E73: re:joinder - The CIA's Podcast

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By re:verb, Calvin Pollak, and Alex Helberg. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

We at re:verb can neither confirm nor deny whether the truth will set you free - but it certainly provides good fodder for rhetorical criticism! On today’s show, Alex and Calvin present a re:joinder episode with a unique rhetorical artifact: an “unclassified” podcast recently released by one of the most secretive intelligence agencies in the world, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The first episode of The Langley Files: A CIA Podcast features hosts “Dee” and “Walter” interviewing current CIA Director Bill Burns about the history and current state of the agency, in their own words. But, of course, there’s more to it than that! We examine this podcast as a rhetorical genre with a specific social action in mind: gaining the assent and trust of the center-left-aligned American public, and recruiting educated liberals to work for the agency.

From their straight-out-of-true-crime theme music to the hosts’ vocal performances echoing the likes of Sarah Koenig and Roman Mars, we note the eerie formal parallels between The Langley Files and some of the most popular informative/investigative podcasts currently running. In addition, we talk about some of the new (and some old) propaganda tropes that the CIA uses to describe its work, from its essentially “apolitical” function, “working in secrecy to protect the American people”, “organizing assets to do hard work in hard places,” all the way to the now-vaunted “competition” amongst “great powers” (a.k.a. the U.S. and China). We also critique and contexualize the strange virtue-signaling at play in how the CIA describes two of its recent “successes”: their prediction that Russia was going to invade Ukraine earlier this year, and their targeted assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

What emerges from our analysis is a clearer picture of why the CIA might produce a podcast like this. For one, they outline a need to recuperate the agency’s image in the face of what they call “a short supply” of “trust in institutions” from the American public. But more troublingly, we theorize that this podcast is designed as an avenue for humanizing the labor of the people who work in the agency, and as a way of recruiting educated liberals who face slim job prospects and harbor revulsion for the reactionary, anti-“deep state” American right-wing.

Works and Concepts Cited in this Episode

CIA's own journal on what the Intelligence Community means by "customers"

"Humans of CIA" Recruiting Video

Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi's thread on the US role in propping up recently elected far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni

Lee, M. A. (2001, 1 May). The CIA’s worst-kept secret: Newly declassified files confirm United States collaboration with nazis. Foreign Policy in Focus.

Mitchell, G. R. (2006). Team B intelligence coups. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 92(2), 144-173.

New Yorker report on CIA's targeting of military-age males in Pakistan for drone strikes.

Rosenberg, C. (2019). What the CIA’s torture program looked like to the tortured. The New York Times.

Weiner, T. (2008). Legacy of ashes: The history of the CIA. Anchor.

Wikipedia article for “Limited Hangout”

An accessible transcript of this episode can be found here

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