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NSA goes to the movies Trend: As technology looms ever larger in our lives, Hollywood is seeking a new vision of villainy in the secret intelligence agency at Fort Meade.

February 15, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

"Probably the most popular question we get from Hollywood folks is: What kind of uniform do we wear?" Emmel said. "And we have to explain to them: No, we don't wear uniforms and we don't carry guns."

Emmel said most of the misrepresentations are "irresponsible," but relatively benign. "But it's the ones that make us look evil, as if we're doing something wrong, that are frustrating."

Emile Henault, who worked at NSA for 27 before retiring to practice law, said those evil portrayals were the result of NSA's secrecy. Hollywood's assumption was: If it's so secret, it must be up to something bad.

"For years people would ask what you did [at NSA] and you'd say, 'I'm an analyst. But I can't discuss it,' " Henault said. "Of course, if you can't discuss it, people's imaginations run wild."

Still, Henault said, NSA has made remarkable strides toward openness.

"It's opened up," he said. "They want to be more touchy-feely. It's been an evolution just in the past few years."

And it's that spirit of openness that let Hollywood in the door.

"They've realized that to turn away Hollywood makes you an even bigger bad guy," said Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of "Enemy of the State," whose past films include "Top Gun" and "Beverly Hills Cop."

For example, the initial screenplay of "Enemy" called for the shenanigans to be NSA-sanctioned. But after NSA cooperated, and even offered up an ex-employee as a consultant, Bruckheimer agreed to pin the wrongdoings on a bad-apple NSA official, and not the agency.

"I think the NSA people will be pleased. They certainly won't come out as bad as they could have," Bruckheimer said. "NSA's not the villain."

But that's not true of all of Hollywood's NSA portrayals.

In the recent movie "Good Will Hunting," a smug NSA recruiter sits behind an imposing desk and tries to persuade a 20-year-old math genius, played by actor Matt Damon, to work for the agency. Damon rants on about the NSA's code-cracking mission and its possible lethal consequences. Finally he tells the speechless recruiter, "I'm holding out for something better."

It's one of the film's funnier scenes, but such a public spoofing had to make more than a few NSA types uncomfortable.

"NSA probably doesn't like it when they're portrayed as Big Brother run amok," said Wayne Madsen, a former NSA employee and now a free-lance technology writer. "But I think they're trying to come out of the shadows. And I think it makes sense that they become more open."

Pub Date: 2/15/98

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