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

January 27, 2016

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.

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