumpton are the executive producers of NBC’s “State of Affairs,” which stars Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst and member of the agency’s presidential daily briefing team — one of Faraon’s old jobs.

(In the show, Heigl is technically a briefer to the president; in real life, Faraon was a briefer to an agency director, George Tenet.)

Faraon and Crumpton aren’t stopping with “State of Affairs.” They are actually developing a dozen other CIA-themed dramas, either for television or movies, all part of their work at an Arlington-based firm they co-own called Aardwolf Creative. (CIA buffs and insiders know that “Aardwolf” is the code name for special, very candid cables to headquarters sent by agency station chiefs.)

“The CIA is sexy, especially since [the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks], there’s more transparency into what the agency does, particularly as it prosecutes the war on terror,” Faraon said. He mentioned USA Network’s “Covert Affairs” (which was recently cancelled after five seasons) and yet another spy show on NBC premiering Feb. 5 called “Allegiance.”

Other former agency employees have sought Faraon’s advice on breaking into the industry, he said. He and Crumpton got into the business after Crumpton’s memoir, “The Art of Intelligence,” was published in 2012. Hollywood executives were interested in acquiring the rights, but Crumpton was concerned about losing control over his story and asked Faraon for advice.

Faraon’s suggestion: Let’s make our own shows.

“From a business perspective, the revenue stream would be much greater than selling the rights to your stories,” Faraon said.

Since their launch, he said, “State of Affairs” “has been generating a lot of buzz in the alumni community that we’re the real deal. There’s been a couple of folks who come to us with an idea, asking if this might make a good TV show or movie. Others come to us and ask, ‘How do I get noticed by the industry, and ‘What are you looking for?’ ”

Many former CIA officials tiptoe into Hollywood by writing books, getting them optioned and consulting on whatever project results. That’s how Valerie Plame, a former covert operative whose cover was blown when her name was leaked to the media, got her start. She worked on “Fair Game,” the movie based on her memoir. Then she served as a technical adviser on the pilot of “Covert Affairs.” Now she’s a consultant to Warner Bros. Television, advising on such shows as CBS’s “Person of Interest.”

Robert Baer, a former CIA officer whose book “See No Evil” was turned into the George Clooney movie “Syriana,” is following a similar path. Building on the success of “Syriana,” he’s now writing scripts and producing. Last year, Baer co-wrote a script for Columbia Pictures for the sequel to the Angelina Jolie spy movie “Salt,” though Baer said it’s unclear whether the film will ever get made. He’s also working as an executive producer developing a Navy SEAL show.

Baer considers consulting gigs a “sort of a chump game. It doesn’t pay. You’re not really even a player. You don’t get invited to the premieres. You have to be able to write to make it in Hollywood.”

But John MacGaffin, a former deputy spymaster for the CIA’s clandestine service, loves to consult, even if he’s unpaid. He does it for “Homeland.” One of the show’s earliest writers, the late Henry Bromell , was MacGaffin’s cousin.

Later this month, MacGaffin will host an all-day session at the City Tavern in Georgetown for former CIA colleagues and the show’s writers, plus stars Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin. He hosted such a meeting last year in the run-up to the show’s fourth season, which showed the CIA’s Pakistan station at war with the Taliban, a mole in the U.S. Embassy, and tensions with Pakistani intelligence officials.

“Claire Danes looked me right in the eye and said something like, ‘I have to be a station chief. You’ve been a station chief. Would you teach me?’ What man would say no to Claire Danes?” he asked.

MacGaffin stressed that the sessions go nowhere near classified material. “If last year’s meeting was ‘Terrorism 101,’ this year’s will be a more advance discussion with a European focus,” MacGaffin said. “Espionage, disinformation, counterintelligence, cyberterrorism.”

Lindsay Moran, a former CIA case officer and author of the memoir “Blowing My Cover,” wants to do more than be an adviser. She’s writing scripts and developing shows for Zulu 7, a media company that specializes in producing military and intelligence-themed television shows and movies.

