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: culture, enemy of the state, nsa, pr, propaganda, surveillance


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  • identicon
    beech, 25 Jan 2016 @ 9:57am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PRMan (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:58am

      Re: nsa: the movie

      I hate Will Ferrell, but I would watch this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 11:18am

        Re: Re: nsa: the movie

        He's the obvious choice. He somehow managed to portray an IRS agent sympathetically in Stranger Than Fiction, so if anyone can pull this off, it would be him. :P

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2016 @ 5:47am

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2016 @ 6:00am

      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

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Eldakka (profile), 26 Jan 2016 @ 5:18pm

      Re: nsa: the movie

      There is something similar, but it's about the CIA, This Means War. It's actually an entertaining movie.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:02am

    Non drug induced delusions might by symptoms of...something...call 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:28am

      Re: Non drug induced delusions might by symptoms of...something...call 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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:39am

        Re: Re: Non drug induced delusions might by symptoms of...something...call someone

        I would imagine that they become so paranoid that they start investigating themselves, which is where the thought police become self consuming.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          DannyB (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 12:52pm

          Re: Re: Re: Non drug induced delusions might by symptoms of...something...call someone

          Or East Germany where half the population is employed to spy on the other half. But it seems like a fantastic jobs program for legislators wanting pork.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Wendy Cockcroft, 26 Jan 2016 @ 5:49am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Non drug induced delusions might by symptoms of...something...call someone

            Precisely. Surveillance is a vicious cycle driven by profit-seeking "security" companies preying on paranoid politicians.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:05am

    The movie is called "Enemy of the State" and they're surprised that the State is the villian? I don't remember if I ever saw the movie, but from the name alone, I would expect it's not going to put the government in a good light.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      eaving (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:12am

      Re:

      I'd say its an amazing commentary on the world we live in that you don't see a spin on the movie where a brave NSA agent is hunting an 'Enemy of the State' and saving the day. Clearly not the movie that was made and my version is more high fantasy, but by name alone you could easily go either way.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 9:26pm

      Re:

      that film is about a "select rogue group" instead of the entire organization being portrayed as rogue.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:19am

    Murderous Goons

    You may not directly be murderous goons. But if you work with murderous goons, doesn't that then actually make you murderous goons?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Brian (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:24am

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

    That's comedy gold right there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:31am

      Re:

      The NSA employee complaining about his open window blinds during the helicopter flyover is hilarious. I value my privacy. I need privacy while I am invading everyone else's privacy. I don't want anyone to observe where my hands are while I am listening to your calls trying not to breathe too heavy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ThatDevilTech (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:34am

    Can someone please....

    Find a screenshot of the idiot looking up at the chopper in the parking lot? Wonder if it made the final cut.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:35am

    Just wait...

    When the NSA does something heroic, then Hollywood will make a NSA-heroic movie.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PRMan (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:59am

      Re: Just wait...

      When the NSA PAYS THEM to make them heroic, then Hollywood will make a NSA-heroic movie.


      At least, that's what the FBI has been doing for the past 20+ years.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        TDR, 25 Jan 2016 @ 11:18am

        Re: Re: Just wait...

        Unless you count Die Hard, where the feds were simply ignorant buffoons who played right into Snape's... er, Gruber's hands. Which I find far more believable a scenario, to be honest.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 10:43am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 12:59pm

      Re: I just saw that movie recently

      Let me fix that for you . . .

      The craziest part is:
      * half the country wants the government to be even bigger and more powerful than it already is
      * and the other half wants the corporations to be even bigger and more powerful than the government

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Wendy Cockcroft, 26 Jan 2016 @ 5:52am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 11:21am

    - Self-serving? Check.
    - Prefers a hierarchy, especially where they dominate? Check.
    - Uses order to achieve all of the above? Check.

    Definitely Lawful Evil.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 25 Jan 2016 @ 2:06pm

      Re:

      I don't see where you get the "Lawful" bit.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 2:37pm

        Re: Re:

        By its adherence to order. The NSA justifies all of its actions through its legality.

        Matter of fact, pretty sure Adm. Rogers has unseated Asmodeus to run the Nine Hells. Check out WikiLeaks for their mass data collection plans against the Tanar'ri.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 12:06pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Eldakka (profile), 26 Jan 2016 @ 5:22pm

      Re:

      I don't think the NSA goes around killing US citizens who opposes them
      That's what the CIA/FBI/DEA and other agencies are for. The NSA just needs to give the "right" intelligence to any of those agencies, and they will do the killing for them

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 12:17pm

    Well, the NSA and their other TLA compatriots could actually start doing something good outside of the realm of what they think is you-can't-handle-the-truth necessary. Or even be good at what they are putatively doing.

    Yeah, i know, right after we start planting rice on Neptune, we'll get to that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 1:53pm

    The NSA is not a military base

    Actually, yes it is. NSA headquarters is located in Fort George G. Meade, a US Army installation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 4:46pm

      Re:

      The NSA is not a military base

      Actually, yes it is. NSA headquarters is located in Fort George G. Meade, a US Army installation.

      NSA head Michael Rogers is an Admiral.

      I guess his flagship is so secret that it is invisible.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    predicto (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 2:26pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 25 Jan 2016 @ 3:17pm

    TSA, Meet NSA

    Brings new meaning to security theater.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2016 @ 8:23pm

    Most people that commit evil deeds rationalize what they are doing as for the betterment of the common man.

    Even as they murder, torture, and deny basic human rights to their victims.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    LAquaker (profile), 26 Jan 2016 @ 1:33am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2016 @ 7:05am

    Re: 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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 27 Jan 2016 @ 7:44am

    Military

    > The NSA is not a military base and very little about what goes
    > on inside can be determined from 500 feet above the building.

    The NSA is not a military base all its own, but it does reside on a military base-- NSA HQ sits on a portion of Fort Meade, which is an Army base.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PrivateCliff, 27 Jan 2016 @ 10:50am

    nsa

    Are we surprised? I don't trust the government, and I don't trust the web either. I use my smartphone as my email server using ShazzleMail. Free, easy download. Keeps my mail encrypted and off the web so the NSA can go pound sand. They can't read what they can't find.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PositivePatty, 28 Jan 2016 @ 8:37am

    Hello

    I think most of us are well aware of this. What most don't realize is that are ways to protect yourself. Meaning steer clear of the web and open shazzlemail.com account with uses your smartphone as a server.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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