DVD Interview : Milton Bearden


The CIA advisor on “The Good Shepherd”

Milton Bearden is a CIA advisor who worked alongside director Eric Roth and Robert De Niro to produce the project, “The Good Shepherd”. He has previously also worked with De Niro on the Universal Studios’ hit “Meet the Parents”. He now currently lives in Virginia and has written various books on his experiences, as well as assisting with the production of various spy based films. MOVIEHOLE chats with Milton about the DVD release of “The Good Shepherd”.

Q: How did you get involved with this project?
MB: It was like one of those Washington/New York spy stories. In 1997 Bob De Niro was talking to Richard Holbrook about an idea to do something on the CIA, and Holbrook took a cocktail napkin and wrote a phone number on the back of it and gave it to De Niro, and it was my phone number and he called me and we started on the project 9 years ago.

Q: Was that similar to the proposal De Niro came to you with?
MB: He didn’t have a proposal. He wanted to do something about it that had never been done before. He wanted to take an audience somewhere they hadn’t been before like he’d done with Marty Scorsese in the Godfathers, but he didn’t know what it was yet. So he was just starting to look at that world. I suppose when he did Taxi Driver he probably didn’t get a book on driving taxis or take a road test, I think he probably got in a taxi and drove it in New York, or went to a fire station and worked for Backdraft. So we took off and not long after that we were in Moscow in a KGB sporting club sauna with a bunch of KGB generals and De Niro’s just sitting there watching this and soaking it up and then getting in to finding out what that world’s all about. This was in 1997, after all of my old KGB adversaries were out as well as I am. So we’re back and doing that and floating down the Moscow River with guys, one of whom was the chairman of the KGB for one day under Mikhail Gorbachev after that coup attempt to him and he finally… a brilliant guy. De Niro has grown up in a world where we had so demonized KGB and the Soviet Union that we never understood the humanity of them and who they were so he wanted to cut through that and do this. And we spent a lot of time and went back and forth from Moscow and dealt with these people. We spent a lot of time in Berlin with Markus Wolf, who is one of the great old characters of the spy world. And he just took it until I looked at Bob one day and said, “I think maybe you now know as much about this as maybe I do?” And I spent the last 10 years of my career, one way or another, dealing with the KGB.

Q: What do you think the CIA thinks about this movie?
MB: There are very few people in the CIA, even one generation after the era we are dealing with here. There is nobody in the CIA that remembers the stuff that we are trying to tell here. We are taking them where they’ve never been as well, because you don’t get the CIA history book when you join the CIA today. That’s all an oral history or locked away. So this will be unknown to them as well. It never occurred to me or to De Niro to worry about it one way or another what they thought about it or endorsed it or did anything. I did indeed go out to CIA with him and wander around and say hello to the director and things like that, but it was not to seek anything. He was going to do this film and it was Eric Roth’s screenplay. Will they like it? I think that some of the old guys, and they would be in their 80s now, might be uncomfortable with a couple of things that we could explain to them and metaphorically they add to the impact of the movie, but it’s certainly like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The only thing that would come close to it were a couple of the early Le Carres, that would have pieces that were real.

Q: Is it typical that this character would be a bureaucrat?
MB: No, not a prototype. It’s a fairly honest composite. It’s an honest composite of 3, 4, or 5 people who took over the CIA. The CIA was created from like zero to 100 miles per hour overnight, or in a couple of seconds, mainly by the National Security Act of 1947. I went in as like a First Lieutenant level and rose to 3 stars. They started out there, and in America Incorporated, in those days, was that kind of clubby thing where you started out in Andover and Yale and maybe Skull and Bones, and it was the power in Washington.

Q: Were you a Skull and Bones guy?
MB: No, I was not.

Q: Were you an outsider at the CIA?
MB: I went to Yale, but not in Skull and Bones. I’m a Catholic, but I was born in Oklahoma. The generation we are telling this story about began to fade after the Bay of Pigs for a couple of reasons. One, their time was up, but secondly, the cultural revolution in America was the Second World War, which gave you the GI Bill, which gave 12 million American men and women who’d been in uniform a chance to go to college and they were not the sons and daughters of guys who’d all gone to college before. It was a huge change in the way America worked and by the 60s they were starting to move up and take over and CIA changed it’s character along with it, as did America. In this movie at a time when the Secretary of State is one brother and the CIA Director is the other brother, what kind of a sweetheart deal is that? Plus their classmates run the NSC.

Q: Why did you join the CIA?
MB: I got recruited. It was 1964 and you had this era when Kennedy had called people to arms and I’d spent 4 years in the Air Force and was back in college doing some work on a doctorate in teaching at the University of Texas. In those days there were professors on campuses all over America who would recommend people to the CIA and they came and talked to me. They asked if I wanted to work for the next 2.5 years and get my doctorate and teach, or do I want to do this? I said, “Help me pack. Let’s get out of here!” And I went to Washington and then off to Germany.

Q: Was it a romantic notion?
MB: In this movie the one thing I think Eric would tell you is if he were to put any words into the script it would be among those things that the Englishman tells Edward Wilson that you have to have, commitment to a mission, inquisitiveness, and this and that, and be a hopeless romantic. I think there’s a certain amount of that to be sure. And being a romantic in 1964 is not hard.

