Awesome Con opened the doors at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, for its seventh year on Friday. Every year, Awesome Con gets bigger – more celebrities, more artists, more fans. Now, it seems like there’s also more controversy.
As first reported by the website ComicsBeat, the CIA has a large presence at this year’s con, from logos on various signage, to a large exhibit booth, to several CIA-inspired panels. These panels include:
- S. Intelligence Community experts discussing how 3D modeling impacts national security
- CIA historians discussing various alien-looking ships created by the U.S., as well as Area 51
- The importance of librarians at the CIA
- Highlights of the CIA Museum
- And an interactive session where participants immerse themselves into the world of human intelligence (or HUMINT) to learn what it’s like to be a real CIA Directorate of Operations officer
Since the convention is located in the nation’s capital, it hasn’t been uncommon to see different government agencies in attendance throughout the years. NASA usually takes up several booths every year (since NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA’s headquarters are both in and around DC). The U.S. State Department has also provided panel discussions, along with many others.
‘This Is So Disappointing’
Despite other government agencies’ previous visits to Awesome Con, when those who planned on coming to the convention (and even though who weren’t) found out about the CIA’s involvement, the fans voiced their displeasure via social media.
Awesome Con tweeted out an image that included a woman, wearing a hijab, along with the CIA logo. The message accompanying the tweet, sent out on April 12, encourages attendees to the convention to look for their booth. It also includes a link to the CIA careers page.
Talk about superheroes! Employees at the @CIA may not have acquired their abilities from a radioactive spider or a benevolent wizard, but they do have remarkable superpowers to protect America.
— Awesome Con (@AwesomeCon) April 12, 2019
On April 23, three days before the convention opened, the CIA sent out a tweet with a series of comic book cover mock ups. “Something ‘awesome’ this way comes…#AwesomeCon” reads the tweet.
— CIA (@CIA) April 23, 2019
Fans were not shy about voicing their anger over the CIA’s inclusion at the convention.
Both the CIA and Awesome Con released official statements about the CIA’s involvement.
“Washington DC’s Awesome Con is a wide showcase of pop culture,” said Ron Brister, VP of Events for LeftField Media, which produces Awesome Con. “We’re a platform for comics, movies, games, television, and technology, and welcome members of the CIA and a number of local and national organizations to share stories of the technologies and people that have built pop culture and sci-fi for decades. We look to be a broad, inclusive event, and we evolve every year with valuable contributions from our fans.”
As for the CIA, a representative said the ads for the agency that appear on the website are, in fact, paid ads, much like the other advertisements on the site, and the agency is not a sponsor of the convention as a whole, just the information booth.
“The CIA views Awesome Con both as an opportunity to connect with the community and as a recruitment opportunity.” The representative called attendees ‘creative’ and ‘tech-savvy,’ and said those are the types of people for whom the agency is looking to recruit.
‘This Is DC, It’s Not Shocking’
At the convention, the CIA booth is in an area surrounded by other science, technology, and government bodies, including NASA. The messaging around the agency’s booth is clear – they are there to recruit those who are interested.
Talking to some of the attendees at the convention, the reactions to the CIA being there were mixed. Some who spoke about their displeasure would only provide their first names, citing fear of retribution.
“I think it’s just messed up, man,” said Peter, who would only say he lived somewhere ‘up north.’ “These are the same people who’ve killed and tortured innocent people, but you got them here recruiting? There are kids around here! I thought this show was supposed to be about the fans?”
“I’m not going anywhere near that area,” said Sara, who travelled with her young son from Pennsylvania. “It’s sad, too, because I wanted my son to see some of the space stuff over there. Maybe somebody will realize they made a mistake and not do this again.”
Speaking with a vendor from San Antonio, who would not provide his name, the CIA being there takes on a different meaning.
“As a person of Middle Eastern descent, it is very troublesome to me that they would be here. This is (an agency) that waterboarded, tortured, and killed innocents who look just like me. I am not afraid to be here, but I don’t think we will be back after this.”
Several fans, especially those who live in the area, had no problem with the CIA being there. For them, it’s pretty natural to have government agencies at different events just because of the location.
“This is DC, it’s not shocking,” said Steve Barrows of Tysons Corner, Va. “They have some pretty cool stuff over there and the people were friendly. I asked them some questions and they answered them. Plus, they had some nice swag, which helps.”
“To be honest, I actually feel safer knowing they’re here,” said Janet Wiseman, who would only say she was ‘a local.’ “It’s not that I don’t FEEL safe being here, but with the CIA here, if something should happen, I mean, you never know, right? The world we live in today and all.”
Jonathan Parker, a retired Naval officer, said he thinks people are looking for conspiracy theories that aren’t there, and that there’s nothing nefarious going on.
“They’re here recruiting. They know smart people come to these conventions and they want the best,” Parker said. “Every branch of the military goes out and recruits, this isn’t any different. They’re not trying to steal people’s information here. I just think people will always find something to bitch about, and this just happens to be the target for the moment.”
As of right now, there is no word on whether or not the CIA will be at Awesome Con next year.