spies, national security, espionage, counterterrorism, u.s. foreign policy, intelligence operations, CIA, special forces, counterterrorism, terrorism

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Finally, a TV Spy Drama That Gets It Right on Torture

Homeland,” the buzz-generating serial thriller on Showtime, finally got something right the other night: How to interrogate a terrorist. 

Much about the show, starring Claire Danes as a manic-depressive CIA counterterrorism agent, is downright ridiculous, of course, starting with her obsession that she was somehow singularly responsible for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks. 

In reality, not a single CIA official took blame for the manifold intelligence failures of 9/11, much less resigned over them.

Also in the show, Danes’s character Carrie Mathison gets green-lighted by her mentor to run an off-the-books, round-the-clock video surveillance of a U.S. Marine whom she suspects of having been “turned” by terrorists who held him in captivity for eight years. For days on end, she and a CIA techie watch his every move.

Now that’s funny.

The agency may not be “run by the ACLU,” as the increasingly desperate Michele Bachmann maintained in the latest Republican debate, but domestic spying has been the CIA’s third rail since the Watergate era: Spying on U.S. citizens on U.S. soil is strictly illegal for the CIA--and highly, highly unlikely to be undertaken alone by a low level field operative, much less with the approval of  a senior agency official.

Not that the CIA is prohibited from domestic operations: the spy agency has scores of domestic field offices conducting operations against foreign targets--diplomats, scientists, businessmen, students, and so on--in the United States. But domestic CIA counterterrorism cases against U.S. targets on U.S. soil are strictly forbidden. They are the responsibility of the FBI, not the CIA, and, as far as we know, a restriction rigorously enforced.

So it’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine that Carrie’s mentor, the CIA’s Middle East Division chief,  would give her the leeway to send a technical team into the home of  a U.S. Marine-- one being celebrated as a national hero, no less--to watch his every move--including his bedroom moves--for days on end.

Nope, nope, nope. In today’s CIA, already scorched over “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “extraordinary renditions,” it ain’t gonna happen. It's career suicide.

But Homeland did get something right in its latest episode: the skillful interrogation of a young American woman who’s been unmasked as an al Qaeda recruit, by Carrie’s mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin).

Now, it’s ridiculous that Berenson breaks the woman while driving her back to Washington--just the two of them, trailed at a discreet distance by the FBI--from the Mexican border town where she was picked up. Ain’t gonna happen: a secure room is where stuff like that goes down, needless to say. 

But Berenson’s skillful employment of empathy, gentle elicitation and--make no mistake about it, the hint of far worse that could happen if she doesn’t cooperate with him--eventually draws her out. She confesses to her role in an ongoing terrorist plot.

You might say it’s the way life should be, the way it’s supposed to be done.

And in fact has been done, with great success, by the FBI and, yes, the CIA itself, for decades before the armchair Torquemadas of the Bush administration took over.

Now, a TV generation weaned on 24’s Jack Bauer and other hair-trigger counterterrorism agents may find such gentle techniques unbelievable. But in “Homeland,” the truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is the truth.

[See also "Homeland: Does it get Washington Right?" by the Washington Post's Reliable Source reporter Amy Argetsinger.]