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Homeland, Snowden and fictional defences of the CIA

James Bond may be pro-Snowden but Carrie Mathison’s lot aren’t so sure. Channel 4

This article contains spoilers about season five, episode three of Homeland.

The battle for public opinion over whether former CIA employee Edward Snowden was right to blow the whistle and leak state secrets might just be won, not in the press or the US Congress, but in fiction. New Bond film Spectre has just been released with a decidedly pro-Snowden slant, Oliver Stone is set to direct a Snowden biopic, and hacker drama Mr Robot, which Snowden reportedly is a fan of, has been electrifying US critics.

But one TV series that seems set to defend the CIA and NSA from Snowden’s charges is that stalwart advocate of the national security state: Homeland.

If you want to understand the politics of Homeland the first thing you should know is that the show’s creators, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, formerly wrote the hit television series 24, a cultural artefact from the early days of the war on terror. In my opinion, 24 did more than any other to legitimise torture in the public’s imagination: its influence even reached the US Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Scalia has invoked 24 more than once to defend torture, and in late 2002, the series informed a series of brainstorming sessions on prisoner interrogation at Guantanamo Bay.

The CIA goes to Hollywood

Homeland is a more complex drama than 24. Its murkier moral universe was initially greeted as a welcome corrective to Jack Bauer’s righteous, face-slapping machismo. This may explain why the real CIA, though increasingly keen to work with Hollywood film and television producers, courted then distanced itself from Homeland.

In September 2013, the show’s cast were given the red carpet treatment as guests of honour at the CIA’s Langley headquarters. Perhaps not coincidentally, the third season, which began to air the following week, offered the most sympathetic portrayal of the CIA in the series so far: featuring a beleaguered agency, in the wake of a terrorist bombing of their headquarters, gallantly rallying to hunt down the culprits.

Earlier this year, however, in anticipation of the launch of the fifth season, the CIA publicly criticised Homeland on their Twitter feed for its unrealistic depiction of female officers, who in reality aren’t all erratic alcoholics that bed down with their informants.

And there are other plot elements in the current season that must have raised eyebrows at Langley: the child’s play ease with which hackers managed to breach the CIA’s network security in the first episode, for example, or CIA operative Peter Quinn’s assassination spree across Germany. Not to mention his kidnapping of an innocent child.

Trust us, we’re the experts

But, like 24, Homeland eventually always reveals its sympathies for the national security state. Season three, for example, which aired in late 2013 amidst Dianne Feinstein’s on-going Senate investigation into CIA torture and detention, featured a self-serving and meddlesome senator pouring scorn on the agency, and damaging US national security in the process, for his own political gain.

Likewise, the current season seems gradually to be establishing a fictional rebuke to leakers and whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden (disclaimer: I could be wrong, we’re only three episodes in).

In the drama, Laura Sutton, an American journalist living in Berlin, is passed secret CIA documents that she decides to publish. She has an air of naivety about her, even petulance.

Civil libertarians in Homeland are often portrayed in this way – as well-meaning but ultimately misguided idealists. Conversely, the show’s spies – such as Carrie Mathison, her avuncular former boss Saul Berenson, and the German BND officer Astrid – are wise owls, weathered by experience and informed by secret knowledge.

These opposed worlds of naïve idealism versus time-worn realism collide in the most recent episode when Astrid calls an indignant Sutton in for questioning. Astrid tells Sutton that her leaks have exacerbated the massive security threat posed to Germany by the influx of Syrian refugees, and Sutton becomes irate. As she responds, the point-of-view shifts – now we’re with Saul and Berlin station-chief Alison Carr, watching the interview on a TV screen.

Laura Sutton, misguided idealist. Channel 4

“You’re not allowed to spy on your own citizens! It’s against the law, it’s against the fucking law!” Sutton screams. But we aren’t listening anymore: we’re watching Alison and Saul watch her, and the camera asks us to identify with Alison when she delivers her caustic rebuke: “That woman, she’d let the country burn as long as she got the Pulitzer Prize.” Saul’s exasperated frown says it all – he looks like he just wants to throw an arm around Sutton and explain to her how the real world works.

Subverting reality

Except the real world doesn’t really work like Homeland either. Soon after this scene, we learn that the leaks have exposed CIA assets in the Ukraine. In reality, there’s no evidence that Snowden’s leaks exposed any informants or agents. The closest we’ve come is a story about British agents being pulled out of Russia and China, which turned out to be based upon information from two anonymous UK government officials, hardly a recipe for journalistic credibility.

Some other egregious elements of unreality in Homeland were iterated the other week in a letter written by street artists explaining why they chose to “hack” episode two by spray painting “Homeland is racist” in Arabic on the set’s walls. Among their reasons was the show’s decision to depict Beirut’s cosmopolitan café-lined Hamra Street as a dangerous den of roaming militias, and its plotline that saw the Shiite Hezbollah in cahoots with the Sunni Al-Qaeda.

Fiction can be a powerful political weapon when it is used to subvert reality. The Berlin street artists who sabotaged the set with their slogans last week knew this. So too do the CIA. Though the US intelligence community has been heavily criticised over the last few years, Hollywood appears remarkably willing to come to their aid with films and television series such as Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo – the latter two made with the CIA’s cooperation.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of time until Supreme Court Justices and US intelligence officials cite Homeland instead of Jack Bauer, as evidence for the damage Edward Snowden has caused.

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