Spymasters: How Showtime's CIA terrorism documentary went from novel to necessary
Showtime’s documentary The Spymasters — CIA in the Crosshairs was never going to be comfort viewing; all 12 living CIA directors collectively speak on record for the first time, delving deep into the disquieting truths about terrorism, tragedy, interrogation, and the game-changing decisions these men of espionage made when desperate worlds turned to them.
Now, in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, the timeliness of the documentary (and its potential to make audiences sweat and squirm) can’t be understated, especially given the roots of the film’s three creators. French-born brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet earned their clout in the documentary scene with their Emmy-winning film 9/11; the filmmakers then began a partnership with news producer Chris Whipple for a docu-series spotlighting the former chiefs-of-staff of Washington, The Presidents’ Gatekeepers.
This time, the three have assembled all twelve living CIA directors — a historical feat in and of itself — to get candid about the role of the CIA in post-9/11 America. Narrated by Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin, the doc and its makers are gearing up for its premiere (Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. on Showtime) fully aware of how recent events have shaken up the atmosphere in which it will debut. But perhaps the film’s tragic resonance is what makes The Spymasters that much more imperative to watch.
How did the attacks in Paris change the nature of this timing for you?
CHRIS WHIPPLE: There are so many aspects of this tragedy in Paris that resonate for us, having just spent all this time with every living CIA director. And they all talk about how difficult it is to keep America safe, and God knows the French are wrestling with that now as well. In our show, we come right up to the present and the future, and certainly there are lots of issues that relate to Paris and to ISIS. John McLaughlin, who was one of the more eloquent deputy directors of the CIA, talked about ISIS and the fact that…up to now, until this week, they had seemed satisfied to consolidate their so-called caliphate, but McLaughlin was prescient in our show. He said if we don’t stamp them out, they’ll come here. There’s just no doubt. That’s one of the lessons of Paris. There are a lot of profound philosophical questions, too. In a climate of fear, how far should intelligence agencies go to keep us safe?
What’s the thesis of this piece? Is it about establishing the rules for America’s spymasters? Or, to quote one of your former CIA directors, does it argue, “S— happens, we were at war”?
WHIPPLE: It’s about this battle for the soul of the CIA. It’s the rules of engagement. It’s how far should the CIA go. Ordinarily when you do a documentary, you go round up the critics of the subject; what we did not expect was that the directors themselves were passionate in their disagreements about the mission of CIA and what it should be. Just to give you one very important example of that: Should the CIA be an intelligence-gathering agency, or should it be a paramilitary covert army? That’s a critical question, and it’s thoroughly debated by our directors. The stakes could not be higher.
JULES NAUDET: Normally, if you watch a documentary on the CIA, they don’t really seem warm and fuzzy. I’m not saying that they are in this show, but I think you [see they] have a sense of humanity. I think one of the reasons they all agreed to speak is that they wanted to be able to talk about their context, to be able to talk about the things that they dealt with, some of the explanations they wanted to give, which they thought they’d never have the chance until now. It was fascinating to see the complete difference of opinion on certain subjects and the complete agreement on others.
GEDEON NAUDET: We had this incredible opportunity to put the audience and ourselves in their shoes. They were able to put these decisions into the context of where they were in their offices when suddenly the world was coming down on them and the roof was falling and they had to make the decision. How do you keep a country safe without changing your values? That’s also something that fascinates me completely: When you’re attacked, fear tends to make people do things that they usually regret after. Suddenly everybody is willing to change their values and do things that they would not do in times of peace.
What was your pitch to get all twelve to agree to be interviewed?
JULES NAUDET: A couple of things helped. One, the 9/11 documentary that my brother and I did 14 years ago still resonated with a lot of these people and gave us kind of an edge, at least for them to hear us out. Then, doing that documentary series about the chiefs of staff [The Presidents’ Gatekeepers] with Chris, we had dealt with a few who enjoyed what we had done together and understood the way we worked. And because they are a very small brotherhood, I think they decided that we were the right people, that for once they might be able to take a chance. We told them from the very beginning, we’ll be tough but we’ll be fair.
WHIPPLE: It’s important to emphasize that there were no conditions whatsoever, there were no holds barred, no questions were off the table. It wasn’t easy. And it was one interview at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time, a year and a half in the making. It started with George H. W. Bush and it finished with George Tenet. Tenet must have canceled on us at least, what?
JULES NAUDET: Three times.
WHIPPLE: Tenet was a long process of persuading. And he nearly bolted out of his chair three or four times during the interview itself. In one session, I remember him saying, “How do I know you guys aren’t going to screw me?” And we were able to say, “Talk to Rahm Emanuel. Ask Dick Cheney. Ask any of the chiefs of staff what their experience was.”
JULES NAUDET: That’s the magic of Chris once he puts them in the chair and does not let them go for about four or five hours. The directors would actually ask Chris when they were being interviewed to check a couple of the facts they had just said, and Chris, having just read a library’s worth of CIA stories of the past 50 years, could correct them on the spot.
Chris, what questions provoked the most visceral or emotional reactions from the directors?
