Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 19, 2012

Poking Holes in Homeland

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on December 19, 2012

Just a warning: for fans of the hit Showtime cable television show “Homeland,” the following will either be informative or deflating.

Former White House Homeland Security Advisor and Deputy Commisioner for Counterterrorism at the NYPD Richard Falkenrath has penned a short Foreign Affairs article on the factual shortcomings of the show:

Homeland is immensely entertaining. But how well does it represent reality? In truth, only partially. As a depiction of how U.S. agencies actually go about tracking down and apprehending terrorists, the series misses the mark. It focuses on a few dramatic human-oriented counterterrorism operations that rarely make a difference in practice, and it overlooks the technological capabilities and bureaucratic systems that constitute the bedrock of the country’s counterterrorism apparatus. In short, Homeland portrays a CIA far less constrained than it is in real life but that nevertheless does not use some of the major tools of modern counterterrorism.

After pointing out many issues with the show’s depiction of counterterrorism policy in this country, Falkenrath highlights perhaps the biggest omission:

For all the powers that the creators of Homeland grant their CIA protagonists, they ignore one completely. In a real-world counterterrorism investigation, once a suspect is credibly identified, the single most important power of the U.S. government is electronic surveillance: the ability to ingest and analyze digital communications of suspect individuals, including phone calls, text messages, and e-mails. It has been the key to unraveling the vast majority of terrorist conspiracies since 9/11. In Homeland, technical surveillance is essentially an exercise in voyeurism.

He also points to a good thing (for us as citizens, not for the show):

There is indeed a real threat of terrorism in the United States, but the country has never faced a terrorist even remotely as competent and powerful as Abu Nazir. And that is a good thing, because such a foe could easily inflict civilian casualties far in excess of the nearly 3,000 who died on September 11, 2001. There would be simply too many vulnerabilities for him to exploit.

If you are a fan of the show, I would recommend reading the entire article.  It’s fun and informative.  As are the related pieces on other popular cable  programs and their relation to political science theory.

Getting back to “Homeland” for one last moment, Falkenrath misses what I consider the single biggest factual error in the show: the repeated delivery of Tim Hortons coffee.  While I am a big fan of this largely Canadian coffee and donut chain (think Dunkin Donuts), I can say with certainty that a store does not currently exist withing the metropolitan Washington, DC area.  Yet their delicious coffee has repeatedly made an appearance on the show.

Either the security professionals who dedicate their lives defending our freedoms have special access to “Double Doubles,” or the show is filmed in Toronto (which might also explain why outside of iconic shots of DC landmarks, referenced Washington neighborhoods and squares don’t quite conform to reality…).

(H/T to Paul Rosenzweig of the blog “Lawfare.”)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 19, 2012 @ 9:57 am

Perhaps a discussion of Richard Falkenrath’s career and his additions and subtractions to HS would be an appropriate blog post. He is perhaps the best example of the relatively young at the time of 9/11/01 who helped to design the current HS framework. Like others he often failed to note that the USA had been fighting terrorism domestic and international certainly since the time of the 1972 Olympic Games tragedy in MUNICH then in the FRG!

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 19, 2012 @ 10:08 am

Perhaps a history of the 20th Century will use 9/11/01 as the appropriate end of that Century as far as political/military/international history. Perhaps not!
Because of government secrecy even in the USA the real history of the 20th Century is only sketchily known including a history of the Cold War that can flesh out the brilliant efforts of John Lewis Gaddis and his biography of George Kennan.

As history is more of a continuum than many understand it is largely the revolution in technology that has empowered non-state actors and the failure of the governing classes to understand fully the implications of those technological changes.

It is almost laughable for example that the US Congress has failed to modernize the Coummincations Act of 1934 to deal with technological change. And that many lobbyists have little or no regard for threats direct and indirect through that technological change.

If Falkenrath in his article is correct then he fails to understand the flip side of the coin that favors the non-state actor, i.e. the cell phone and the ability to change SIM cards or use disposable cell phones for many purposes including initiating IEDs!

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 19, 2012 @ 10:38 am

One of the indicators of Falkenrath’s influence can be found in book NEXT GENERATION HOMELAND SECURITY authored by John Fass Morton and published in 2012.
Chapter 3 of that book specifically captioned “The Political Dynamics of the Creation of the Department of Homeland Security”!

As many of the readers of my comments on this blog know I have long predicted the breakup of DHS once Senator Lieberman departs. The Congressional oversight committees have largely failed to give constructive oversight and engaged in what I call “busy work” that fails to grasp the significance of DHS and it culture and dynamics for our Republic!


Well before this Adminstration ends its second term I will be able to tell you I told you so.

Comment by Michael Brady

December 19, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

What’s next, a repudiation of “The Walking Dead” by FEMA? Homeland is a TV show! Of course Falkenrath’s critique allows him a platform from which to shill for the Patriot Act and FISA authorized (and, implicitly, other unauthorized) domestic spying programs. Showtime and our alphabet agencies (real and imagined) say thank you.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 19, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

Michael! While endorsing your comment I would be much more comfortable if the Judiciary and academics [legal and other disciplines] had systematically reviewed the Patriot Act and FISA. The Patriot Act was largely adopted from a two decade old wish list that some in DoJ had desired for a long time. And FISA was in fact a reform when adopted.

What is of great interest to me is how both a corrupt [in the sense of lack of curiousity sustained concern about civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy] Congress, Judiciary, and Executive Branch continues to turn a blind eye on these concerns. Perhaps the very gravious charge against an Obama out of office was that he either was incompetent as a President or Constitutional lawyer and sacrificed the sinews of our democracy [Republic] for a system of situation ethics that justified nonfeasance as the rule of law. I leave to others charges of misfeasance and malfeasance but the judgment of history will be harsh IMO.And note that I did vote for Obama twice as the lesser of the evil choices presented. Use a long spoon when supping with the Devil!

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 19, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

I think the CDC has a stranglehold on the whole zombie genre, so look there for any “Walking Dead”-related analysis…

Bill: Not that Falkenrath needs my defense, but I would point out that he was pretty well-versed in terrorism issues prior to 9/11, having co-chaired Harvard’s “Executive Sessions on Domestic Preparedness” that began several years before that terrorist attack (http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/project/4/executive_session_on_domestic_preparedness.html) as well as having co-written “America’s Achilles’ Heel.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 19, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

Thanks Arnold! I agree he had an academic background in the subject but perhaps his own exposition of that experience and its post 9/11/01 application would be of great interest to me and others. Either by him or someone to whom he gave complete and open access. Note that I am a fan of Belfer Center and its domestic preparedness efforts and research and conclusions and recommendations, apparently official Washington involved in the same issues does not agree with me or Belfer.
Of course I always counted one of out ten a success in FEMA for my recommendations, or was it one out of 100?

Oh well some others must pick up the burden? I would enjoy a detailed tell-all by another Belfer person–before and after her Washington years–as to her experiences as an official and the interest in Intergovernmental Relations demonstrated by her superiors during her Washington years.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 19, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

Obviously referring to Juliette Kayemm!

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