Public affairs team treads fine line of disclosure to convey that the CIA isn't so shrouded in mystique
Few agencies in the US government inspire the creative imagination like the US CIA, the subject of hundreds - or even thousands - of entertaining movies, TV shows, and novels. That many fictional portrayals of the CIA tend to be rather sinister may have more than a little to do with what some observers would describe as the checkered history of "The Company," as it's sometimes called.
Then again, few people have a clear idea of what really goes on inside the CIA or of the scope of its activities, as should be the case with an intelligence agency. But while secrecy is key to effective intelligence gathering, it's not surprising that it complicates the work of the 25 or so public affairs staffers at the agency. Mark Mansfield, CIA director of public affairs, says people tell him his job is the ultimate paradox: How can the CIA have a public affairs department when most everything about it is meant to be classified?
In fact, Mansfield notes, the CIA communicates quite extensively in three main ways: the CIA talks with the media more or less, on the record or off; officials make public appearances, giving speeches and participating in public policy discussions; and the CIA has a recently redesigned Web site, www.cia.gov, that receives an average of more than 3.5 million visitors a month and features speeches by new CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, congressional testimony, and various unclassified publications.
Hayden regards internal communications as key to maintaining the morale and effectiveness of CIA staff, and more responsive external communications as key to curbing public misperceptions as much as possible.
Mansfield says media relations success isn't measured solely by "positive" stories. Indeed, the CIA has seen negative coverage in recent years, including stories of alleged abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and turmoil within the agency over the short-lived appointment of Porter Goss as director a couple of years ago. But while the CIA can't usually boast publicly about its successes, it can at least influence the coverage it does get.
"If we can inject some balance, provide some context, or prevent a negative story from becoming worse, then we've accomplished something," Mansfield says. "For example, making a persuasive case to a reporter that including a certain detail in a story could put the lives of agency officers at risk. Or asking news organizations to delay publication of a story that could compromise sensitive, ongoing operations."
Recently, the public at large may also have taken note of the CIA through TV and print ads it's been running - reportedly with the help of TMP Worldwide - to meet a mandate set by President Bush in 2004 to increase the CIA's work force by 50%.
Washington, DC, attorney Mark Zaid, who frequently represents former or current CIA employees in lawsuits, says the agency has certainly become more transparent over the years, but says its ongoing limitations in discussing activities certainly help Zaid woo the court of public opinion.
"I do have an advantage because it's easy for me to paint them in a corner, to phrase things in a certain way to minimize their ability to respond," Zaid says.
The CIA's relationship with the media and the public at large has evolved over the years, Mansfield notes. Founded after World War II as the successor to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA for many years had no office of public affairs - just a designated contact person who managed inquiries from the press and responded as circumspectly as possible. That began to change in the late 1970s with the appointment of Stansfield Turner as director, though there was still a tendency to decline to comment.
"I think there was a concern about sliding down a slippery slope, and what ensued might be described - and I'm talking about years and years ago - as a rope-a-dope strategy," Mansfield says, whereby the CIA would avoid or barely respond to press inquiries with the aim of encouraging reporters to give up. "It may have added to the mystique, but it resulted in a lot of misperceptions, mischaracterizations, and downright inaccuracies that were harmful."
Through it all, the CIA public affairs team aims to keep its sense of humor. Of the approximately 100,000 e-mails it receives every year, comments include words of encouragement and policy pronouncements.
"The ones in the wackier category include offers from prison inmates to work for us in return for reduced jail time and people who claim to receive secret messages through fillings in their teeth," Mansfield shares. "One kid who was 11 or 12 wrote us to say he would make a great spy because he had a lot of experience spying on his parents."
At a glance
Gen. Michael Hayden, US Air Force
Public affairs team:
Mark Mansfield, director, who leads a total of about 25 staffers