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The Intelligence-Hollywood-Industrial Complex

Shocking confession alert: I just started watching Homeland. (In related news, my wife and I just decided to stop watching Homeland.) I get it, I’m a year late to the “Homeland is (or was) awesome” party.

When I bring Homeland up in conversation, I get one question over and over, “So...is it accurate?” People know that I worked in intelligence and that I write a blog on national security, so I must have some insight. I mean, Sergeant Brody was snatched out of the Korengal valley. I’ve been there!

As Eric C and I launch into a week(s) of Oscar-movie talk, it seems necessary to discuss the larger relationship of Hollywood and national security. People ask me about Homeland, for example, because they want to know the difference between reality and fiction. On one hand, everyone watching Homeland (or any other television show) inherently knows it isn’t real. On the other, do they?

Take crime shows and the “Perry Mason syndrome”. In the sixties, juries stopped convicting defendants because they didn’t crack on the stand and confess their guilt...the way Mason could always make them.

In the modern era, we’ve seen “the CSI effect”. Most crime labs are pretty boring, technologically wanting, and drastically underfunded affairs. Lots of forensic pathology is downright inept. (Do yourself a favor and watch this entire Frontline episode.) But shows like CSI: Miami, CSI: New York and CSI: Bakersfield treat forensics with a reverence that makes Jesus look flawed. As a result, juries either convict people based on flawed forensic data, or refuse to convict unless they have overwhelming forensic evidence.

Medical shows get in on the act too. In real life, CPR works less than 10% of the time. On television, it works 95% of the time. As a result, most Americans think CPR always works. In reality, it rarely does.

For most Americans, their “national security education” comes from Homeland, the Call of Duty franchise, 24 and now Zero Dark Thirty. What does contemporary national security media teach us? Well...

Myth 1: Intelligence works all the time. Nope. Intelligence is an inexact science. By inexact, I mean vague and filled with complexity, fog and mystery.

Even the most damning evidence--which comes rarely--is often wrong or misinterpreted. Sure, plenty of dedicated professionals have devoted their lives to intelligence, and do yeoman’s work, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong more often than they are right.

In the 24’s and Zero Dark Thirty’s of the world, though, intelligence always wins. Isn’t that the moral of the story in Zero Dark Thirty? One intelligence analyst finding the “magic bullet” of a courier who led us directly to bin Laden. In reality, for ten years prior,  intelligence analysts often thought they had found that one true lead, only to chase down another rabbit hole to nowhere. The real bin Laden story would be the HBO version of How I Met Your Mother meets intelligence; the analysts wouldn’t get the real lead until the last season.

(This is confessional as well as accusatory; I made tons of mistakes in my time as an analyst.)

Myth 2: Torture works. In Homeland, stab someone in the hand and you get your result. In 24, well, let’s just say Jack Bauer always gets the answer. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 uses a car battery to find out where to go next. In Zero Dark Thirty, well, apparently that box they shoved the guy in did the trick. In other words, torture always works...on television.

On Violence’s official opinion on torture upsets both sides of the debate. Sometimes, torture works. More often, it doesn’t. When it does work, knowing whether you’ve received good or bad intel is nearly impossible without corroborating evidence (er intelligence). Torture is always morally abhorrent. Since torture is morally reprehensible, as a society, we shouldn’t even discuss it. However, like CPR in hospital shows and confessing murderers on legal shows, most terror-hunting TV shows and films only show the upside. (It worked successfully twice in Homeland; more if you count Sergeants Brody and Walker’s captivity. In Zero Dark Thirty they never tortured the wrong people.)

Myth 3: “Kill teams” are running around the globe killing people. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Act of Valor and Homeland have a seemingly limitless supply of uber-badass SEALs (They’re all SEALs now. Sorry D-boys.) to capture and kill suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, 99% of JSOCs missions over the last ten years have taken place in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. JSOC does partner with countries around the globe, but they aren’t running kill teams. They also don’t do nearly as many missions as movies imply.

The worst offenders in this category were the training-film-turned-publicity-piece Act of Valor that spanned the globe in unrealistic fashion and the Call of Duty franchise, which turns half the world into a warzone that SEALs wade through in pursuit of Russian “terrorists”.

All this begs the question, why are they doing it?

Myth 4: To keep you safe. Terrorists hunters on Homeland have a very clear purpose: people want to kill you and your family right now. 24 stopped a terrorist every season. In Call of Duty, Russia invaded America, with a general in husky voice telling us, “The world has changed and it needs people to keep you safe.”

