The CIA celebrated the new season of Showtime's "Homeland" on September 9th at its Langley, Virginia headquarters. It was a "frank and free exchange about the entertainment business and the intelligence business that revealed a lot of parallels," commented Alex Gansa, co-creator of the show.
Under United States law, however, it is illegal for government agencies like the CIA to use taxpayer resources for self-aggrandizing and covert communications that amount to "puffery" or organizational propaganda, language that seems to apply directly to the CIA's secretive "entertainment industry liaison" office, created in 1996 to shape the perception of the Agency in America's entertainment culture.
The Langley events featured an appearance by John Brennan, who took the actor Mandy Patinkin on a tour of his personal office. According to an awestruck columnist Maureen Dowd, the "glamorous" Washington reception for the film's premiere drew "a gaggle of current agency staffers", former director Michael Hayden, former acting director Michael Morell, and Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA's clandestine service, who ordered the destruction of the agency's torture videotapes. The program continues to employ active CIA officers as well as many retired ones.
There is no basis to assume that CIA officials are truthfully advising their fictional counterparts on the realities of Agency operations. They are masters of spin and deceit, after all, quite different than Hollywood masters of disguise. Their only purpose can be to humanize the Agency's personnel and manipulate an aura of public understanding of the Agency's mission, an action which is prohibited by law.
According to the well-researched "The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television" by Texas Christian University's Tricia Jenkins, the CIA's chief grievance is being "misunderstood" as a result of their publicized scandals while being required to keep their good deeds under wraps. Fictionalizing their good deeds is seen as the way out of the dilemma.
Claire Danes, who plays the agent Carrie Mathison, parroted that Agency line by telling Dowd, "Maybe it's this strange idea that your achievements are never going to be celebrated publicly while your failures are going to be exposed." Danes speculates that the CIA has an "urge to have their victories on positive display even in a fictional context."
If so, the Agency is more neurotic and less in touch with reality than Carrie Mathison.
Dowd correctly concludes that the "Homeland" characters "actually boost the agency's brand", apparently without realizing that such promotion is against the 1950s law drafted by Sen. Robert Byrd, who called for "more news and less bull from the federal publicity mill."
It's not that "Homeland" is a whitewash. In fact, the behavior revealed on the episodes is highly disturbing. Aside from humanizing the agents, the program gives subliminal credence to the most irrational premise of the War on Terrorism, the threat of an Al Qaeda terrorist planted at the highest levels of power in an all-American disguise. Even more paranoid, the terrorist in question is an American combat veteran, Sgt. Nicholas Brody, who is having an off-on affair with Agent Mathison while carrying a suicide vest into a meeting with top American military officials. The plot is blocked by a cell phone call from Brody's daughter.
Meanwhile an Al Qaeda team still lurks in the interstices of Washington society. As the last season ended, an unknown terrorist cell had obliterated the CIA's own building, killing almost 300 officers. In the new season's first episode, Brody, who is being blamed for the blast, is on the run while Carrie is being demonized as his lover-accomplice. The CIA is a "house of lies", managed by the tormented Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), who wants to believe that the Agency is only a group of "analysts" while presiding over kill lists and executions by its demented spooks.
Is this good publicity for the CIA? The answer is a resounding “yes” in an entertainment driven era, as the viewing audience realizes that Brody and Carrie, whom Dowd calls, "our favorite deranged, doomed lovers," are being scapegoated, apparently, and roots for them to get away.
Claire Danes nails what's going on. Her character Carrie is "transgressive" and "deeply flawed", Danes says, but she's also a super-hero who screws up and still "ends up saving the day." Isn't that just what the CIA wants Americans to believe about their Agency as it falls under greater public and Congressional scrutiny? That it's filled with transgressive madmen who end up saving us all?
And isn't that illegal? Isn't a congressional hearing called? But what member of Congress will call a hearing in a television program, about an Agency which, according to Dowd, will be under "a lot more Congressional oversight in the new season that the CIA gets in real life"?