In the 1998 movie "Enemy of the State," Will Smith plays a beleaguered lawyer who runs afoul of a nefarious NSA program and is marked for termination. His only hope, of course, is another NSA man who's been disavowed. Throughout the film the Hollywood fantasies of the omnipotent NSA are showcased, with the lawyer himself only being saved by a man who can fight as "dirty" as they do.
Back then, "Enemy of the State" was just another Hollywood tent-pole, pairing up heavy-weights Will Smith with Gene Hackman, along with a plethora of Hollywood special effects. Fast-forward fifteen years, and apparently the American public thinks that movie is a documentary.
When Edward Snowden first hit the public airwaves with his revelations, I attempted to put it in perspective, given what I know about how the intelligence community really operates, but nobody would listen to anything I had to say. The conspiracy fires were raging, and my little bucket of water was seen as misguided government propaganda. I was more than a little flummoxed. In the past, whenever an issue related to the intelligence community or special operations had come up, people actually asked my opinion. Now, nobody gave my statements a passing thought as being accurate. I began to wonder why.
Recent scandals that have plagued the government have put trust at an all-time low, but all of those scandals - hell, even going back to the grand-daddy of them all, Watergate - took a long time to simmer, with people demanding proof and the two sides in the political arena duking it out on the veracity of the facts. This had none of that. Snowden leaked an architecture with the potential for abuse, and the entire nation assumed that the NSA was sucking in every phone call, email, web history, or text ever sent. Why is that? Why would it take a year for the IRS to come clean, but take a millisecond for everyone on the planet to assume NSA domestic spying when there's been no evidence at all that it's occurred? Especially given that the entire leadership of both parties, the director of national intelligence and the President himself (leadership that's been read on to the program, unlike all the stabbing in the dark going on in the press), states that it isn't a giant surveillance Hoover vacuum wrecking the fourth amendment. I honestly found it curious. As I tried to convince yet another "Joe Six-pack" of how ridiculous the reporting on Snowden has been, and failed, I began to wonder if maybe I wasn't part of the problem.
Before 1972 the conspiracy plots in fiction usually involved an outside influence. James Bond had SPECTRE, Le Carré had a mole, and Forsyth had a paid assassin. After Watergate that all changed. We now have an entire generation of Americans that has been raised on books and movies chock-full of internal conspiracies, whereby the US government is at the heart of the plot. We've been inundated for so long on the pervasive evil of the intelligence community's abuse of power that I'm beginning to believe the fiction has permeated our national psyche as fact.
I've mentioned "Enemy of the State," but one need only look at any modern thriller film to see the trend. There's "Conspiracy Theory" with Mel Gibson, where black helicopters rule the skies. In "Shooter," Mark Wahlberg is a sniper framed by an evil intelligence cabal out to kill the president. The entire Jason Bourne franchise showcases the CIA's "Operation BlackBriar" running amok. Oliver Stone's "JFK" is a veritable cornucopia of conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Kennedy that leads to one inescapable conclusion: The CIA had the president assassinated in a coup. The list goes on and on, and the publishing world is no different. You can't write a political/military thriller today without having some powerful person inside the US intelligence community "out to get" the protagonist, complete with an organization that's "off the books". And yes, I'm as guilty as anyone else.
Because of my background (twenty-one years in the Army Infantry and Special Forces), I set out from the beginning to create a fictional unit that had no possibility of being real. Due to my secrecy agreements, I didn't want anyone to accuse me of writing about any unit I'd served within, fiction or otherwise. So I created the Taskforce - a unit "outside the law" and so extreme that anyone in my old world would laugh about it. But apparently, my world is a pretty small place.
In 2009, right after I finished my first novel One Rough Man, Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, claimed that George W. Bush's administration had gone around the world illegally assassinating people without any oversight. The kicker was the assassins had come from a unit I had served within. He'd basically said my fictional Taskforce was real - and much to my surprise, everyone seemed to believe him. It was my first indication that the American public truly didn't understand how the intelligence world operates. Because CIA/DIA/NSA operations are secret, the average American has no idea what authorities or capabilities are out there, yet they do form a notion of how such operations occur, using whatever information is available. Who helps fill in that gap of knowledge? Who props up the reporting of Hersh and Greenwald as fact? Me. And people like me.
If you're going to write fiction about the intelligence community or special operations, it behooves you to brag about your "contacts" and how "factual" your book is. Everyone does it. Everyone has some "connection" to the inner workings of the top-secret world that "allowed them" to write something that could only be sold as "fiction" - because the contact would be killed if it came out as fact (wink). It's all about selling books, and the author is going to do whatever he can to convince you that his story is straight from the bowels of the beast - an area you will never see, but he has.
Film is the same way. "Zero Dark Thirty" came out to great fanfare, with controversy surrounding the producer's access to "classified information". When the movie arrived it was pretty much a travesty as far as accuracy goes. I don't mean it wasn't a good movie - it was, and I enjoyed it - just that, outside of the fact that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, the movie bears little resemblance to what actually occurred, yet it was touted as almost a documentary.
All of that is perfectly fine, and something I willingly partake in, except now I'm wondering if I haven't contributed to altering the American perception of reality. I make a living writing about an illegal organization that doesn't exist, but in retrospect, given my background, how many people now think it does? Have I helped convince "Joe Six-pack" that no matter what our national security architecture says, there's a shadow cell at work, and it's coming to get him? Have I created the perception that illegal activities go on willy-nilly, against the express wishes of our elected representatives? Have decades of conspiracy books and movies seeped from the unconscious to the conscious mind of the average American, someone who now automatically assumes the worst about organizations that are designed to protect our nation?
I honestly don't know, but after beating my head into a wall about Snowden and the NSA, I'm giving up trying to reset the perception. I do need to sell books, after all. So yes, the Taskforce is real, and you should look over your shoulder the next time you check the mail.