The documentary includes interviews with current CIA director John Brennan as well as all living former chiefs of the agency, including former President George H.W. Bush. What is apparent is that there is a new concern over intelligence gathering from this new kind of terrorism.
“No question [the terror threat] is a tremendous challenge, and a lot of the directors we talk to in ‘Spymasters’ talk of the difficulty in trying to keep track of the lone wolves, as they put it, from ISIS,” writer and executive producer Chris Whipple tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “And as the world now knows, these were not lone wolves, but wolves that moved in a pack and were very well coordinated. So it is a real challenge for the agency.”
The documentary looks at the agency’s intelligence on the increasing threat of terrorism in the months leading up to 9/11, and its response afterward.
“What is fascinating about the documentary, what startled us, is there really is a battle for the soul of the CIA going on, and the directors themselves are sometimes the harshest critics of the agency,” Whipple says. “They all have very different views on enhanced interrogation, drone warfare and all the tools the CIA has at its disposal.”
Former CIA director Leon Panetta talks about making life and death decisions in approving drone strikes, and George Tenet talks about the effort to forewarn the White House about the threat from al-Qaeda in the months leading up to 9/11, including a meeting in July, 2001, with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Whipple wrote recently in Politico about how the warnings to the White House were more detailed than previously revealed, but the Bush administration did not take steps at that point to root out al-Qaeda’s haven in Afghanistan. The CIA chiefs even challenge the notion that 9/11 was a massive intelligence failure, given that the agency was aware that a “spectacular” attack was being planned.
Whipple says they were “startled by how revealing and candid” the CIA chiefs were.
“There were no conditions,” he says. “We came at them promising fairness, tough questions, but fairness, and quick frankly time to make their case. A lot of them feel misunderstood. A lot of them feel, as [former CIA director] Mike Hayden likes to say, in the popular culture, ‘We are either Jack Bauer, all powerful, or Jack the Ripper.’ I think the humanity really comes through in the documentary.”
Whipple talks about the common characteristics of the CIA chiefs, and the toll that it takes on their lives.
Whipple talks about how the CIA chiefs view the current response to ISIS, and whether it has been an underestimation to allow the terrorist organization to hold territory in Iraq and Syria.
Real Time, Equal Time
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, talks about how Donald Trump’s hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” has put NBC on the hook for offering candidates equal time. Overall, she says, the law has worked relatively well.
David Cohen of Variety and Nikki Schwab of Daily Mail talk about the dynamics of the debate over whether states can reject Syrian refugees, and how it has quickly become an issue on the campaign trail.
SiriusXM host Julie Mason recently featured Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and author of the new book “The Time of Our Lives,” in which Noonan shared this story of Frank Sinatra calling the president to offer praise for his speech following the Challenger disaster.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.