COPYRIGHT 2007 American Opinion Publishing, Inc.
The CIA, skull and bones, and rewriting history: The Good Shepherd purportedly uncovers the “untold story of the birth of the CIA.” It does show the incontestable Skull and Bones-CIA connection, but otherwise largely fails.
The Good Shepherd is a fictionalized version of history which is accurate in almost every incident. But because the filmmakers are liberated from trying to be faithful to the tiny details, they’ve come a lot closer in many ways to capturing some essential truths about this extraordinary period of intelligence, counterintelligence, betrayal and espionage during the Cold War….
There’s no way to understand the present without understanding how we got there. And The Good Shepherd tells us.
–Richard C.A. Holbrooke Ambassador to the UN, 1999-2001
The Good Shepherd is described on its official website as “the untold story of the birth of the CIA.” To the extent that most Americans do not know about the strong connection between Yale’s secretive Skull and Bones Society and our nation’s premier intelligence agency, the movie delivers as promised in a credible way. However, not surprisingly, in “the untold story,” as captured through the lens of director Robert De Niro, the CIA was founded as an anti-communist organization that went on to fight the good fight, though not always successfully or adeptly, against Soviet spies and designs during the Cold War. That image of the CIA fits perfectly with conventional wisdom, but it does not fit so well with the real “untold story.”
The reviewers almost universally panned the film–but not for what the movie failed to uncover. They, like this reviewer, found the movie tedious. De Niro, who also starred in the film, seemed more intent on teaching the American public a history lesson than in providing entertainment, making the movie’s 156-minute running time seem longer than it actually was. De Niro included a few scenes of sexual activity in his film apparently to relieve its tediousness, but failed to accomplish that goal while diminishing the film’s appeal for more morally discriminating viewers.
Through De Niro’s Lens
The Good Shepherd is the product of De Niro’s decade-long interest in the CIA. A friend who knew of that interest introduced De Niro to Milt Bearden, a retired 39-year CIA veteran who ran the agency’s operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Bearden became the film’s lead technical adviser.
The focal point of the movie is the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when a group of Cuban expatriates trained by the United States attempted to liberate their homeland from Castro’s oppressive dictatorship. From that vantage point, most of the events of the movie are depicted in a never-ending series of flashbacks through the eyes of top-ranking CIA agent Edward Wilson (portrayed by Matt Damon). Those flashbacks extend as far back as 1939, when Wilson was tapped as a Skull and Bones member at Yale University. After graduation, Wilson is recruited to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II-era precursor to the CIA. Wilson is also asked to take part in the founding of the CIA.
Though The Good Shepherd depicts the CIA as genuinely trying to safeguard U.S. security, it does not shy away from portraying aspects of the agency’s dark side. In one riveting scene, agents cover an interrogatee’s head with a garment that is repeatedly soaked with water, nearly drowning him, until the hapless man breaks free and jumps through the window to his death.
The film also depicts the CIA as an all-consuming organization that requires a degree of dedication and surrender of self on a par with membership in the Mafia or the Communist Party. Wilson’s marital relationship with his wife Margaret “Clover” (Angelina Jolie) suffers greatly because his life as an agent leaves no time for being a husband and father. In two separate scenes, the Bonesmen and their wives attend formal banquets at Deer Island, the Skull and Bones private Thousand Islands retreat (which really exists), where the toast to the Order takes precedence to the invocation. Clover, whose father and brother are also Bonesmen, remarks with evident sarcasm each time the toast and invocation are given: “Agency first, God second.” Clover’s brother, John (Gabriel Macht), also seems to lump the OSS/CIA and Skull and Bones into one entity.
The film’s premise that Skull and Bones and the OSS/CIA are intertwined, with the former being a significant source of personnel for the latter, is incontestable. Eric Roth, who wrote the script for The Good Shepherd, is quoted on the movie’s website as saying: “I researched people who went into the early years of the CIA and where they came from. It was traditionally Yale and Skull and Bones.” Indeed it was. Much of the history of the Bones-OSS/ CIA connection is covered by John F. McManus in his book William F. Buckley, Jr.: Pied Piper for the Establishment. Buckley, who was tapped for Skull and Bones while at Yale. was recruited into the CIA by his mentor, Yale Professor Willmoore Kendall, who had served in the OSS.
