Wednesday 19 June 2013

The CBS Drama Series That--With CIA Help--Predicted 9/11 and the Anthrax Attacks

The CIA seal

The Agency, a major CBS drama series about the CIA that began being broadcast in late September 2001, featured storylines with remarkable similarities to the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax attacks that occurred in the U.S. shortly after them. One of the show's executive producers said the parallels were so apparent that "people are asking me, 'Are we showing the bad guys our script?'" because "it seems like they're kind of following, in some ways, things that we're doing." [1] Significantly, these storylines were written before September 11, and the show was made with extensive assistance from the CIA. Some of the show's storylines, including those resembling 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, were actually suggested to one of the writers by the CIA. [2]

News reports around the time The Agency was broadcast noted the similarity between the show's storylines and the horrifying events that had taken place in the U.S. No one suggested, however, that this similarity might have been the result of people having foreknowledge of the terrorist attacks that hit America in late 2001. But surely we need to look closer and consider whether some individuals, perhaps employees of the CIA, did indeed know about these attacks in advance and, for as yet unknown reasons, wanted episodes of The Agency to depict events similar to what was going to happen.

The Agency was a prime-time TV series that told stories of life inside the CIA and showed agents tackling problems of national security. [3] The villains they faced included Arab terrorists, Colombian drug dealers, and Iraqis.

The show featured well-known actors such as Gil Bellows, Will Patton, Ronny Cox, and Gloria Reuben. [4] Its principal executive producer was Wolfgang Petersen, who directed blockbuster movies including Air Force One and In the Line of Fire. [5]

The CIA provided substantial support for The Agency. It vetted scripts and allowed its employees to be used as extras. The Agency was also the first television program permitted to film inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. [6] There was even going to be a "big red carpet premiere" of the show's pilot episode at CIA headquarters the week before it aired on TV, on September 18, but the event was canceled because the CIA was busy responding to the 9/11 attacks. [7]

Three storylines written for The Agency are particularly notable. Two of these were made into episodes but one was never used.

The storyline that was not used bore a striking resemblance to the events of September 11, when, according to the official story, Osama bin Laden had four U.S. aircraft hijacked. Michael Frost Beckner, the creator of The Agency, revealed to Variety magazine that four months before 9/11, he wrote an episode "in which bin Laden had three U.S. planes hijacked." The script, though, "was never completed." [8] An episode of The Agency based on this plot could plausibly have been produced between May 2001, when the script was written, and September 11, when it would have become unusable. But Beckner has not said why such an episode was never made.

Beckner has revealed, however, that some storylines for The Agency were suggested to him by Chase Brandon, the CIA's entertainment liaison officer (who happens to be a cousin of Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones). [9] But Beckner has not said whether Brandon suggested to him the storyline about bin Laden having three American aircraft hijacked.

The pilot episode of The Agency also had similarities to what happened on September 11. David Clennon, one of the show's stars, commented that the episode was "spooky" in that it anticipated "a 9/11-type event, only taking place in London." [10] The storyline, according to Beckner, who wrote the episode, "was based on the premise that bin Laden attacks the West and a war on terrorism invigorates the CIA." [11] Osama bin Laden's name is mentioned twice in the episode. [12] Author Tricia Jenkins commented that the timing of the pilot episode was also "eerie," as the episode was originally scheduled to air "just two weeks after 9/11," on September 27, 2001. [13]

In the episode, it is revealed that the CIA has identified al-Qaeda as a threat, and has discovered that the terrorist group is planning to carry out a major attack in Europe. A CIA officer who infiltrated the group is able to provide the agency with the date of the planned attack, but this is only three days away. Agents then learn that the terrorists intend to bomb the Harrods department store in London, England--a target that one character describes as "an international symbol of consumerism." The CIA shares what it has learned with British intelligence officers and helps to avert the attack at the last minute. [14]

As well as noting "the eerie coincidence of an attack on a 'symbol of capitalism,'" Newsday pointed out that the episode "inadvertently anticipated debates in the aftermath of the [9/11] attacks about how harsh and indiscriminate our response to the terrorists should be, and what more, if anything, our intelligence operatives should be empowered to do in the way of preventive defense. It also anticipated, at least allusively, the response of CIA champions ... who've said that our spies failed to detect the [9/11] attacks because their hands have been tied by civil libertarians who care more about being 'good guys' than winning." [15]

The broadcast of the pilot episode on September 27 was canceled in response to the 9/11 attacks, with another episode of The Agency replacing it. [16] Gail Katz, one of the show's executive producers, commented around that time: "Our show seems to be too close to what's in the headlines. Too close, in fact, that ... it's not appropriate for viewing." The pilot episode finally went out on November 1, with all references to Osama bin Laden removed. [17]

