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Homeland Security in Hollywood: How the Department Controls Its Image On Screen

Newly obtained documents reveal the inner workings of the Department of Homeland Security’s Multimedia Liaison Office, which assists the production of movies, documentaries, television shows, and books.

Much like their counterparts in other arms of the ever-increasing security industrial-complex in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a profound impact on the entertainment industry.

Dissenting and critical views of major events, policies and practices are diluted or eliminated from these productions while cheerleading for the habitual violation of people’s rights is encouraged. They aim to alter audience perceptions of the department and their activities and to promote a worldview that is scary and therefore justifies an authoritarian response from these agencies.

The DHS was set up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as a conglomeration of the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard and over a dozen other agencies. This was the greatest reorganization of the federal government since the National Security Act created the Department of Defense and the CIA.

But the DHS has been beset by bureaucratic problems and widespread opposition to its policies and practices, including TSA agents groping airline passengers, nude body scanners at airports, and the horrific treatment of immigrants, such as gassing them with industrial-strength chemicals at ICE facilities.

DHS is among those departments, whose federal agents have patrolled Portland, grabbing protestors off the streets and throwing them into unmarked vans, often without identifying themselves or providing reasons for these “arrests.”

Meanwhile, the agency’s intelligence division—which was set up to gather information on possible terrorists and other violent criminals—has been directed at journalists covering the ongoing Portland protests. (Acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf took action to stop this excessive surveillance only after the story gained major media coverage.)

The numerous crimes of the department are hideous, and the failure to integrate all these different agencies into its bureaucracy are so deep that former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke recently called for the DHS to be dismantled.

As is so often the case with federal and local government agencies, the DHS views public relations, including through entertainment, as a way to manage public perception of crimes and abuses routinely committed by their personnel.

Over several years, this reporter filed over a dozen FOIA requests to obtain records on Homeland Security’s Hollywood office. They yielded nearly 500 pages of documents explaining how the  office works with the entertainment industry to burnish their image and deflect criticism.

Controlling How DHS Is Portrayed

The process by which the DHS assists in the production of books, films, documentaries and TV series is modeled on the Department of Defense’s entertainment liaison office. The DHS directive  says producers will only receive assistance if the product’s content is deemed to be “in the best interest of DHS or the U.S. Government” and demands that in fictional productions “the portrayal must depict a feasible, or otherwise appropriate, interpretation of DHS programs, operations, and policies.”

Naturally, it is the DHS themselves who determine what is “feasible” and “appropriate”, and their system for controlling their public image is even stricter than that of the DOD and other federal agencies.

Authors, film and TV producers seeking help from DHS for their projects – whether factual or fictional – have to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to interview agents to gather background material to help develop their projects. This means that when they produce a manuscript, treatment or screenplay they have to remove anything that the DHS doesn’t like, with the NDA hanging over their heads if they do not comply.

If they want to film DHS staff or locations they must also sign a “Multimedia Agreement” that locks them into the DHS-approved version of the script or story and submit rough cuts of their work to the department’s media office Producers then make changes to meet DHS demands prior to release.

DHS requires producers to submit any promotional materials that depict the DHS in any way to the department for review and approval.

“Activities reports” in the documents contain numerous references to the department and their agencies sending notes and feedback to producers during both the pre-production and post-production phases.

This provides the department with almost complete control over how DHS is portrayed in entertainment media, resulting in a slew of positive PR for the department and their agencies.

From Docudramas To “Top Chef”

The DHS’ functions are extremely broad, encompassing everything from illegal smuggling to immigration to counter-terrorism, which is reflected in the productions they support. This includes TV shows such as “Border Force,” “Drug Wars,” “Search and Protect,” and “Border Security: America’s Front Line,” all of which perpetuate the myth that America’s borders are little better than war zones that require a sophisticated and authoritarian security state to deal with them.

DHS also helped produce numerous documentaries and docudramas on the Silk Road and El Chapo investigations, along with other criminal cases worked by DHS agents, which encourage viewers to see the world as being full of dastardly criminal threats.

Even more staggering, DHS has worked on everything from quasi-academic tomes on counter-terror policy to the children’s book series Protecting Our People to the game show “Top Chef,” which featured “two celebrity Top Chefs cooking for Coast Guard members in the Los Angeles area.”

Perhaps, befitting the third largest department in the U.S. government, DHS’s role in the culture industry dwarfs even that of more well-known agencies, such as the FBI.

In particular, ICE and Customs and Border Protection are busy massaging their public image through Hollywood. The increased attention on how immigration policy is being enacted, especially when it violates the human rights of migrants, has led both of these DHS components to seek help from the entertainment business.

Both offices support TV series that portray their agents as professional and necessary for the nation’s protection, including animal-themed productions like “Canine Border Wars” and “Border Dogs.”

However, when the Bertelsmann Foundation wanted ICE’s help making a more even-handed documentary focused on “the benefits of legal immigration and challenges caused by illegal immigration” ICE rejected the project “due to [the] political climate against ICE ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] in Florida.”

The message is clear: Producers willing to promote and whitewash the federal government’s immigration policies, and the rhetoric coming out of the White House, find these agencies are willing to help, but for those wanting to put a human face on immigration, or discuss opposition to these policies, they are left out in the cold.

Starring Mark Wahlberg

Major films, like Disney’s “The Finest Hours,” appear regularly in reports. For that movie, the DHS and Coast Guard not only provided production support but were also centrally involved in the promotional rollout for the movie. Though this didn’t seem to do the movie much good, as this rather stilted tale of a Coast Guard rescue in 1952 received poor reviews and lost money at the box office.

Another movie the DHS smiled on was “Patriots Day,” which focuses on the manhunt for the Boston bombers and completely avoids any hint of intelligence failures or the possibility of preventing the attack. The film also incriminates the wife of one of the bombers, Katherine Russell, strongly suggesting she conspired in the bombing even though in reality she has never been charged in connection with the attack.

Similarly, the DHS supported “Deepwater Horizon,” which like “Patriots Day” starred Mark Wahlberg and was directed by Peter Berg. It tells the story of the Coast Guard’s rescue efforts in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion. But the film avoids any suggestion that corporate greed, apathy or incompetence, or poor enforcement of offshore drilling regulations was in any way to blame, presenting another story of the heroism of the federal government while ignoring their culpability or larger questions of responsibility.

Finally, “Rainbow Bridge Motel” received DHS support for a critical scene at the rainbow bridge in Niagara Falls, likely because it provided a heartwarming spin on US immigration policies.

Reports note, “One of the main characters is not allowed to get back into the states so his fiance meets him on the bridge with his family to marry him.” The documents mention the actors were “vetted” as part of the department’s security screenings for everyone in Hollywood that they work with, though the contracts do not include a clause where the actors consent to this.

It is unclear how much script input the DHS had on any of these projects, even though script reviews and feedback are referenced frequently in the released files. The department refused my request for records of their influence on the content of supported productions, but the documents they did provide contain one example that illustrates just how much impact they can have.

For the forthcoming TV seriesCoyote”, which appears to be a replacement for the popular DEA-supported drama “Breaking Bad”, they were negotiating with the producers as early as 2016. This led to the writers changing the main character, played by Michael Chiklis, from a DEA agent to an ICE Homeland Security Investigations Agent, necessitating a reworking of the entire show.

Tom Secker

Tom Secker

Tom Secker is a private researcher who runs spyculture.com, an online archive about government involvement in the entertainment industry. He has used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain unique government documents since 2010 and hosts the popular ClandesTime podcast.