September 21, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

It wasn’t long ago that the FBI was the darling of Hollywood. But now David Duchovny‘s hip Agent Mulder is retired, and real-life G-men have hit the front pages for scandals like the recent Robert Hanssen spy case. Meanwhile, the CIA—a favorite heavy in big-screen potboilers for decades—has experienced a surprise resurgence. This fall, three CIA-themed series will debut on prime time, and production has wrapped on at least four spy films.

Why the sudden comeback? ”It seemed like the right time to look at the CIA,” explains Gail Katz, exec producer of CBS’ The Agency, which stars Gil Bellows and Gloria Reuben and premieres Sept. 20. ”All of us grew up watching TV shows about the FBI, but we didn’t know much about the CIA.”

The agency itself is assisting producers, even granting access to the once-forbidden grounds of its Langley, Va., headquarters. The CIA provided full cooperation to both The Agency and Alias, an ABC show created by J.J. Abrams (Felicity) about a student (Jennifer Garner) who becomes a special double agent. The CIA even planned a gala screening of The Agency at its underground theater, now canceled due to recent terrorist incidents.

The CIA’s glasnost toward Hollywood began nearly five years ago when Chase Brandon, an undercover agent for more than 25 years and a cousin of Tommy Lee Jones, became the agency’s first-ever liaison to the entertainment industry. ”We wanted to inform, educate, and explain that this is not just a big rogue agency that goes around making up things and getting into trouble,” explains Brandon. In other words, to reverse decades’ worth of double-crossing agents on screen.

What comes with the CIA’s seal of approval? The Agency was able to film on the Langley grounds, including inside the main building. Cast and producers met staffers and sized up offices for sets constructed in L.A. And CIA officials offered consultation on plotlines. Thanks to the access, Katz says, ”it looks right and feels right and people talk the way they talk as much as possible.”

Some projects never get past the CIA’s front gate, rejected for negative or inaccurate depictions. Take Fox’s Kiefer Sutherland series 24. ”The whole premise is unrealistic because they’ve got a CIA agent protecting the President and that’s the Secret Service’s job,” says Brandon. ”I don’t think they want to be confused by the facts.”

Networks aren’t the only ones obsessed with spies. The upcoming film The Sum of All Fears was deemed accurate enough to get Ben Affleck a day in Langley to research his role as a Russia analyst. (The Anthony Hopkins-Chris Rock pic Bad Company also won CIA support.) But Matt Damon got the cold shoulder for The Bourne Identity. ”By page 25, I lost track of how many rogue operatives had assassinated people,” Brandon says. ”I chucked the thing in the burn bag.”

This fall’s Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, fell into a gray area. Director Tony Scott wanted to shoot a scene in which Redford’s character parks his Porsche in front of Langley’s main building. So Brandon invited Scott and screenwriter John Lee Hancock to headquarters to discuss his script concerns. ”They spent a day taking notes and left saying ‘We really want to turn this into something authentic,”’ Brandon says. ”When I finally got the script back, it was worse—so I graciously withdrew the offer to film here.”

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