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The CIA Helped Produce an Episode of 'Top Chef'

Newly released details from a CIA watchdog report reveal that the agency "supported" the Bravo reality show, along with a book and several documentaries and movies.
Photo via Bravo/Getty Images

What do the movies Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have in common with the novel The Devil's Light by Richard North Patterson; Bravo's Top Chef Covert Cuisine; the USA Network cable series Covert Affairs; the History Channel documentary Air America: The CIA's Secret Airline; and the BBC documentary The Secret War on Terror?

They all received "support" from the CIA's Office of Public Affairs (OPA), the division that interacts with journalists and acts as the liaison with the entertainment industry.


But the exact nature and extent of what the OPA did while working on Patterson's book and the two documentaries is unknown because the CIA does not have a record of its meetings with Patterson and the documentarians. Furthermore, the CIA has only limited records about its work on the five other projects, according to a declassified December 31, 2012 CIA inspector general's audit of the agency's dealings with the entertainment industry obtained by VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.

The audit said "OPA and other CIA employees did not always comply with Agency regulations intended to prevent the release of classified information during their interactions with entertainment industry representatives."

A version of the 20-page audit was released last September to the conservative group Judicial Watch and later to the National Security Archive in response to their open records requests. But the eight entertainment projects the CIA worked on were redacted, as were footnotes that stated the specific regulations for dealing with the media that CIA officials violated when working on at least one of the projects. That portion of the audit, however, was unredacted in the version turned over to VICE News this week.

Other than Zero Dark Thirty, the entertainment projects with which the CIA was involved over the past decade had not been previously revealed, although it was assumed that the Oscar-winning movie Argo received production assistance from the agency since it's based on a covert CIA operation. The audit reviewed a sample of eight projects out of 22 the CIA had supported between 2006 and 2011. One of the eight, a book, was redacted on national security grounds. The CIA won't reveal the other 14 projects it has supported. (The agency receives multiple requests to support entertainment projects every week.)


On the CIA's website, the agency says its entertainment industry liaison helps producers, screenwriters, directors, and authors "gain a better understanding of [CIA's] intelligence mission."

"Our goal is an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, and the skill, innovation, daring, and commitment to public service that defines them. If you are part of the entertainment industry, and are working on a project that deals with the CIA, the Agency may be able to help you. We are in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development."

The entertainment industry liaison also offers up recommendations to inspire authors and filmmakers. The CIA's current recommendation is "The Vilification and Vindication of Colonel Kuklinski," a Polish colonel who spied for NATO.

Some entertainment projects on which the CIA has worked over the past decade

Dean Boyd, director of the CIA's office of public affairs, told VICE News that when the CIA engages with the entertainment industry, "CIA's priority is the protection of classified material and national security equities, while ensuring an informed, balanced portrayal of the women and men of CIA."

The CIA's relationship with the entertainment industry, which dates back to the 1950s, was scrutinized following the 2012 release of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the CIA's clandestine operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Two separate Inspector General investigations, one of which probed potential ethics violations by CIA officers, later revealed that filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal showered CIA officers involved in the operation with gifts and received unprecedented access, which included the disclosure of classified information to Bigelow and Boal by CIA director Leon Panetta. The audit said the CIA provided "significantly more support" to Zero Dark Thirty than the other seven entertainment projects on which the CIA worked.


Related: Tequila, Painted Pearls, and Prada — How the CIA Helped Produce 'Zero Dark Thirty'

"Because of the lack of significant documentation, it was not possible for us to determine that Zero Dark Thirty was deserving of greater CIA support based on the 'merits' of the project… or that Zero Dark Thirty had been deemed to have greater potential for furthering the CIA's goal for interacting with the entertainment industry," the audit said.

Undercover CIA officers who met with Bigelow and Boal to discuss the bin Laden operation told the inspector general "they were unclear concerning what information could be discussed in the interviews and uncomfortable with the information being discussed," and that OPA "could have better prepared them for the interviews and OPA officials should have exercised greater control of the interviews."

"CIA officers who supported entertainment industry projects (Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, respectively) told us that they were contacted directly by entertainment industry representatives after the initial meetings conducted with OPA." The CIA's regulation governing communications with the media does not authorize CIA officials to speak with media or with the entertainment industry outside of the presence of an OPA representative.

