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Argo (Bleep) the CIA's Secrecy

At the end of Argo, after the embassy workers have been saved, amidst an American media victory dance and the cheers of thankful Americans, Jack O’Donnell (played by Bryan Cranston) speaks with Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck). O’Donnell gives Mendez the greatest news an intelligence agent could receive; he’s been awarded an “Intelligence Star”.

But there’s a caveat: it all has to be secret.

As O’Donnell explains:

O’DONNELL: He wants to give you the Intelligence Star. You’re getting the highest award of merit of the Clandestine Services of these United States. Ceremony’s two weeks from today.

MENDEZ: If they push it a week, I can bring Ian. That’s his winter break.

O’DONNELL: The op was classified so the ceremony’s classified. He can’t know about it. Nobody can know about it.

MENDEZ: They’re gonna hand me an award, then they’re gonna take it back?

O’DONNELL: If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.

And that’s what’s so unfortunate about this story. The CIA--as Michael C will go into much greater detail next week--never celebrates its successes. The public never hears about the hundreds of thousands of millions of success stories conducted by CIA operatives and analysts every year to keep us safe.

They keep it all secret.

Take this awesome, amazing, heroic story of a lone American heading into Iran and rescuing his fellow citizens. Wired will never run a feature article about it. Tony Mendez? He’ll never be able to write an autobiography and use this story as the basis for chapter nine.

Because this story is secret, Hollywood will never find out about it, so a film version will never get made. Because the film won’t get made, hundreds of media outlets won’t write thousands of articles about it during that very successful film’s Oscar run. And Lord knows, because this operation is a secret, it’ll never win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Because the CIA does its work in the dark. We never hear the success stories.

(Remember, if they wanted applause, they’d join the circus.)

seven comments

I almost missed the sarcasm and thought you had turned to just another jingoistic milblog.

This goes back to what I was saying about “validating” oneself through war. It’s not validating one’s self through war, rather wanting to be important, or to feel important. I’m sure he felt pretty important getting the Intelligence Medal…

… he nodded slowly as it all hit him, taking one last drag from his cigarette before exhaling with a cool “Yeah.”


Yeah, Monday we will tackle this idea—fallacy or fact behaving badly—in a systematic way.


Here’s a simple 2-question test the CIA could run on all of its ops:

1. Is this plan better thought out than the Bay of Pigs?

2. Can anyone write about this op in greater – and more damning – detail than Philip Agee?

If the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ then they might consider proceeding.

On an tangential note, I’ve often thought the CIA might be both more effective and more discreet if there were some kind of significant US expat population scattered around the globe (and not the kind sheltered in ‘little Americas’). It would be a source of reliable humint, and would give the CIA reason to be a little less clumsy in order to prevent backlash against said expat population.


(Remember, if they wanted applause, they’d join the circus.)

I did think that was a pretty clever le Carré reference, though.


@ Mateo – I made that connection too, but do you think it was intentional?


It’s possible it wasn’t. But the fact that we’re even asking makes me suspect not.


Snowden has made a second round of leaks—actually, I think it would be more accurate to say that he has blown the whistle again, though others may disagree—and this time we get a look at the Intelligence Community’s budget. http://wapo.st/17tY7l5

It has been a long time since I have thought that public knowledge of the intelligence budget was a top priority.* That by itself does not improve oversight or decision-making. But after seeing the WP piece I now feel naive and like a bit of an ass because of all the times I told people, “The CIA’s not even our largest intelligence agency. Whatever you think about their mission, they’re under-resourced for it, if anything.”

*And it seems rather obvious that some of the finer details should always remain out of the public view.