Regarding the similarity between storylines of The Agency and real-world events, Bill Harlow, the CIA's chief spokesman, said there was "no magic" involved in the show's apparent ability "to predict the headlines." He claimed that "The Agency simply got lucky that the headlines intersected with its storylines so neatly." However, Beckner revealed that the plot of the pilot episode was one of several storylines suggested to him by Chase Brandon, the CIA's entertainment liaison officer. What this means, Tricia Jenkins has noted, is that it "originated from the CIA." [18]

Beckner said he wrote the episode "over a year before 9/11," presumably meaning around summer 2000. [19] He worked with Brandon to develop the script, and sent early drafts to Brandon. [20] "I made some comments and he made some changes," Brandon has said. [21]

Beckner also said the similarity between the storyline of the pilot episode of The Agency and what happened on September 11 was because, during his career as a writer, he had done "a lot of back and forth with the CIA," and, he said, "The CIA would let in anyone, including a little writer like me, to hear that al-Qaeda and bin Laden are going to attack us." [22]

When we consider the two storylines for The Agency described above--that of the pilot episode and the unused plot about three American aircraft being hijacked--it is worth noting that, before September 11, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were unusual choices as villains for a major television series, since they only became well known among the public after 9/11.

Beckner in fact recalled that when he first presented his script for the pilot episode to CBS, the network "had no idea about bin Laden or al-Qaeda." On another occasion before September 11, CBS told Beckner: "This al-Qaeda thing, you've got to get off that. No one is interested. Trust us." [23] In light of the general lack of awareness of al-Qaeda at the time, therefore, it would be surprising if it was simply a coincidence that, before 9/11, Beckner was already writing storylines about attacks committed by bin Laden and his terrorist group.

While two of The Agency's storylines had similarities to what happened on September 11, another storyline is notable because it involved a planned terrorist attack in the U.S. using anthrax, and because, at the time the episode with this storyline was originally going to be broadcast, the U.S. was actually in the middle of a series of anthrax attacks.

The episode, titled "A Slight Case of Anthrax," featured a German terrorist who had obtained the type of anthrax that the U.S. developed and sold to Iraq when it was an ally. The terrorist has already committed an attack in Belgium using the anthrax. The CIA discovers his identity and finds that he intends to carry out his next attack in Washington, DC, using a crop duster plane to spray the deadly disease. CIA agents then hurry to stop the man in his tracks. [24]

Originally, al-Qaeda was going to be behind the fictitious anthrax attacks. But after CBS objected, the storyline was changed so that it involved "Iraqis making an anthrax attack through German terrorist proxies." [25]

The episode, filmed in August 2001, was set to be broadcast on October 11, 2001, but had to be rescheduled because President Bush decided to hold a news conference that evening. It was then set to air on October 18, but was canceled because it was deemed inappropriate in light of the real-world anthrax attacks talking place. At that time, anthrax had been discovered in three states and the District of Columbia; at least 13 people either had the disease or had been exposed to its spores, and one person had died. [26] The episode finally aired on November 8. [27]

Significantly, Michael Frost Beckner, who wrote "A Slight Case of Anthrax," revealed that the episode's storyline was another one of the plots suggested to him by Chase Brandon. This means that the storyline originated with the CIA. [28]

Considering that storylines written for The Agency appear to have predicted terrorist attacks that took place in the U.S., it is worth noting that the CIA's cooperation with the show included reviewing scripts. The CIA would presumably therefore have seen the scripts for "A Slight Case of Anthrax" and the pilot episode before the episodes were filmed. It would certainly be worth discovering how the agency responded to these scripts. Whether the CIA also saw the script about Osama bin Laden having three American aircraft hijacked, and, if so, how it responded, is unknown.

The fact that a major TV series with storylines about terrorists and the CIA's efforts to tackle them was ready to air within weeks of 9/11, when terrorism suddenly became a major concern, seems a remarkable coincidence.

When members of the press were shown the pilot episode of The Agency before September 11, their "big question," according to Michael Frost Beckner, was, "Who would want to make a television series about the CIA?" [29] At that time, according to Tricia Jenkins, "the CIA was suffering from attrition, Congressional attacks, and a lack of strong public support." But, as Jenkins noted, The Agency subsequently turned out to be particularly "timely ... both in terms of the show's ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines and the CIA's need to deflect the sharp criticisms aimed at the organization in the immediate aftermath of 9/11." [30]

Shortly after September 11, Chase Brandon similarly commented that "a show like The Agency couldn't be more timely." This, he said, was because, "Right now, the American public needs a sense of reassurance." [31] Indeed, CBS ran promos for the show in which the voiceover stated, "Now, more than ever, America needs the unsung heroes of The Agency." [32] Brandon added that as a result of the 9/11 attacks, "Our whole national consciousness is going to change, and I think a responsible film or TV episode about the agency, even one that weaves elements of terrorism into the storyline, can show the magnitude of what's at stake." [33]

A question to consider is whether it was just a coincidence that The Agency was ready to be broadcast just after September 11, when the American public needed to learn "the magnitude of what's at stake" and get "a sense of reassurance." Or could the show's timing have come about because some people in positions that enabled them to influence what programs a TV network produced had foreknowledge of 9/11 and the "war on terror" it would initiate? They therefore wanted programs made that would immediately be ready to fit in with the new reality that would emerge after September 11.