Q: Why did you leave them?
MB: It was 30 years, but I left for a couple of reasons. Thirty years was enough because I went in at the same time that the Chinese blew up their bomb and Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown and we kind of slipped into this game in the third world and I left right after we attended the final march out of Berlin when the British, French, Americans and Russians finally left and the Cold War was absolutely over. There was unpleasantness I was caught up in with this Aldrich Ames thing where CIA kind of lost its way pointing fingers on who let Aldrich Ames spy against us. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. You guys can go ahead and tear yourselves up if you want. It was a bad time for the CIA, but a good time for me to get out.

Q: Do you have an explanation for 9/11?
MB: Gosh, I don’t know if anybody can ever expect to see something like that coming. Evan Thomas of Newsweek called it in his first article after 9/11 that it was a failure of imagination and I’m sure it was. Could anybody have said before that people are going to try to ram planes into the WTC and the Pentagon? They tried before and we missed it. Just like we had all those signs for Pearl Harbor and we missed it. What I would fear now is not a failure of imagination but too much imagination where people will say this, this, and this will happen unless we take this part of the First Amendment off line and this part of the Fifth Amendment off line or maybe we take the constitution and put it in the cooler for a while? I think that would be a grotesque failure of imagination.

Q: Did you say that in the CIA?
MB: I didn’t have to. If you google me you’ll find that I have a byline in the New York Times Op/Ed page and I’m on record about all these things.

Q: So what is the role of the CIA now?
MB: I don’t know that it knows. We went through all this thing and created a new layer of the Director of National Intelligence. We’ve got great risks within the CIA and we are going to see a real roller coaster right now with the Democratic Congress when they come back in January, when they rightly start bringing in people on subpoenas and start getting into not just failures of intelligence, but failures of policy and things that have happened, with Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or renditions of interrogations. I think all that’s going to come in America and it’s up to America to decide what kind of country it is.

Q: Is the CIA the voice of reason now?
MB: It was all part of the game. The CIA and also the KGB was demonised around the world, but that was because CIA and KGB were doing that to each other. For a while there not a bird flew nor a leaf fell that the CIA didn’t either cause or know about. The KGB was the same thing, but I’ve always been able to deal with the moral equivalency thing straight forward. When people say the CIA and KGB are the same I ask them from 1917 to 1991 how many Americans died at the hands of their government, extra judicially? Let’s start a list. And then how many died the same way during that time in the Soviet Union? And you turn to the Russians for their figures and they say 53 million. If you came up with a list of Americans I would let you round it up to the nearest 10, but that’s just the moral equivalency thing. These are all good questions.

Q: What about more recently?
MB: People say that we fought in Afghanistan against the Russians and that caused 9/11, but you’d have to be one of those Americans that was taught history by the football coach, and that’s a lot of people. To ignore everything in the history of the Western contact with the Arabs, I don’t insist you go back to Saladeen and Richard the Lionheart, but you ought to at least go back to the end of the Ottoman Empire and Paris 1919 to 1922 and then the humiliation that has been heaped on Arabs. And the one thing you can do to Arabs that will be sure to cause you trouble is humiliate them. And so I don’t think they knocked off a super power and then decided to go after the other super power. I think a great mistake was made by the United States by walking away from Afghanistan after the Soviets left. And that cost us.

Q: Have you read the Carter book?
MB: I haven’t but I’ve been listening to him. It’s stunning what Carter is doing out there. I’m sure that he’s going to get run over by a Checker Cab in New York.

Q: Why hasn’t the early CIA story been told before?
MB: I don’t think anybody set out to do it until De Niro decided to do it and to do it his way, which is a unique De Niro thing. I joined the CIA in the 60s and the spy films were all the Sean Connery stuff and it was great entertainment and had nothing to do with anything. So De Niro said he wanted to do this and he’s done it.

Q: Why was the Jesus character called Jesus?
MB: His name was James Jesus Angleton. His mother was Hispanic so it was ‘Hay-Zeus’. We never called him James Jesus Angleton. That’s kind of after the media got hold of the guy. It was Jim Angleton and he was a strange guy. As a young officer sometimes you’d go to lunch and there was Jim with a standup martini.

Q: Are there fewer worries about the secrets now that time has passed?
MB: I don’t even know that I know a secret to compromise that is before 1961. You can’t compromise the Bay of Pigs and you can’t compromise anything in there and Bob has never asked anything like that. Real secrets are boring anyhow. And this movie doesn’t bore you, that’s for sure, but it takes you into that world as opposed to giving you lists of secrets, which wouldn’t be interesting.

Q: Were conservatives bad for national security in this period?
MB: I think we are going to go through a huge readjustment in America of who are we and what was this all about. I said that’s the end of an era, the WASPs out of Yale, but in the 2004 election you had two guys from Skull and Bones. But that’s just a blip. We can’t see that again. Although how many Skull and Bones presidents in my lifetime!

Q: Who shot Kennedy?
MB: Lee Harvey Oswald, all by himself.