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When life imitates art, and believable fiction inspires national politics

A curious detail to emerge from the Chilcot Inquiry was the revelation that the film The Rock may have been the inspiration for some of the dubious intelligence provided to MI6 detailing Iraq’s chemical weapons capabilities. It detailed how a source suggested that chemical agents could have been carried in glass containers – not normal practice, but exactly as portrayed in the 1996 film. If this seems surprising, in fact it’s by no means the first time a Hollywood movie might have shaped public policy.

Back in the 1960s, President Kennedy was a big James Bond fan and a personal acquaintance of his creator, the author Ian Fleming. Kennedy’s romantic vision of espionage and covert operations may well have been influenced by his affection for the Bond novels. After the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba had proved the foolhardiness of his rose-coloured view of nation state espionage, Kennedy ruminated: “How could I have been so stupid … why couldn’t this have happened to James Bond?”

Shaken not stirred

But Kennedy’s fanciful designs on Fidel Castro did not end there. He appointed legendary CIA officer Edward Lansdale (who Kennedy referred to as “our James Bond”) to lead the top secret Operation Mongoose with the aim of removing Castro from power. One of the more hare-brained schemes was to contaminate Castro’s underwear with thallium salts that would make his beard fall out, ruining his macho image. The plot bore a striking resemblance to one hatched by Fleming a few years earlier, albeit in jest, over dinner with the Kennedys at their Georgetown residence.

Bond’s influence did not end there. In an interview for Life Magazine in August 1964, former CIA chief Allen Dulles revealed that the agency had managed to reproduce the poisoned-tipped shoes worn by Bond’s nemesis, Rosa Klebb, in From Russia With Love. They also tried to build a homing-beacon that featured in Goldfinger, but were unsuccessful.

Hollywood’s president

Formerly a Hollywood actor himself, Reagan frequently sought inspiration from the silver screen.

His plan in the early 1980s for satellites that could shoot down incoming nuclear missiles – the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as “Star Wars” – may well have been inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock film, Torn Curtain (1966), in which Paul Newman plays an American rocket scientist sent behind the iron curtain to retrieve Soviet plans for a missile defence system.

Reagan’s policy on nuclear deterrence was also decidedly influenced by the nuclear disaster film The Day After (1983). The story goes that upon seeing the film the president was moved to alter his bellicose rhetoric towards the Soviet Union and instead sue for peace and nuclear disarmament.

But this is only half true. In keeping with the message of the film, Reagan called for nuclear disarmament knowing he would gain a propaganda victory over the Soviets by portraying them as the aggressors, while channelling audience reactions to the film into support for his policy of nuclear deterrence as the best path to peace. Though Reagan’s rhetoric on nuclear war did indeed change, this may be down to a carefully planned media strategy than a genuine change of heart stemming from the film.

Another example of life imitating art from the Reagan years is one that has left a profound legal legacy in terms of how US law regards computer crime and hacking. Also in 1983, the blockbuster film War Games featured the actor Matthew Broderick as a teenage computer whizz who accidentally hacks into the government mainframe that controls the US nuclear arsenal.

Reagan asked the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Vessey, to investigate the film’s plausibility. When Vessey discovered that US government networks were arguably even more vulnerable than the film had suggested, the alarm over cybersecurity led to the first legistlative acts that outlawed computer hacking. The first, the 1984 Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, was introduced to congress only a few months after the film was released, and the report supporting the bill referenced the film as a “realistic representation” of the threat posed by computer insecurity.

Jack Bauer and the War on Terror

More recently, TV series 24 is regularly cited as inspiration or justification for the euphemistically-titled “enhanced interrogation” techniques. In 2002 a series of brainstorming sessions were held at Guantanamo Bay on how best to interrogate terrorist suspects. The antics of the series’ hero Jack Bauer “gave people a lot of ideas”, admitted the lieutenant colonel presiding over the proceedings.

The dean of the US Military Academy at West Point became so concerned that the show’s glamourisation of torture was damaging his recruits’ training that he flew to Los Angeles to meet with the writers and suggested that they produce episodes where torture backfires. Later, Hollywood was enlisted to produce a training film that pointed out the differences between fictional interrogations as seen in film and those interrogation techniques that were appropriate and effective in reality.

However, numerous members of congress and former CIA director Leon Panetta invoked the series in support of torture. The late Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia on more than one occasion used the series to suggest that suspension of the eighth amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” might be necessary in exceptional circumstances.

While MI6 did voice suspicion at the time that their source’s claims were suspicious and bore some similarity to The Rock, Chilcot’s report details how this intelligence was passed on to politicians all the same. With such a long history of events in movies deemed so believable that they influence policy at the highest levels – and there are many other examples like this – is it really such a surprise that The Rock played its part in shaping British intelligence on Iraq? Unsurprising as it then may be, it is inexcusable nonetheless.

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