Argo, the true story about the CIA's covert operation to rescue six American diplomats hiding at the official residence of the Canadian ambassador in Iran in 1979, was based on CIA officer Tony Mendez's book, The Master of Disguise. The film won three Academy Awards in 2013. In November 2014, the CIA, in a series of tweets marking the 35th anniversary of the hostage crisis, fact-checked the film. The CIA said Affleck took creative liberties with some of the dramatic scenes about the rescue operation.


For three of the entertainment projects — Top Chef Covert Cuisine, The Secret War on Terror, and Argo — foreign nationals "may have participated in briefings, interviews, and visits provided by the CIA."

"However, because of the lack of adequate records, we were unable to determine the extent of the CIA's support to the eight projects, the extent to which foreign nationals participated in CIA-sponsored activities, and whether the Director, OPA approved the activities and participation of foreign nationals," the audit report said. "Failure on the part of CIA officers to adhere to the regulatory requirements could result in unauthorized disclosures, inappropriate actions, and negative consequences for the CIA."

One of the regulations previously redacted in an earlier version of the audit says that many CIA employees who spoke with and/or were interviewed by entertainment industry representatives did not submit a written or oral presentation to the CIA's Publications Review Board, as they are legally required, prior to speaking with entertainment industry reps.

Panetta was also involved in the Top Chef Covert Cuisine episode, which aired in 2010. The episode called for the chefs to "transform a well-known dish into something entirely new, cooking for none other than CIA Director Leon Panetta, who knows a thing or two about taking on a new identity. The chefs serve CIA Director Panetta and his closest allies in his private dining room inside the agency's closely guarded headquarters."


A spokesperson for Bravo and the producers of Top Chef did not respond to a request for comment.

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told VICE News that, in all likelihood, "there was no security concern raised by the presence of foreign nationals" in any briefings provided to the producers by the CIA.

"CIA would not have disclosed highly classified information even to uncleared US citizens in that context," he said. Still, "it is the role of counterintelligence to consider unlikely or even implausible scenarios. So, for example, the foreign nationals might have been undercover intelligence officers. They might have been surreptitiously scouting out the location of the meeting, establishing relationships for future exploitation, identifying potential recruits, or otherwise seeking to take advantage of the opportunity."

According to a synopsis of Patterson's book posted on Amazon, his novel "tells the story of an Al Qaeda operative named Amer Al Zaroor, who, on orders from Osama Bin Laden, directs the theft of a nuclear weapon from the Pakistani military, and then transports it toward its intended target, Israel…. Deep inside Washington, Brooke Chandler, a CIA operative whose cover was blown by an incompetent colleague in Lebanon, thinks he knows how the bomb is being moved toward its target and how to find it. First he must overcome the skepticism of the CIA and the White House, and then he must find the bomb and disable or detonate it before it causes the Middle East to go up in flames."


The BBC describes its 50-minute documentary hosted by journalist Peter Taylor as the "inside story of the intelligence war which has been fought against al-Qaeda over the last decade since 9/11." The BBC boasts of "unparalleled access" it gained to "Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and exclusive interviews with those who have been at the sharp end of fighting the terrorists — from the CIA and the FBI to MI5 — Peter Taylor asks whether the West is winning and whether we are any safer from attack."

The History Channel summarized Air America as a look "at the unique civilian airline known as Air America secretly owned and operated by the CIA which began as an outgrowth of WWII's Flying Tigers. From secret missions over China and Korea to aerial support in Vietnam and the secret war in Laos Air America formed a cornerstone of US policy in Southeast Asia."

Neither Patterson nor a spokesperson for the BBC responded to requests for comment.

The cable series "supported" by the CIA, Covert Affairs, follows CIA agent Annie Walker, a "skilled linguist and spy whose work takes her on secret missions. Seemingly picked for her linguistic skills, it may be something from her past that her CIA bosses are really after."

The series ran for five seasons on the USA Network. It was canceled in December 2014, two years after the Inspector General's audit was issued, which resulted in a complete overhaul of how OPA interacts with the entertainment industry. Several months before the audit was completed, the CIA issued a new policy: "Management Guidance on Contact with the Entertainment Industry and Support to Entertainment Industry Projects."

Boyd, the CIA's director of public affairs, told VICE News that the CIA now requires employees who work in the OPA to attend annual ethics training and that the OPA has "strengthened policies and procedures to ensure the protection of classified information and to safeguard against unauthorized disclosures."

"The many changes implemented since Zero Dark Thirty are part of our continuing obligation to the public, to Congress, and to CIA to uphold the highest standards of accountability and ethics as we communicate the CIA mission," Boyd said.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold