I have been teaching terrorism for about 5 years, but I am not a big fan of serial television. So I had never actually seen an episode of “24.” But my students always reference it in class, and ‘Jack Bauer’ has become synonymous with a no-holds-barred approach to the GWoT. GOP officials occasionally refer to the show, usually in praiseworthy or pseudomethodological terms – as in, ‘we need try to the Jack Bauer-approach to counterterrorism,’ or ‘Jack Bauer wouldn’t let politics stand in the way.’ (It always amazes me how congressmen, who we think have greater access to good or secret government information, nonetheless draw ‘knowledge’ from the same media flim-flam as the rest of us do. Please don’t tell me Congress gets its sense of counterterrorism from movies and TV!) My sense was that such Jack Bauer references meant we need to bend the rules, torture, and otherwise wander into Cheney’s famed ‘dark side.’ And so it was when I watched the show for the first time. I watched season 1 on DVD over the summer, and I was genuinely disturbed and depressed.
1. It is entertaining TV. It watches like a page-turner novel reads. Lots of twists and turns, and plots and counterplots. But this is the first error compared to real life intelligence. If the CIA, FBI, NCTC, etc, had as many moles, rogues, and traitors as the 24’s ‘Counterterrorism Unit’ (CTU) then the agency would be closed and cleansed, and lots of people would wind up in jail.
2. The plot, at least of season 1, bears little resemblance to the actuality of contemporary US counterterrorism (CT). Most of the work of intelligence is bland trolling through information, trying to piece together something useful for policymakers, and providing good, hopefully somewhat predictive analysis – i.e., a lot of reading and writing at a desk. And the cases are far less grandiose and exciting. Actual US CT is a lot more like busting those losers who were supposedly going to blow up the Sears Tower and those Lodi Muslims who were probably entrapped. The show depicts extremely well organized, well-funded, and elaborate plots. Planes blow up, cops get shot with abandon, traitors abound. This unhelpfully feeds the American paranoia of sleeper cells and incipient plots; I see now why the left disliked the show so much during the Bush presidency. It reinforced exactly the kind of hysteria that Bush stoked to get reelected. But actually, it is increasingly likely that 9/11 was an exception and that the domestic terrorist threat is quite minimal.
3. The Bauer character pulls straight from the disturbing Bush, do-whatever-it-takes playbook. So in one episode Bauer says both ‘forget the warrant,’ and ‘ignore the chain of command’ (!). In the real world this should get him disciplined and fired. In another, he shoots a superior with a tranquilizer gun. In the conclusion, he shoots the bad guy terrorist multiple times after he has emptied his gun and raised his hands. All this stuff may feel emotionally fulfilling, but of course, going out of bounds so regularly is exactly what lead to Abu Ghraib and torture. It may look necessary and heroic on TV, but in practice, breaking the rules around violence creates snowball effects, ambiguity, and bad precedents. If US CT staff is acting like Bauer does, with all the gunfighting, hyperventilating, and rule-bending, then our institutions are corroding because of the GWoT, not in order to win it.
4. Somehow the show’s CTU can get whatever doorcodes, email passwords, or other electronic access necessary. Again, this is terribly unhelpful. It suggests that your private life is unsafe before easy and unscrutinized government intrusion (PATRIOT Act, NSA illegal wiretaps). It feeds the paranoia.
5. The office staff seems to acquire and collate huge amounts of information quite quickly. Here is another slip with reality. As the Iraq intel debate showed us, most US intelligence agencies have little hard and secret information, and they struggle a lot to put it together properly. Most of what they use is the same ‘open source’ stuff that the rest of us see. (A friend at the CIA once told me that 95% of what they look at is open-source). The show wildly exaggerates the amount of good and covert information; the staff’s ability to sort it out from all the other noise and chatter that the intel agencies monitor; and perhaps most important of all – as the pre-9/11 investigation of the hijackers showed – how hard it is to connect all and only those dots. In short, the show wildly overrates the effectiveness of intelligence services.
So yes, it does channel the zeitgeist of the Bush-era GWoT well. As a trip down memory lane to the bad old days of torture and intel snafus, it is ‘enjoyable.’ As a teaching device, I suppose it is useful as the illustration of one manner of CT (do-whatever-it-takes), and the one the US (unfortunately) looked the other way on in the wake of 9/11. The show’s violence and law-breaking method feels to me like what Cheney had in mind when he said we must go ‘over to the dark side’ to fight terrorism. All-in-all I was pretty disturbed. If ‘24’ is our approach, then we deserve to lose.