Likewise, could the resemblance of some of The Agency's storylines to 9/11 and the anthrax attacks in the U.S. have been the result of people having foreknowledge of these events?

CNN suggested that the similarity was because the producers and writers of The Agency "read intelligence manuals, pull from actual CIA cases, and confer at length with the show's consultant, retired [CIA] operative Bazzel Baz." [34] However, Michael Frost Beckner revealed that these storylines were suggested to him by the CIA, via its entertainment liaison officer. This surely indicates that some people at the CIA had foreknowledge of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks.

This issue should clearly be examined as part of a new investigation of 9/11. That investigation would need to find out what was known, and who knew it.

[1] Lauren Hunter, "'The Agency' Finds Art a Little Too Close to Reality." CNN, October 31, 2001.
[2] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012, pp. 55, 65-66.
[3] Elaine Sciolino, "Cameras Are Being Turned on a Once-Shy Spy Agency." New York Times, May 6, 2001; John Patterson, "The Caring, Sharing CIA." The Guardian, October 5, 2001.
[4] Duncan Campbell, "Hollywood Helps CIA Come in From the Cold." The Guardian, September 6, 2001; Julie Salamon, "Two New Spy Series at Unexpected Risk." New York Times, September 29, 2001.
[5] Ed Bark, "CBS' 'The Agency' Skips Terror-Themed Episode." Dallas Morning News, September 27, 2001.
[6] Philip Taubman, "Making Over the Central Intelligence Agency." New York Times, August 26, 2001; Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, p. 56.
[7] Brooks Boliek, "CIA Calls off 'Agency' Plan." Hollywood Reporter, September 17, 2001; Ed Rampell, "Hollywood's Year of Living Clandestinely." CounterPunch, May 2013.
[8] Army Archerd, "Art Imitates Life, Sort Of." Variety, November 20, 2001.
[9] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, pp. 65-66.
[10] Ed Rampell, "Hollywood's Year of Living Clandestinely."
[11] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, p. 66.
[12] Ed Bark, "CBS' 'The Agency' Skips Terror-Themed Episode."
[13] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, p. 63.
[14] Julie Salamon, "Two New Spy Series at Unexpected Risk"; Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, pp. 62-63; Ed Rampell, "Hollywood's Year of Living Clandestinely."
[15] Noel Holston, "Three New Spy-Themed Series Also May End up Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon." Newsday, September 22, 2001.
[16] Julie Salamon, "Two New Spy Series at Unexpected Risk."
[17] "Reworked Agency Pilot to Air Nov. 1 on CBS." South Florida Sun Sentinel, October 25, 2001; Lauren Hunter, "'The Agency' Finds Art a Little Too Close to Reality."
[18] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, pp. 66-67.
[19] "Critical Issues in Writing About Bioterrorism." Hollywood, Health & Society, April 2, 2002.
[20] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, p. 56.
[21] Duncan Campbell, "Hollywood Helps CIA Come in From the Cold."
[22] "Critical Issues in Writing About Bioterrorism."
[23] Ibid.
[24] Eric Deggans, "Leave Attacks' Aftermath to Real Life." St. Petersburg Times, October 29, 2001; Bridget Byrne, "'Anthrax' Shows up for Sweeps." E! Online, November 2, 2001; Stephen M. Silverman, "Fictional Anthrax Hits 'The Agency.'" People, November 6, 2001; Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, p. 68.
[25] "Critical Issues in Writing About Bioterrorism."
[26] "CBS Pulls Anthrax Episode of CIA Drama 'The Agency.'" Associated Press, October 17, 2001; Bridget Byrne, "'Anthrax' Shows up for Sweeps."
[27] Stephen M. Silverman, "Fictional Anthrax Hits 'The Agency.'"
[28] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, p. 66.
[29] Bernard Weinraub, "The Moods They Are a'Changing in Films; Terrorism is Making Government Look Good." New York Times, October 10, 2001.
[30] Tricia Jenkins, The CIA in Hollywood, pp. 55, 61.
[31] Patrick Goldstein, "The CIA Spins Itself." Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2001.
[32] Brian Lowry, "TV Viewers Flock to What is Familiar." Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2001.
[33] Patrick Goldstein, "The CIA Spins Itself."
[34] Lauren Hunter, "'The Agency' Finds Art a Little Too Close to Reality."

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