Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 23, 2006

’24’ vs. Reality – Hollywood meets Homeland Security

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on June 23, 2006

The Heritage Foundation hosted an event this morning on “24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism” that was probably as close as the homeland security policy community will ever get to the world of the glitterati, bringing together think tankers with the producers and cast members of ’24’. The auditorium at the Reagan Building was packed with an overflow crowd (which included Justice Clarence Thomas) for the event. Homeland Security Watch was there.

Sec. Chertoff kicked things off with a few remarks before heading off to the DOJ press conference on the Miami terror plot (and adding a non-subtle jab at NYC and DC leaders that this plot proves that terrorism is a “national problem”). Turning to the show, he noted that it reflected real life in its portrayal of the decisions that leaders must make, constantly forced to choose “a best choice among a series of bad options” in an environment of imperfect information that always seems more orderly in hindsight. But he added that in real life, you can’t resolve problems in 24 hours, and that perseverance is the real key to winning the war on terror. And he noted that in reality successed depended not on the extraordinary feats of a Jack Bauer, but on the quiet, resolute work of thousands of “real heroes,” doing their jobs behind the scenes each day, at DHS, other agencies, and at the state & local level.

When asked how ’24’ compared to reality, he noted that “DHS doesn’t have an operations center like the CTU,” (although later it was pointed out that the set designer for ’24’ also helped design the operations center at the National Counterterrorism Center) and that unlike in ’24’, “we don’t get information using measures that violate the law.” And he wistfully noted that the governments’ technologies often paled in comparison to ’24’, commenting that he had never seen a computer crash on the TV show.

The event then shifted to a panel session moderated by Rush Limbaugh, featuring think tankers Jim Carafano from Heritage and my former boss David Heyman from CSIS (described by Limbaugh as the “token moderate” on the panel), along with producers Howard Gordon, Joel Surnow, and Robert Cochran, and actors Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe), Carlos Bernard (Tony), and Gregory Itzin (President Logan). (Click here for a larger pic).

The session was weighed down at times by Limbaugh’s tendentious and leading questions; he was constantly striving to get the panelists to confirm his notions that Hollywood, foreigners, and liberals don’t like the show and/or aren’t hip to the war on terror, rather than acting as a neutral, inquisitive moderator of the discussion. But in spite of that, the panel session was very interesting, and at times quite funny.

A lot of the discussion focused on the relationship between art and reality, looking at the extent to which ’24’ looks to the real war on terror for ideas and conversely, how government officials might consciously or unconsciously model their own decisions after the show. The producers noted that Seasons 2 and 4 were consciously drawn upon real events in the war on terror. And Limbaugh pointed out that a number of senior government officials – including Cheney and Rumsfeld – are fans of the show.

Is the conduct of the war on terror influenced by the show? The evidence was inconclusive, but Carafano made the point that it would be bad idea to execute the war on terror based on the show, commenting that “this is not how you stop terrorism.” Instead, he argued (echoing Chertoff’s earlier comments) that fighting terrorism involves a lot of unglamorous, mundane work over months and years, quietly taking place outside of the political and media cycle. He wistfully noted that he wished more people in the general public would spend as much time learning about and researching real homeland security and counterterrorism efforts as they do watching ’24’ – a sentiment with which I heartily concur.

The producers were asked a few times what sources they used for their plot lines. Their answer, by and large: “we make it up.” Carafano noted that he hoped would-be terrorists would use the show for the purposes of developing terrorist tradecraft; if they did, he said, they would likely fail miserably.

The discussion also touched upon the public reaction to the show. Surnow commented that “everybody from Rush to Barbra Streisand likes the show.” Heyman suggested a potential reason why the show resonates across the political spectrum: it allows the viewers to have both “justice” (nabbing the bad guys) and “process” (action within a legally-accepted system) – when in the real world it’s often difficult to have both. Carafano pointed out that most of the non-Americans with whom he’s discussed ’24’ enjoy the show, because of its quality, adding that people take away things from it based on their preconceived notions.

Some other interesting or humorous tidbits:

— Surnow noted that when he original came up with the idea for a show that takes places over 24 hours, his first thought was to do a romantic comedy that chronicles a wedding over the course of the day. Needless to say, it was a good move not to go with that.
— One of the producers joked that next season the bad guys will be “Swedish terrorists.” A joke perhaps – but then again, perhaps he hasn’t heard of surstr├â┬Âmming.
— When asked how ’24’ has changed her life, Rajskub wrily commented that “strangers touch me now,” and that “people think I’m a better person.” Later, apropos of nothing (and perhaps somewhat freaked out to be speaking at the Heritage Foundation with Clarence Thomas and Rush Limbaugh 10 feet away) she pointed out that she wasn’t wearing a bra.

Overall, a very interesting and fun event, the likes of which we’re unlikely to see again in the homeland security policy world for a long time to come. The full program is archived already on C-Span’s website as a video clip, and I imagine it’ll be re-airing on their stations over the weekend.

Update (6/23): The AP’s take on the event.

Update 2 (6/24): The Washington Post covers the event.

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