For a Secretive Agency, the CIA Has a Long History of PR StuntsHistorians in the News
tags: CIA, Intelligence
The Central Intelligence Agency has a penchant for producing hagiographic narratives about itself. Its new podcast is no exception.
The Langley Files, which debuted on September 19, bills itself as a show that provides the public with a “unique look behind the curtain,” sharing interviews with CIA officials and other “exciting” guests, educating the world on the agency’s history and mission, and bringing the agency “out from the shadows.” The podcast is hosted by two mononymously named CIA employees, Dee and Walter, with episodes running a brisk 15 to 30 minutes.
The first episode features an interview with CIA Director Bill Burns, who says, without a hint of irony, that the agency’s first job is not to “bend intelligence to suit political or policy references or agendas,” but rather to courageously tell policymakers what they need to hear. He goes on to list some of the CIA’s recent accomplishments: how it painted a distinct picture of Vladimir Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine months in advance and conducted a “successful” drone strike against al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with zero civilian casualties—though Burns neglects to mention the long history of civilian deaths from US drone strikes over the past two decades.
Another goal of the podcast, according to Burns, is to counter “misconceptions” about the agency. In real life, Burns says, the CIA is not “a glamorous world of solo operators” like fictional spy legends Jason Bourne or James Bond. Instead, he says, you’re more likely to find people like the super relatable director himself, who claims he doesn’t quite “fit the image.”
“I’m most comfortable driving our 2013 Subaru Outback at posted speed limits. The height of technological daring is when I can finally get the Roku to work at home,” says Burns, in a transparent attempt to assure listeners that the head of the agency accused of multiple war crimes is, in fact, just like them.
When the podcast debuted a couple weeks ago, media outlets such as NPR claimed it was “extremely rare” for the CIA to seek public attention like this. But historian David S. McCarthy, a professor at Richard Bland College of William & Mary, says that’s not necessarily true. “The podcast is definitely classic CIA public relations,” says McCarthy, pointing to a long line of attempts by the agency to rehabilitate its murky history through tried-and-true PR tactics.
When it was founded in the early years of the Cold War, the agency was relatively unconcerned with public relations; few people even knew it existed, and fewer people knew the extent of its operations. But by the 1950s, the CIA had reached the height of its influence and power, which brought with it public scrutiny.