The National Security Agency was worried about their image when the 1999 blockbuster Will Smith film Enemy of the State was released. In an interview with CNN in 2001, then-NSA chief Michael Hayden invited the cable news network to profile the agency in part because of the movie.
The film revolves around attempts by Congress, pressed by the National Security Agency, to pass a bill which would expand the agency’s surveillance powers. Rogue NSA agents kill a U.S. congressman who opposes the bill in a park, only to realize they were recorded by a bird watcher. The bird watcher, chased by the NSA, passes the information along to Will Smith’s character — and Smith’s character then finds his phones tapped, clothing bugged, house burglarized, among other attempts by the agency to get Smith.
“I made the judgment that we couldn’t survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie,” Hayden said in the interview, which aired in March 2001.
“When Gen. Michael Hayden saw the movie, he saw a problem — an image problem. That is in part why the NSA decided to let CNN inside the NSA to see where code breakers gather, and code makers protect the nation’s secrets,” CNN’s David Ensor narrated in the segment. “Above all, Hayden knows NSA cannot afford to be seen as trampling on the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.”
“It has to be somewhat a secretive agency, and right in the middle of a political culture that just trusts two things most of all: power and secrecy,” Hayden continued. “That’s a challenge for us, and that’s why, frankly, we’re trying to explain what it is we do for America, how it is we follow the law. Could there be abuses? Of course. Would there be? I am looking you and the American people in the eye and saying: There are not.”
In an interview with New York Magazine in 2013, Enemy of the State screenwriter David Marconi said he met with the Department of Defense after his film was released.
“The Department of Defense asked me to come down and speak to them after the film came out. I met CIA guys and NSA guys,” Marconi said. “I found them all to be very professional. They were very focused on the mission and on defending the country. I didn’t walk away with a sense that any of them were malevolent. But some of them also had a very myopic view—here’s what you do, and you sit at your computer and you do it.”
Interestingly, Hayden also said in the interview the NSA had “not spied on Americans since the ’70s, after it was found to be eavesdropping on Jane Fonda, Doctor Benjamin Spock, and other anti-Vietnam war activists. Hayden also said reports the NSA exchanged industrial espionage against European companies was “absolutely not true.”
Many of the NSA’s most controversial activities began after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, seven months after the CNN interview aired.
The NSA has been accused of instances of industrial espionage recently. According to documents released by former contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA conducted surveillance on Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras.