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.”)