In The Good Shepherd, Wilson was recruited into the OSS by General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), who became Wilson’s mentor. In one of the movie’s most riveting lines, Sullivan cautions Wilson: “No matter what anyone tells you, there’ll be no one you can really trust.”
Wilson and Sullivan
The character of Edward Wilson is based on an amalgam of CIA counterintelligence chief James J. Angleton and CIA Director Allen W. Dulles. (As one example, Dulles’ wife, not Angleton’s, was named Clover.) The character of General Bill Sullivan is based on the real-life General William “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the movie, both Wilson and Sullivan are “good shepherds” trying to keep America safe during the Cold War. In real life, Angleton and Donovan were representative of two very different factions in the CIA–one truly patriotic and anti-communist; the other subversive and pro-communist.
James Angleton, the chief of counterintelligence for the CIA starting in the late 1940s, was truly a good shepherd. In fact, he became famous for ferreting out KGB agents who had penetrated the agency.
“Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS chieftain, recruited many of the moles into the OSS. This was not by carelessness. R. Harris Smith, in his book OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency, revealed that Donovan worked with Communist Party leader Eugene Dennis to recruit OSS personnel from communist ranks. When confronted by the FBI with evidence that some of his men were Communist Party members, Donovan replied, “I know they’re Communists. That’s why I hired them.” Of course, when the CIA was organized in 1947, many of the OSS agents became CIA agents.
The movie gets it right by portraying Wilson/Angleton as a patriotic American who sacrifices self to protect America from her enemies. It gets it wrong by not showing that the enemy was not just in Moscow or Havana but inside the CIA itself.
Bay of Pigs
The Good Shepherd also gets it wrong by portraying the CIA’s role in the Bay of Pigs operation as a genuine effort to topple Castro. Here again, the movie, which is supposed to tell us the “untold story,” instead recycles the same old establishment line: the invasion failed because of incompetence, not deliberate sabotage.
In the movie, Wilson’s son, also a Bonesman and CIA agent, falls in love with an African woman working for the KGB. He foolishly (but not maliciously) shares the invasion plans with her, not realizing that she is in the pocket of the KGB. The naive CIA agent was not even officially privy to the information; he happened to overhear it at a–you guessed it!–Skull and Bones meeting. Thus in the movie depiction, loose lips resulted in the KGB being able to tip off Castro, who then took preemptive military action, resulting in the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The real story is very different. Many journalists have documented the apparent sabotage of the invasion from within the agency. Both John Stormer, in None Dare Call It Treason, and Cuban-born American writer and intelligence analyst Servando Gonzalez, in an essay entitled Fidel Castro Supermole, noted the mismatched ammunition supplied by the CIA. Some invaders were supplied with 30.06 caliber ammunition, but with M-3 grease guns that fired .45 caliber bullets. The CIA supplied others with .45 caliber ammunition, but with Browning Automatic Rifles which shot 30.06 caliber bullets. Stormer and others concluded that incompetence alone did not suffice to explain this or the other “errors” that occurred that day.
The Good Shepherd depicts CIA-directed B-26 Bombers providing air cover for the Bay of Pigs landing party, and being blown out of the sky by jets from the Cuban air force, who–thanks to the unintended leak to the KGB–knew exactly when and where to intercept the invaders. In reality, the only B-26s involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion at all engaged in a preliminary bombing and strafing run over Cuba two days before the invasion. The B-26s then returned to their base in Nicaragua to rearm and refuel. Once there, however, the B-26 crews received a cable from Washington ordering the cancellation of all further combat missions over Cuba.
Consequently, when 1,511 brave Cuban exiles were dropped on the beach of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, the air cover they had been promised, and were still expecting, never materialized–despite the fact that that air cover was essential to the success of the invasion. In short: the anti-communist Cuban soldiers at the Bay of Pigs were betrayed–but by deliberate duplicity, not loose lips.
Another aspect of the betrayal, documented in the Stormer book, is the fact that the Cuban anti-communist underground was not alerted as to the time and location of the invasion so that they could support it through simultaneous uprisings. Even worse, U.S.-based coordinators for the underground groups were rounded up by the CIA just before the invasion and then held incommunicado until the invasion had failed. But the CIA’s action to deny the Cuban underground the word they needed to support the invasion did not fit the movie’s depiction of the “untold story.”