For fans of spy movies and television shows, a visit to CIA headquarters will be disappointing. America’s best-known intelligence agency looks nothing like the sleek, high-tech headquarters of Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer. The entrance has no fancy retina scans or fingerprint devices, and the place has something of a shabby, circa 1970 office-building feel. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is another story. Created after 9/11 to fuse terrorism threat reporting across the U.S. intelligence community, NCTC looks as if it came straight out of Hollywood. Because it did. Government officials actually flew out a Disney team to help design the operations center.
Fake spies are influencing real intelligence policy in ways both large and small. Over the past fifteen years, the spytainment industry has skyrocketed. Tom Clancy video games have sold seventy-four million units worldwide, the number of spy-themed hit television shows has increased sixfold, and spy movies have become big business on the big screen, earning nearly $2 billion in U.S. theatres alone. Today, the relationship between Hollywood and Washington is cozier than ever, with the CIA pitching movie storylines on its website and the Pentagon forward-deploying to Los Angeles to set up entertainment liaison offices. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the award-winning team behind The Hurt Locker, got better access to operational details of the bin Laden raid for their latest flick, Zero Dark Thirty, than most intelligence officers or members of Congress.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being transported to imaginary worlds where congressional oversight works and spies always look like Daniel Craig. But the blurring of fact and fiction makes for great entertainment at a hidden cost: Americans are steeped in misperceptions about what intelligence agencies actually do and have misplaced expectations about how well they can do it.
A 2006 report from the nonpartisan Intelligence Science Board concluded that spy-themed entertainment had become adult education. I found the same thing when I surveyed UCLA undergraduates three years ago. Those who said they always watched the now-departed hit television show 24, which depicted torture often and always favorably, were statistically more likely than their peers to approve of torture. Of course, surveys cannot prove that watching 24 actually caused these attitudes. But the dean of West Point was so concerned that it did that he asked the show’s writers to create some episodes in which torture backfired.
Even government officials sometimes have trouble knowing where the real world ends and creative license begins. In fall 2002, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the senior military lawyer at Guantánamo Bay, ran a series of brainstorming sessions about interrogation techniques that might be used on terrorist detainees there. She later told British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands that Jack Bauer, hero of 24, “gave people lots of ideas,” noting that the show “was hugely popular” at Gitmo. She later recommended, and senior Pentagon officials approved, the use of dogs, sexual humiliation, and other controversial interrogation techniques.
Confirmation hearings for Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and Obama’s former CIA director, Leon Panetta, both discussed Hollywood-inspired “ticking time bomb” scenarios—even though experts have long argued that these situations are the stuff of fantasy. Panetta, when asked what he would do if a terrorist had vital information about an imminent catastrophic attack, reassured the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would seek “whatever additional authority” was necessary. The policy was quickly dubbed by the press the “Jack Bauer exception” to President Obama’s ban on the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
In a 2006 Heritage Foundation panel discussion of 24, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff praised Jack Bauer and the show as “reflecting real life.”
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia even suggested—twice, in public—that he would turn to Bauer to resolve legal questions about interrogation methods. At a 2007 international conference on torture and terrorism law, a Canadian judge offhandedly remarked, “Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra, ‘What would Jack Bauer do?’ ” Scalia rushed to the fake operative’s defense, referring to details of the show’s second-season plotline, in which Bauer tortures a terrorism suspect to prevent a nuclear attack on Los Angeles. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles,” Scalia remarked. “He saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” Arguing that law enforcement officials deserve latitude in times of crisis, Scalia challenged the panel, “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? . . . I don’t think so.” Somebody needs to watch a little less TV.
Hollywood will be Hollywood. It’s up to the press and the academy to fill the knowledge gap. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Despite widespread coverage of the bin Laden operation, Facebook users in 2011 were more interested in “sharing” news stories about the death of Jackass television star Ryan Dunn and how not to dress your girls like tramps. My own profession has always pooh-poohed intelligence research and teaching as too “real world” and not theoretical enough, and it shows. Twice as many of the top twenty-five universities ranked by US News & World Report last year offered courses on the history of rock and roll than intelligence, giving undergrads a better chance of learning about U2 the band than U-2 the spy plane.
Since 9/11, political scientists have written nearly two thousand articles in the top three academic journals. Only three pieces examined intelligence topics. While policy makers have been grappling with warrantless wiretapping, targeted killing, interrogation techniques, detainee policy, and intelligence reform, political scientists have been busy researching just about everything else.
Is the public going to get a better idea of how intelligence really works any time soon? As Justice Scalia would say, I don’t think so.