It was wall-to-wall mavens, moguls and machers at Michael’s today. ‘Tis the season and all that. I was joined by media multi-hyphenate Chris Whipple, whose work as a journalist, writer and documentary filmmaker has garnered him a case full of Peabody and Emmy Awards — and more war stories than I could possibly even try to cram into one column. When Judy Twersky asked me if I’d like to ‘Lunch’ with Chris to talk about his latest project, The Spymasters, the new documentary on the CIA which includes interviews with all 12 of the agency’s living directors, airing tonight and available on demand on Showtime, I jumped at the chance.
As I made my way through Grand Central and up Fifth Avenue, taking note of the increased military and police presence along the route, I knew what my first question to Chris would be. Having conducted more than 100 hours of interviews with all 12 living CIA directors, which included sit downs with Leon Panetta, George Tenet and current director John Brennan, just how safe does he think we are from this new wave of terrorism? He told me, “On the one hand, I’m encouraged by the dedication of some really smart people working to keep us safe. The bad news is, in the case of [the attacks in] Paris and San Bernardino, there was no warning. We’re in a whole new phase. The level of secrecy of these operatives is a sobering thought.”
Last month, on the eve of The Spymasters’ premiere, Chris penned a piece for Politico entitled ‘The Attacks Will Be Spectacular,‘ which previewed the documentary’s stunning revelations about how the Bush administration ignored the urgent—and very specific—warnings of the CIA in advance of the 9/11 attacks. The piece garnered nearly 37.8K shares and made headlines around the world. “In the spring of 2001, George Tenet asked for the authority to paramilitary action again Al Qaeda, he was ignored,” said Chris. “I had read about [the meetings] and was still shocked when I learned the chilling details.”
Acknowledging that the film is “tragically timely,” Chris told me The Spymasters took a year and a half from start to finish. His co-producers on the film were Jules Naudet and Gedeon Naudet (9/11); Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly and CBS senior executive producer Susan Zirinsky. “It was the perfect team. Jules and Gedeon are brilliant directors with a great eye.” In the life imitating art department, Homeland star Mandy Patinkin is the film’s narrator. “He was at the top of our list and he liked the idea,” said Chris. “He wanted to send the script to Claire [Danes] and the show’s headwriters and we said, ‘Go ahead!’ Chris described the actor as “very intense” telling me, “He feels the show hasn’t gotten Muslims right. He takes it all very seriously.”
While scripted dramas like Homeland are always on the radar of television executives, the real life events that inspired them are not. “Documentaries are a tough sell,” said Chris, who is thrilled that Showtime is airing the film. “We wound up in a good place—and the good news is there has never been so many platforms for the film to be seen.”
With all the secrecy surrounding the agency, Chris told me getting the directors to agree to be interviewed wasn’t as difficult as he’d expected. “We worked on them one at a time,” he told me, referring to how he went about securing their cooperation. George Tenet was “the last holdout” having not given an interview in eight years. Chris’ previous film, The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, a documentary on White House chiefs of staffs, served as a good calling card. “[The subjects of that film] thought we were tough but fair,” making it somewhat easier to convince interviewees for The Spymasters they’d get the same treatment.
“All the directors had very different personalities,” he noted, polishing off his scallops. He learned Panetta is a “devout Catholic” who is never without his rosary beads and described both him and Tenet as “no bullshit leaders.” The underlying quality needed for the job said Chris, is the ability “to hold their own with the White House.” The most shocking discovery: “The extent to which the CIA directors make life and death decisions all the time because there is this idea that the CIA is always calls The White House [for direction.]”
He pointed to one chilling anecdote shared by Leon Panetta in the film, where he received word while at the funeral of CIA operative Elizabeth Hanson, who was killed in 2009, that the mastermind of the suicide bombing was in the cross hairs of a drone over Pakistan, but “there were women and children in the shot.” Said Chris, “He called the White House to walk through the decision and they said, ‘It’s on you.’ Ultimately, he made the call to take the strike. He said, ‘These are difficult decisions but this is a war.'”
Having worked at 60 Minutes (where his first day on the job he was sent to fill in for Diane Sawyer and interview Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos) and ABC News PrimeTime, he is happiest now helming is own company, CCWHIP Productions. “I love what I do. I can walk across to the park for a production meeting and meet Jules and Gedeon for coffee and croissants. I like to tease my news colleagues about that.”
Chris is currently working on a new book about White House chiefs of staff, due out from Crown in 2017 and an updated version of The Spymasters is set to air on CBS next May. “I hope we’re able to show how staying safe while preserving our values is complicated,” said Chris as we finished our coffee. “It’s not easy and [the solution] is not as simple as barring Muslims from entering the country or carpet bombing Syria.”
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Mary Boies
2. Jonathan Wald (Happy Birthday!)and John Sykes
3. Laurie Tisch and Mickey Ateyeh
4. Jon Corzine; Act two: Bisila Bokoko and pals
5. Jerry Inzerillo
6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Andy Bergman and Jerry Della Femina
7. Andrew Stein
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia
9. Star Jones
11. Laurie Haspel Aronson and her sister Wendy Haspel. The ladies told me they were in town for some Haspel meetings and for some serious shopping. Turns out Laurie’s daughter Anna Haspel Aronson is Queen of the Washington, DC Mardi Gras Ball and they need glam gowns for the affair.
12. Tracey Jackson
14. Frank McCourt
15. Paul Wilmot (Loved the leather jacket!)
16. Susan Duffy
17. Fred Zollo and Boaty Boatwright
18. LAK PR CEO Lisa Linden who I ‘Lunched’ with last week with her colleague Mollie Fullington and the Hon. David J. Ayres and Bruce Barket from Barket Marion Epstein & Kearon, LLP
20. Joan Gelman and Sandy Pearl
21. Chris Meigher and Michael Wolff
22. Stephen D. Greenberg
23. MSG’s David O’Connor
24. Jack Kliger and Amy Griggs Kliger with author and lecturer Deborah Burns.
25. Marshall Cohen
26. Barry Frey and Greg Kahn
27. Mary Cosette; Second seating: writer P.J. O’Rourke with Douglas Tirola and Susan Bedusa of 4th Row Films. P.J. has a new book out, Thrown Under the Omnibus and appears in the latest film Douglas and Susan directed and produced, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (catchy title, no?) which premiered at Sundance and is being released by Magnolia Films. A little birdie told me the trio were talking over their next big deal today.
28. Chris Whipple and yours truly
29. Niche Media’s Jim Smith
81. Vicky Ward
Faces in the crowd: Producer Beverly Camhe fresh off her trip to Art Basel … Kira Semler and Vi Huse mixing it up for the holiday lunch by sitting in the Garden Room.
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.