In Homeland, the wildly popular Showtime series, the United States is a troubled place. Week after week, the series shows us a parade of social ailments: mental illness, prescription drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, marital infidelity, surly teenagers. The authorities, meanwhile, are a mix of treacherous politicians and feckless, scheming bureaucrats who casually embrace illegal detention, criminal cover-ups, and domestic spying. And then there are terrorists -- lots of them -- running loose everywhere, one step away from causing another national catastrophe. (Warning: spoilers follow.)

The series centers on the relationship between a bipolar hot mess of a CIA case officer, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), and a tormented ex-marine, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). After eight years of captivity in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, during which he was "flipped" by the al Qaeda mastermind Abu Nazir, Brody returns to the United States with a mission to carry out a terrorist attack. He eventually becomes a congressman, a potential vice presidential candidate, and a double (or perhaps triple) agent. Carrie finds out that Brody is a terrorist, falls in love with him, goes off her meds, loses her job, and then effectively regains it, managing to thwart the evildoers most of the time along the way. These two characters, like much of their supporting cast, are irresistible studies in how to be highly functional while wrestling with inner demons.

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.

THE GOOD GUYS

Homeland does get some things right about the U.S. national security system. The series captures the intense determination of U.S. officials to prevent another terrorist attack on American soil. Carrie's animating premise is lifted straight from the pages of the 9/11 Commission Report: she is an intelligence officer who had the opportunity to prevent the attacks but somehow failed to connect the dots in time. Carrie takes personal responsibility for this failure and works feverishly to make sure that it never happens again. This is a worthy objective, to be sure. But a person, like a government, can go too far in the name of preventing a terrorist attack. Carrie is, in fact, crazy. Her obsession with stopping the next attack pushes her over the edge, and the first season ends with her on a hospital bed receiving electroshock therapy. (It's worth noting that in the real world, a person as mentally unstable and indiscreet as Carrie would swiftly be removed from any sensitive national security position, with no possibility of returning.)

The series also provides a realistic perspective on the current debate over the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries. A key motivation for Abu Nazir's (and Brody's) desire to strike the United States, we are told, is exacting revenge for a U.S. drone strike that killed scores of innocent children, including Abu Nazir's son. To make matters worse, the U.S. government never acknowledged the bombing, and the officials who authorized it immediately sought to erase it from the classified historical record. For the terrorists in Homeland, as in the real world, the U.S. practice of dispensing death and destruction from the skies has become Exhibit A in the argument that the United States does not occupy the moral high ground in its war on terror. The show suggests that Washington's heavy reliance on drone strikes has become a short-term expedient exacerbating a long-term problem, fueling a new generation of anti-American radicals from Pakistan to Yemen.

But the series is in general an unreliable guide to how the U.S. government actually works. The earlier hit series 24 focused on the operations of a fictitious agency: CTU, or Counter Terrorist Unit. Homeland uses real agencies but distorts their actual roles. On the show, a small cell inside the CIA is always in the lead, including inside the United States, obeying no law and answering to superiors only when it wants to. The FBI, the agency that in the real world plays the largest role in stopping domestic terrorism, is an afterthought, its officers portrayed as sanctimonious buffoons or surplus manpower.

Against the CIA in Homeland, American citizens have few rights. They can be spied on without warrant, arrested without due process, held indefinitely in secret confinement without access to a lawyer, and subjected to physical violence while being interrogated. They can apparently even be assassinated in covert operations -- "black ops." The series depicts no external institutional checks on the agency's operational latitude.

Real-world counterterrorism operations, in contrast, are far more regimented, bureaucratic, and cautious. Homeland has a single team hunting Abu Nazir; in the case of an actual major terrorist threat inside U.S. borders, thousands of people would be involved. The FBI would take the lead on almost any domestic operation against a suspected terrorist, with the CIA and other agencies in supporting roles. Most aspects of the operation would be subject to tedious legal review, specific authorization from senior officials, and, in some cases -- particularly those involving wiretaps and arrests -- judicial oversight. Details about the threat and the various operations launched in response to it, meanwhile, would be widely disseminated and discussed at the highest level of the U.S. government. The White House would have the final say on any major decisions, often with the president's personal involvement. In Homeland, the president never appears onscreen and is mentioned only occasionally; the vice president acts unilaterally and independently -- an obvious gesture to the role that some people believe Vice President Dick Cheney played during the Bush administration.

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.

At one critical juncture in the second season, a U.S. special operations team in Lebanon has set a trap for Abu Nazir. Brody, now a congressman, is at the Pentagon watching the operation in real time. Realizing that his terrorist master is about to be killed, he surreptitiously sends Abu Nazir a text message, warning him in the nick of time and allowing him to avoid a sniper's bullet. Forget the fact that there is no cell phone service inside the Pentagon -- in the real world, a person like Brody, directly connected to an active terrorist plot, would be the subject of full-scope electronic surveillance, as authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), even if he or she were cooperating with the government. Vast amounts of his or her historic electronic communications would already have been analyzed for leads and connections, and all current communications would be monitored in real time. Every telephone number and e-mail address that the suspect contacted would be scrutinized and, if at all suspicious, would become the target of additional electronic surveillance.

Under full-scope electronic surveillance, Brody's text message to Abu Nazir's cell phone number would have been immediately read in an FBI "tech room." This number, if previously unknown to the government, would have been thoroughly checked out. Agents would quickly learn that the phone in question was in Beirut, and that the time of the text coincided with the failed assassination attempt. Brody would have been brought in for questioning and, after being caught in a lie, arrested.

Electronic surveillance is not thrilling or glamorous, but in the right conditions, its power is simply awesome. Perhaps this explains why the tool features so little in Homeland. If Carrie and the other CIA officers had known how to serve a FISA warrant, the series would have ended halfway through its first season.

THE BAD GUYS

The terrorists in Homeland are a lethal bunch. Their ringleader, Abu Nazir, has tentacles that span the globe. He has long-term sleeper agents and bomb-makers inside the United States. He can simultaneously brainwash two marines and choreograph their parallel operations against the United States from across the ocean. He can elude America's global dragnet, and then suddenly appear inside the Beltway. On short notice, he can summon helicopters from the sky and dispatch a squad of highly trained gunmen with body armor and automatic weapons. He even has a henchman who can, with the right serial number, hack into a man's pacemaker and trigger a lethal heart attack.

The truth is that terrorists like this are purely the stuff of fiction. 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.

And yet what makes Abu Nazir stand out the most is not his power but his sanity and his purity. Carrie, Brody, and the rest of the protagonists in Homeland are all flawed, frantic, messy people. In contrast, Abu Nazir is well groomed, devout, articulate, calmly focused, and purposeful. The juxtaposition is not subtle.

Late in the second season, Abu Nazir offers a gripping description of his motives, forcefully making a case for the moral superiority of his cause and the moral equivalence of his tactics. The best response that a captive, wild-eyed Carrie can come up with is, "We have nothing in common. You're a terrorist." As if the word alone carries the day.

Fortunately, in the real world, the bad guys are less powerful and more reprobate than Abu Nazir -- and the good guys have better arguments than Carrie.

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  • RICHARD A. FALKENRATH is the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Adjunct Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations and principal at the Chertoff Group, LLC. He is a former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department and a former deputy homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.
  • More By Richard A. Falkenrath