WHIPPLE: Primarily the moments when I was going after some humanity. In the case of George Tenet… first of all, George Tenet really came to play, and he had, as you can imagine, a lot to get off his chest. Can you imagine having on your watch 9/11, the enhanced interrogation procedures, and weapons of mass destruction? The moment with Tenet that’s most memorable for me was, after he talked very emotionally about how they had blown up the town [he] was raised in, I said to him, “Was there ever a moment in all this time when you blamed yourself?” And his body language said it all. He shifted uncomfortably, fidgeted in his chair, eyes turned red and watered up, and he said, “I look at the ceiling about a lot of things, but I’ll keep them to myself forever. But we’re all human beings.” It was really a very emotional moment.
JULES NAUDET: We had a couple moments where we started talking about drones or signature strikes, and everyone wanted us to disappear very quickly and could not imagine how the others had spoken about it. It’s kind of the worst kept secret in Washington: Everyone knows the CIA has drones, but the CIA for some reason doesn’t want to acknowledge it. We had some like David Petraeus or Mike Morell or Porter Goss who would not even allude to it, and others like Leon Panetta and Michael Hayden and Robert Gates who were much more candid.
Did you face antagonism from government officials who caught wind you were doing this and got nervous? We are talking about national security, after all.
[All three chuckle.]
WHIPPLE: Yes, absolutely. We heard that John Brennan was not at all amused by some of the directors who spoke out of school, Leon Panetta in particular. Leon went well beyond what he was allowed to say in his book [2014’s Worthy Fights]. The CIA censors were all over his book. They were not at our interview… We had a lot of these directors talking out of school, revealing stuff that they never talk about.
Was there any point where your own emotions were activated by these stories?
JULES NAUDET: For me, it’s always when they talk about Sept. 11. My brother and I have seen it from a perspective which is unique to the survivors of that day, being on the inside [as shot in the documentary, 9/11]. It always brings up a lot of emotion, these moments that bring it back for me to that horrible day that we lived through.
GEDEON NAUDET: I always pretend that it’s not affecting me to see 9/11 and all those horrible images from ISIS propaganda. As we’ve been editing the film at CBS for Showtime, with the most extraordinary team of editors and researchers starting with Susan Zirinsky, it was [like re-living] the shock and the trauma of those images, of decapitation, of people being burned alive, everything you’ve seen on the Internet… we had to watch everything for the editing. And you could see, as days and weeks would pass, how everybody in the team were getting emotionally distressed. It takes a toll to watch all those images. I felt [like I was] watching our own team be completely traumatized.
What conversations do you hope people might have after this, when the credits roll, they hit pause, and turn to each other on the couch?
JULES NAUDET: My dream is for people to turn to each other and to have one set thinking “My God, these people are crazy” and others to say, “You’re completely wrong, these people are heroes.” I don’t want them to get away with one side or another; in that case, we would not have done our job well. But I think it will create a lot of conversation about the ideas, about the use of drones, about how do we fight ISIS — can we kill our way out of this? These are big points that the directors themselves are not in agreement [on] with each other, and that should continue in every home, every dinner table, every restaurant, every bar.
GEDEON NAUDET: For me, it would be about what fear makes you do, and not only as an individual but as a society, a community, a country. It will happen again. There will be other 9/11s. Yesterday it was in Paris, tomorrow who knows? But it will come back here of course. Just ask the FBI about how many plots they’ve already foiled. But when it will happen again, how are we going to react? Are we going to let fear take over and change our values and basically transform us into something that we’re not? Or are we going to be stronger than that? And that, for me, I hope, will be the conversation that people start to have.
WHIPPLE: Leon Panetta, at one point, says, in a climate of fear — as followed Pearl Harbor, with the internment of Japanese-Americans, or as followed 9/11, with the enhanced interrogation program, or maybe now after the attacks on Paris — “How do we, in a climate of fear, ensure that we don’t betray American values?” That’s not an easy question, and it especially couldn’t be more timely right now. For me, two things I would love for people to take away from the film: One would be, on a very human level, for people to come away just saying, “Wow, I never knew what those guys were like before. I never knew that they faced ethical dilemmas like that every day. I never knew the extent to which they make life and death decisions, whether to pull the trigger on lethal drones, for example.” And then in a larger, bigger, maybe policy sense, I was really struck by what Mike Hayden said towards the end of the show, when he said, “All we can really do as CIA is create time and space, but if the politicians and the leaders don’t have the courage and the wherewithal to solve some of these problems, how terrorism is created, then you get into this loop where you kill people forever.” I thought that was a really a profound observation.
JULES NAUDET: The first time we met General Hayden to do a pre-interview, he told us, “The American public is kind of bipolar when it comes to their thoughts about the CIA. On one hand, we’re Jack Bauer from the show 24, but on the other hand, we’re also Jack the Ripper. So if at the end of the day, people can see us as more than these two things, you will have done a good job.” I hope that we’ll see these people as human beings, as more than caricatures on one side or the other.
The Spymasters — CIA in the Crosshairs airs on Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.