Chris Whipple on Spymasters and the ‘Sobering’ New Security Threats

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsIt 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.

Chris Whipple and Diane Clehane
Chris Whipple and Diane Clehane

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.