Released Documents Show NSA Actually Surprised To Find Itself Portrayed Negatively In Popular Culture

from the we're-just-massive-dragnet-deployers,-not-murderous-goons! dept

The NSA may know lots of stuff about lots of people, but it’s still fairly clueless about how the world works. Documents obtained by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski show the NSA was shocked to find it hadn’t been portrayed more favorably in a major motion picture.

The National Security Agency attempted a public relations makeover in 1998 via the Jerry Bruckheimer–produced spy thriller Enemy of the State, but the agency was disappointed it was portrayed as the “bad guys” in the film, internal emails between agency officials obtained by BuzzFeed News through the Freedom of Information Act show.

One employee wrote in 1998, “Unfortunately, the truth isn’t always as riveting as fiction and creative license may mean that ‘the NSA,’ as portrayed in a given production, bears little resemblance to the place where we all work.”

Even in the halcyon pre-Snowden days, it was unlikely a massive government spy agency would be depicted as “lawful neutral,” much less “good” in any form of entertainment media. Shadowy agencies make for great conspiracy theories and potentially riveting entertainment (as for “Enemy of the State,” YMMV…). Certainly, it’s unlikely that the NSA would kill a congressional representative for opposing surveillance expansion and it probably doesn’t have any “goons” to send out to intimidate witnesses (that’s more of a CIA thing…). But for the NSA to expect it would be portrayed as the heroes — despite holding meetings with the producers before the film’s release — is a pretty good indication of how isolated it is from the general public.

This brief burst of reality led to a facesaving effort by the NSA, spearheaded by Michael Hayden, who invited CNN to profile the agency to counteract the negative portrayal. Fighting pop culture with pitched puff pieces is a terrible way to rehabilitate a reputation, but that’s the NSA for you. It’s never going to win hearts and minds. (I was originally going to add some qualifiers to the previous sentence but couldn’t find any that worked.) Any effort expended in this area is wasted.

Even more hilarious than the NSA’s dismay at this completely predictable pop culture portrayal is its employees’ complaints about violated privacy.

“I was standing in the parking lot staring like an idiot, wondering why this helicopter with some strange object underneath it was hovering over me,” one employee complained after a production helicopter flew above the agency to get establishing shots. “Will Touchstone be getting in touch with me so I can get paid for my appearance in this movie? Because I have no intention of allowing my image to be used for free,” the employee concluded, unaware of public access laws…

One employee fretted that their car would now be seen in the film, while another complained that his window blinds were up during filming.

Yes, you can fly an aircraft over the NSA headquarters and no one can do anything about it. As long as you follow the FAA guidelines, you can capture establishing shots or vehicles in the parking lot or any “idiot” staring at your aircraft. The NSA is not a military base and very little about what goes on inside can be determined from 500 feet above the building.

Still, as Kaczynski notes, the negative portrayal of the agency and the intrusion of unwanted aerial “surveillance” did little to stifle employee enthusiasm for the upcoming film. Unfortunately, the released documents do not contain post-viewing comments from NSA staff after they’d shelled out $5 for the dubious privilege of watching their big screen counterparts murder a congressman and intimidate a witness.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Released Documents Show NSA Actually Surprised To Find Itself Portrayed Negatively In Popular Culture”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
beech says:

nsa: the movie

I have always wanted to see a RomCom about the NSA. i think will Ferrell would make a good star for it. Show the nsa using all its spy technology for exceedingly banal purposes (finding someone’s secret fishing spot, looking at dick pics, etc.) Kind of like the cia in american dad. Then Ferrell falls madly in love with a woman and starts using her metadata to conveniently start showing up everywhere she goes. I bet we could spin this as not totally creepy, because stalkers in romcoms are always hopelessly romantic and never creepy a.f.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: nsa: the movie

stalkers in romcoms are always hopelessly romantic and never creepy a.f.

They occasionally sparkle. Okay, work with me here: Will Ferrell as “vegetarian” vampire Waldo Tepes, who works for the NSA parsing the data they hoover up. When a seventeen year old high-schooler jokes about joining ISIS she triggers a search that brings her to Will’s attention. When he sees her social media photos he begins to look for more personal information about her. Then he discovers that her horrible ex-boyfriend has released some intimate images and videos, etc., online in an effort to shame her…

Shall we crowdfund it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: nsa: the movie

Now the NSA/CIA employees have a name for it, loveint. Mentioned in liddies memoir (he enthusiasticly checked out his potential wife). These organizations socially reflect more conservative trends of modernity and this is slowly being seen as sleazy. However the organizations do instill a culture of distrust and keeping secrets in the employees so most relationships are killed by this mindset

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Non drug induced delusions might by symptoms someone

Near as I can tell, the primary enemy of the state is…the state.