According to these shows, we must remain ever vigilant, running torture programs and extraordinarily renditioning of innocent people to keep frightened Americans safe. Claire Danes’ Carrie in Homeland repeats this refrain in nearly half the episodes. Call of Duty’s bizarro quotes advocate a realist foreign policy premised on a scary and dangerous world.

As a result, most Americans overestimate the risk of terrorism. We don’t need a super-empowered CIA/JSOC to keep us safe. We could save a lot of money trimming their budgets. By watching television, though, most Americans will never understand that. (The secrecy doesn’t help either.)

thirteen comments

You guys are so down-to-earth realists. Thanks for the read.

I’ve tried to explain this over and over to my friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, etc. Thanks for putting this in simple terms and coming from an “operator” gives it heavier weight than I ever could. I have always said cops (flatfoots and detectives, not APC riding, gun monkeys) and a sense of citizenship for every person next to you will provide the protection we ask need and desire.

The influence of entertainment (including the entertainment that claims to offer political information) on perceptions is indeed great.

I’ve had his in a recent blog post about how misinformed public opinion can be because of published opinion.

The “24” phenomenon is a stark one which I mentioned privately before as well. Some media fashions amount to propaganda, and have become so incredibly self-evident that people can discuss why Western info war is inferior to AQ info war.
Dudes, AQ info war is ridiculously inferior; you just mistake Western propaganda for normal. AQ convinces only the handful of leftover idiots.

Brown Arabs with shemagh have been the favourite Hollywood baddies since the early 90’s (remember all those awful Michael Dudikoff C-movies?). There has been a propaganda war going on for decades, and by now people don’t even recognise it as such.

SO, its like you beat me to the punch everytime.

Also, if anyone else has any other good examples, I would love to read them.

To be clear, I don’t think the intelligence community funds Hollywood, but it clearly works with Hollywood to tell its story in more flattering lights. More on this aspect this week and next.

I suppose the LGBT folks were (probably inadvertently) masterful at exploiting the phenomenon.

Likeable, harmless lesbian or gay characters were introduced in TV series (Will & Grace, 1998+) and few years later the public opinion on gays turns gay-haters into outcasts. The U.S. as a whole may still have a rather high percentage of gay haters (men tend to hate lesbians less than gays…guess why), but gay discrimination in armed forces and bans on homo marriage fell nevertheless.

Russia is now characterised as almost barbaric in its treatment of gays for a law which looks harmless in comparison to anti-gay laws which were in force in Western countries only 20, 30 years ago.

In Hollywood the Intelligence Community comprises the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA. And the CIA operates domestically and the NSA has a paramilitary function.

I think one TV show that brushed up against what working in intelligence analysis was really like was Rubicon.
Well-educated and professionally curious people, reading stacks and stacks of things looking for patterns, writing up anything they found of interest.
Reading and reading and reading, day after day after day.
On occasion they got to leave the nondescript building in New York City where they read things (also typically, their employer was a private sector company whose sole client appeared to be the US government).
And there was a consipiracy-of-war-profiteers-at-the-top mystery to keep things moving along, but otherwise very little happened in each episode to keep people excited, which is why the show lasted only 13 episodes.
Anyway, the closest Hollywood got to how a real analyst lives, I think.

Well-educated and professionally curious people, reading stacks and stacks of things looking for patterns, writing up anything they found of interest.
Reading and reading and reading, day after day after day.
And there was a consipiracy-of-war-profiteers-at-the-top mystery to keep things moving along, but otherwise very little happened in each episode to keep people excited, which is why the show lasted only 13 episodes.

In other words, Three Days of the Condor minus Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and the exciting parts.


Yeah, I agree with you guys that intelligence is mainly reading. When it comes to Cold War intelligence, Tom Clancy did a good job describing Jack Ryan doing intel by reading and piecing it together. Then sometime after 9/11 he got away from Cold War intel and it got a little weird. But those’re book and not nearly as popular as the movies and tv shows I mentioend.

Nobody takes Call of Duty seriously that I know. But it is still a crappy game.

You’re goddamn spot on with the “CSI” analysis bro. Unfortunately for our (sorry-ass) world, female supermodels do not run-and-gun suspects after a single microscope viewing.

The fictional “CSI” shows won’t dare to depict an actual forensic investigation; it would just turn into a very long, miniseries-esque Dateline NBC or 20/20 episode which about 200 interested individuals on the planet would watch. One-quarter of the episode would just be detectives driving back and forth exchanging manila folders and envelopes.

Good read, though. Thanks.