“In Hollywood, there’s this attitude that you might have been in operations, but you’re not a writer,” said Moran, who lives in Maryland. “But I am a writer, a talented writer. To me, going beyond being a technical consultant is paramount. When you’re a technical consultant, you don’t have long-term creative or financial stakes.”

But, much like spy-memoirists, spy-screenwriters face legal limits in their creativity.

Even though Faraon and Crumpton, the former CIA officers behind “State of Affairs,” don’t write the scripts, they did agree to show the agency’s Publications Review Board detailed outlines of every dramatic project their company is developing to ensure that no classified material gets on air.

Once the agency cleared their projects, Faraon’s and Crumpton’s partners, STX Entertainment, could begin developing the show. Even though the scripts don’t have to get cleared by the CIA, Faraon ensures that the show’s writers don’t unwittingly include dialogue that could expose the agency’s sources or methods.

“There are times when I say, ‘You got to take this out,’ ” said Faraon, though he doesn’t have ultimate control over scripts. “I try not to leave any tells. It’s a matter of us being responsible. But we also don’t want to take a Pollyanna-ish view of the CIA. That wouldn’t be authentic.”

In the case of “The Americans,” Weisberg must submit every episode’s script to the CIA. On occasion, the agency has asked him to remove “small things that are easy to change,” said Weisberg, who spends his days in his Brooklyn office. He works across the street from the fake bedroom of fake KGB illegals, a fake FBI office and a few blocks from a fake KGB office. (Fans of the show know it as the “Rezidentura.”)

Weisberg laughs about his unexpected foray into Hollywood. When he was taking a polygraph at the CIA in the early 1990s, his polygrapher asked a prescient question: “He said, ‘Are you going to the CIA because you are looking to learn things about espionage so you can write about it one day?’ ” Weisberg recalled. “It never occurred to me. But then I thought later, ‘Huh, that’s not a bad idea.’ ”

For video clips of some of the shows, go to


Political Murders.  What a Former CIA  agent said

Robert Baer appears to have a knack for pissing off powerful and dangerous people.

The 62-year-old who resigned from the CIA back in December 1997 after ruffling feathers by suggesting that dirty foreign money could have possibly been injected into the previous year’s presidential race.

We Talked to a Former CIA Spook About Political Murder

Danny McDonald posted this November 3, 2014

During his time in the agency, the father of four and Colorado resident was charged by the FBI with plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein. That charge, he says, was weirdly nonsensical – why charge an American spy with trying to kill a man considered, at the time, to be one of America’s most notorious enemies?

Federal authorities ultimately declined to prosecute.

More recently, in 2011, Hezbollah suggested he was responsible for a car bomb that killed 80 people in Lebanon in 1985. He bats away that accusation as ludicrous, saying it’s an attempt to discredit a special tribunal he was involved with that investigated the  ​assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

Baer is now an author and his  most recent book, The Perfect Kill, delves into the politics of assassinations.

Much of the book chronicles his attempts, while working for the CIA, to track down Imad Mughinyah, also known as Hajj Radwan, a masterful and ghost-like Lebanese commando who used targeted assassinations to achieve militaristic and political goals for several decades. Baer never got his man, although Radwan was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008.

We caught up with the former spook to talk about the art of political murder.

VICE: In the book, you say Washington doesn’t understand the rules and workings of assassinations and how targeted political murder affects change and when it doesn’t. Do you think that plays into the ongoing US failures in Afghanistan?

Robert Baer: Yeah. I don’t think we understood that ​Mullah Omar has only limited sway over what is essentially a Pashtun insurgency. And although he was key in founding the Taliban, removing him wouldn’t mean much of anything. And then you have groups like the ​Haqqani network, that are so abstract to us, you wouldn’t even know where to begin to cut off the head of that to make a difference.