Of course they point the finger at everybody else along with terrorists, child pornographers, copyright pirates, and people who threaten police with cellphones, who apparently are not part of everybody else; self fulfilling a self fulfilling property.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Non drug induced delusions might by symptoms someone

The enemy of the state is actually corporations.

They try to own the state apparatus. This includes legislative, intelligence and military.

Eventually the state finds it is just a wholly owned subsidiary of corporations. I suppose they must even own the supreme court. (“corporations are people too”)

The corporations disconnect the state from the constitution.

The state (through childish people in power) becomes more tyranical, intrusive and oppressive.

What happens next is presently unknown.

Anonymous Coward says:

I just saw that movie recently

I just saw Enemy of the State recently and it was ahead of its time. That movie fully predicted the amount of surveillance the government would be doing and it came out 3 years before the 9/11 attacks. So yes, the NSA and frankly most all of the government deserves to be viewed negatively.

But the craziest part is half the country wants the government to be event bigger and more powerful than it already is.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: I just saw that movie recently

The sensible people want government by the people for the people. Why is that too damn much to ask?!

This reminds me of Animal Farm.

Gub-mint good, big biz better.

Erm, no. Stop blathering on about government and work harder at getting people to engage with the democratic process and make the government behave. That there are too few of us who are willing to put the effort in is the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t think the NSA goes around killing US citizens who opposes them, BUT I do think they would do dispicable things to keep their status as it is.
They have the goods on everyone and it only takes one person who believes that it is for “the greater good” to blackmail a politician or 10.
Information is a great power and power tends to corrupt when it is unchecked. All we can really do is hope for it not to happen and even hope that it isn’t already happening.
With all that they have done so far, it really isn’t outside the realm af possibility anymore.

predicto (profile) says:

If the NSA doesn't know that they can't trust Hollywood...

…then who else are unknowingly trusting to do shit?

I mean why would someone who should know better, like the NSA, trust a dirtbag Hollywood producer or anyone in the Entertainment industry for that maater?

Kind of scary.

What they should have done instead is hack some b-level executives car, like they did with Michael Hastings. That would have sent a message.

LAquaker (profile) says:

Be Proud, 5%

An old friend edited some of Jerry Bruckheimer’s propaganda tripe. The US Navy set up recruiting tables in the theater lobby on Top Gun.
The LAPD disavowed the film “Colors” at the last moment to INCREASE the distribution of it’s ‘telegraphed*’ message. The Deal: we give you $tons of free production value, you sell our budgets to the taxpayers.

The negative message is the point of most of Hollywood’s crap; how many of us started dressing like Darth rather than wearing a white pullover in 1978? (colorful disco was dying)
How many Americun children watch 50 hours a week of gun entertainment, just to get blown away because they twisted their bread to look like a pistol?

Institutionalized futility and hopelessness plus a violent solution to every human circumstance was the PRODUCT of Euripides’ ‘theater’ and Homer’s epics. See Simone Weil’s ‘The Iliad or Poem of Force’

Five percent of us saw Oswald was the patsy & saw representative democracy get replaced with a glorious State Funeral. After a thousand rejected JFK scripts (i saw many) Oliver Stone was ALLOWED to include the other 90% of Americans AT THE MOMENT Bush invaded Iraq and Rodney King got beat up 1,500 times. Moving the center of the road IS the job of Hollywood, that’s why many people act like they got their moral compass from spending to much time inside a public restroom.

*’Telegraphing’ is film speak for a subliminally delivered image.

Anonymous Coward says:

Yes, you can fly an aircraft over the NSA headquarters

You’d have thought the blimp would have been a clue.

Though I would have to disagree with the general tone of the article. It isn’t surveillance that is the problem. It is the normalization of moral hazard associated with surveillance.

IOW, I don’t care what they look at, provided they can’t share it with my competitors, or use it legally in court. (To include sharing it with domestic agencies for the purposes of parallel construction)

A fundamental principle of intelligence is that you diversify your sources so you can check them against each other. The creation of the DHSA essentially subverted that after 9/11. And that’s what has resulted in the intelligence sector becoming more of a corporate conglomerate instead of a bag of independent state intelligence services.

Either Bush was a fascist and knew what he was doing, or he was professionally illiterate and didn’t know, or he was just a narcissist burnout who didn’t think that far ahead.

Because this kind of short sighted social engineering is exactly what allowed for the creation of a fascist Germany in the 30’s, AND resulted in an ineffectual war time intelligence service for them, ultimately accelerating their demise.

There is a dichotomy between doing what is good for the agency, and doing what is good for the country. And that is yet another reason why aggregating intelligence below the executive branch is a BAD idea. Most coupe de’ tetes come out of the intelligence services in their OWN COUNTRY.

Congress and the NSA are simply reenacting the fable of the frog and the scorpion. Perhaps that is what Bush intended all along?

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...