A List of the Dumb Swag the FBI Made to Promote Its Dumb Propaganda Movie
The FBI made mousepads, water bottles, and a pawn-shaped stress ball to promote 'Game of Pawns,' a film urging study abroad students to not become traitorous spies.
Image: Jason Koebler
Earlier this year, a friend brought me a mysterious FBI-branded mousepad she had gotten from a conference in Washington, DC. It has a massive pawn chess piece on it, with the words "Don't Be a Pawn" and "Game of Pawns" plastered across the middle of it.
I immediately Googled Game of Pawns, and found that it's a very bad, pretty expensive anti-spying drama the FBI commissioned to persuade impressionable youths to not sell secrets to foreign governments.
The film, which is heavy-handed and unwatchable except as a piece of ironic entertainment for those who love to cringe, is based on Glenn Duffie Shriver, an American who studied abroad in Shanghai, was asked to provide the Chinese government with classified information, and was ultimately arrested. The film, a fictionalized version of his story, uses blatant shots of Washington DC's Chinatown to serve as "downtown Shanghai" and suffers from awful dialogue, bad timing, weird stereotypes, etc.
How much money had the agency spent on these damn mousepads? And was it only mousepads? How else had the agency promoted this piece of art?
The movie was created specifically so study abroad offices and university professors could warn their students that selling secrets to foreign governments is an illegal endeavor. From the film's original press release:
"The movie has played a significant role in our outreach efforts to educate American academia on how foreign intelligence services target and attempt to recruit American students studying abroad," Frank Montoya, the National Counterintelligence Executive, said. "Productions such as the movie Game of Pawns are essential and very practical tools for sensitizing the public and private sectors to our nation's growing counterintelligence mission."
I immediately wondered why the FBI was creating totally crazy, mostly fictional propaganda movies that tell people not to be spies, and wondered how much money the agency (and FBI Academy TV Studios, which is a thing) had wasted on this endeavor. Motherboard contributor Shawn Musgrave had previously learned that this cinematic masterpiece cost the agency at least $650,000 (the invoice docs he obtained are opaque and hard to parse). It's been viewed on YouTube 117,403 times, which has been its primary distribution method. Not exactly a blockbuster considering its budget.
But what about the mousepad? How much money had the agency spent on these damn mousepads? Had there been internal discussion about what taglines to put on it? Various designs to choose from? Who put these together? Do people even use mice anymore? And was it only mousepads? How else had the agency promoted this piece of art?
So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for "a budget and all proposed graphic designs for the Game of Pawns mouse pads and other promotional materials."
And then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. My request was given to a "disclosure analyst" and was backlogged several times. Presumably all 501 of the Department of Justice's FOIA officers were put on the job. Deadlines were pushed back and then pushed back again, I was informed in monthly updates. Babies grew up and became parents themselves. OK, actually, it only took slightly more than six months to get a final response (embedded below), but it felt like forever. I can only assume this was a "simple" request, so it took much longer than the agency's 44-day average for those types of requests, but took less than the 210-day average for a "complex" request, according to data published by FOIA.gov.
And I was initially bummed. The agency simply sent me the same budget documents it sent Musgrave, which does not have specific merchandising or promotional budgets.
But then there was a second file, one full of wonderful, wonderful advertising. Game of Pawns Post-it notes and Game of Pawns mousepads and Game of Pawns movie posters and Game of Pawns drawstring bag for chess pieces and Game of Pawns pawn-shaped stress balls. The black-and-white scanned photos really do look like one of the aforementioned FOIA officers specifically had to do a photoshoot to process my request. And so, here they are, every trinket the FBI made to advertise its dumb movie. If you've got a full set of it, please let me know.
Post it Notes
DVD Case, insert, and DVD
A drawstring bag (for all your chess pieces)
Fancy leather- or rubber-covered writing pad / business card holder
Movie poster (Tagline: "The opportunity of a lifetime. A lifetime of regret.")
Pawn-shaped stress balls (or maybe just regular pawn pieces, I can't tell from the photo alone)
I asked Musgrave, a FOIA expert, what I could do to figure out how many of these are in existence. Unfortunately, it sounds like we may never know: "Some depths are just unplumbable," he said.