Is it fair to say the US can’t assassinate the problem away in a place like Afghanistan?

In a place like Afghanistan the only thing you can do is what the Mongols did – go in and kill everybody – which obviously wasn’t going to happen. We took sides with a Pashtun tribe that didn’t have much support in the rest of the country. And so killing one guy or two or ten or a hundred wasn’t going to make any difference.

You mention the Pashtuns’ horizontal power structure and opaque politics and how the US never really knows what it’s getting out of targeted killings or assassinations in Afghanistan because it doesn’t truly understand the machinations of power there. Do you still feel that to be the case?

And, as a follow-up, if that’s true, how is that possible? The US is more than a decade into this war and its military still doesn’t know how things work?

Ask the question: how many Pashtun speakers do we have? There was that guy in the Air Force​but he was assassinated.

You can’t figure this out by sitting in Kabul in the Serena Hotel and expect to understand what’s happening in a rural insurgency. And you can’t send a lieutenant from Kansas who speaks neither Dari nor Pashtun to the field and figure out what makes these people tick.

You mention the assassination of ​Anwar Sadat and how that changed very little in Egypt. Talk to me about the main differences between assassinations that prompt political change and those that don’t.

If you’re going to make an assassination work, the guy you’re assassinating has to pretty much be a one-man show. I think the clichéd assassination we all refer to we all refer to is Hitler. I think the Third Reich would have fallen apart if he would have been killed.

Also I think that (the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak)  ​Rabin clearly changed any chance of the Israelis and the Palestinians reaching a settlement. It died with him.

Rabin was accepted in the military and a large number of Israelis and if he said this would work, people believed him. Once he was gone, any chance of a settlement disappeared with it.

Sadat was held in power by the military. And it’s a group of generals. Any military dictatorship where there’s multiple generals and also strong core commanders, it’s not going to do any good killing that one guy.

In Pakistan, you can kill the chief of staff but you have five core commanders. Any one of them could step up into his position and hold Pakistan together.

Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, when we were looking at him, had eviscerated his military, including his son-in-law. Anybody who was a potential threat was eliminated. There was no bench strength in Iraq, as we’ve seen with the chaos. There’s no general who has stepped forward to hold it together.

Let’s talk about ​Hajj Radwan. I detected an admiration for him in your writing.​

Well, it was his skill. He could narrowly channel violence and make things move. Unlike me.

I’m clearly not an operator here. He clearly knew what he was doing. He was raised on the battlefield as a teenager and he understood that setting off car bombs against symbolic targets didn’t get him anything, but when he was ready to murder, he understood the narrow channeling of violence, removing a single person.

In 1999, they got rid of the Israeli commander ​Gerstein. And that met the conditions of an assassination. They avoided war or further war and preserved force and the Israelis withdrew. That doesn’t mean I’m on their side necessarily but I could see where he was going with all this.

Hajj Radwan, aka Imad Fayez Mughniyah. Image ​via Wikimedia Commons

You say in the book he invented modern political murder. What do you mean by that?​

There was a series of attacks against our ambassadors, embassies, the Marines. He marched Hezbollah, his nominal sponsors, into power. I can’t think of someone else who has done this. You’ve had coup d’états, you’ve had revolutions, but someone who has manipulated precise violence, I can’t think anyone who was as good as him.

I look at Bin Laden. He didn’t put 9/11 together. That was a pick-up team and he sort of blessed it and off they went. And I think ultimately, Sunni Muslims, if that’s who he represented, didn’t get anything out of it.

Hezbollah controlled the apparatus of the state in Lebanon. Radwan did a takeover of Lebanon with political violence. You and I can’t go to Lebanon without coming to the attention of Hezbollah and them deciding whether we’re a risk or not or a threat to them. Which I think is quite remarkable, this subtle takeover of a state.

Talk to me about how the legality 16a0 of assassinations has changed. You make reference to President Reagan issuing an executive order banning assassinations in 1981. How has the law changed in the interim?​

It completely changed. It’s sort of like our attitude toward torture and renditions and violating the ​Fourth Amendment. We simply redefined the constitution and redefined executive law to allow what clearly are assassinations, like Awlaki. By deeming people enemy combatants, we remove all their rights.

In going outside the law, isn’t the US opening itself up to all sorts of fuck-ups?
I think we are. I don’t think Al Qaeda or ISIS are existential threats to this country at all. It certainly wasn’t time to suspend the Constitution, which we effectively did.

What about internationally? What does international law say about assassinations?
It’s the problem of reciprocity. If we decide we can assassinate someone in a strange country like Mali, why can’t they exert the same right to do it here?

You compare drone strikes to phone sex, saying the impersonal nature of drone strikes means they’re not as effective form of assassination. What did you mean by that?​

The worst is ​signature strikes. If there’s a couple guys exercising in the field with Kalashnikovs and you say they shouldn’t be there, well, they could be just the local narcos, or they could be local police force.

I think there’s so much evidence we’ve been killing innocent people. There’s so many problems with that. Practically speaking, we’re creating more enemies than we’re destroying. But it also shows there’s a vulnerability on our side.

The FBI charged you crossing interstate borders to attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. What was going through your head as they were reading off those charges?
I was thinking: “This has got to be a joke”. I’ve got no political sense at all. How could this ever look good if it ever gets out? The FBI is trying to put five CIA officers in jail for attempted murder against a man who we had legal authorities against. It’s just dumb.

I think the FBI agents recognised that. They were just doing their duty. In fact they told that this was just idiotic. It was just complete, typical Washington screw-up. People were covering their asses.

Do you consider yourself an assassin?
Not at all. I was put out in the field, which if we had executed any of these operations, like against Saddam, the target for an arrest or a coup d’état would have died. But no one ever used that word. I’m just a person. I wouldn’t go around saying I’m an assassin.

So, during your time in the CIA you were never involved in the execution of a political murder? Is that accurate?

What was it like to be called out by Hezbollah for orchestrating a car bomb that killed 80 people?
I didn’t realise what a sensitive nerve I touched. I wasn’t a witness in the Hariri trial, but I get this call on the I-5 from Lebanon, a journalist fri 5a8 end of mine and they’re saying, “I’m watching you on TV and they’re accusing you of setting off a car bomb.”

I knew I had crossed a line. I hadn’t realised I was so much in their focus for Hezbollah to do a special TV show on it.  And since then, Hezbollah got a copy of the book and they don’t like it. They put me on some sort of list. Who knows what the real threat is.

That car bomb – it was pretty bad. There’s no American responsible for it. I think it was the Lebanese Army who did it, acting on their own. I wasn’t even in Lebanon.

Were you terrified?
Here’s what goes through my head: Why bother with me? When they’ve got so other many problems in Syria.

Problems around the world. Problems with Israelis who really are killing them. Why bother with a CIA guy who has been out for years who isn’t a direct threat? I can’t take it very seriously. I mean, I wouldn’t set foot in Lebanon, but I basically can’t go anywhere in the Middle East now. I’ve annoyed very body. It’s hard to do but I know how.

They may stupidly think I had something to do with ​Hajj Radwan’s assassination in 2008. They don’t understand that, once you leave the CIA, you’re gone. They don’t want you back. I don’t think Hezbollah understands that. They probably said, “Well, he used to target this guy and he probably set this up.”

What can the US learn from a guy like Radwan?
I think we have to learn that the politics have to be right. Hajj Radwan survived because there was a feeling in Lebanon, they wanted the foreigners out of their country. He was riding a wave and it was a matter of his pushing the politics to get what he wanted.

You can’t go into a country where everyone is against you and make one political murder work. You’re going against history. And you can’t do an assassination that goes against history.(But was the assassination of Rabin against history?)




March 2023

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