24, the CIA, and the Fantasy of Hyper-Competence

I’ve been watching 24: Live Another Day, a so-called “event series” of 24 that brings back everyone’s favourite gravelly-voiced secret agent, Jack Bauer. I’ve watched 24 since its third season (and have since watched the first two on DVD), and it is difficult to pinpoint when my interest morphed from “hey, exciting TV show” to something more academic. Certainly, it was the academic interest that saw me through some of its terrible later seasons, for even when the show got repetitive and (oddly) lugubrious, it always functioned as a fascinating window into a terrified zeitgeist that imagined terrorist threats in increasingly absurd and outlandish ways.


“So, what does it take to be an uber-agent? Training? Tactical brilliance? Ruthlessness?” “No, it’s mostly just shouting.”

Watching the newest season (really a half-season, though I suppose they can’t very well rebrand it as 12), I am struck anew by the way the show rests on the foundation of a sort of symbolic arms race, in which the terrorists possess increasingly sophisticated technology and apparently unlimited funds, which they employ in increasingly, ludicrously, complex and intricate plots against America. Arrayed against such threats is the CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) and, in Live Another Day, the CIA, which possess something resembling omniscient surveillance capabilities and the technological savvy to instantly hack almost any electronic system for information and/or more surveillance. This panoptical apparatus and its operators’ preternatural technological ability (as embodied in the savant-like Chloe O’Brian) is tacitly justified by the terrorist du jour’s own sophistication and resources. A typical 24 plot would never be concerned with a bunch of foreign nationals attending flight school in, say, Florida; it would instead feature terrorist hackers taking over air traffic control communications, or, in the case of the current season, taking control of American drones.

Michelle Fairley, aka Catelyn Stark, as the most recent alpha-terrorist on 24. See? I told them there's be serious blowback from the Red Wedding.

Michelle Fairley, aka Catelyn Stark, as the most recent alpha-terrorist on 24. See? I told them there would be serious blowback from the Red Wedding.

All of the apparatus of an electronic surveillance state is present but unremarked: 24 would be unthinkable without it. And yet, it is invariably vulnerable. In every single season of 24, CTU’s omniscient technology proves insufficient to deter whatever attack is afoot. It falls instead to the indomitable Jack Bauer, whose instincts and intuition almost always trump the conclusions of legions of intelligence analysts.

24 has such an odd paradox at its center, one that is something Fredric Jameson would call a symbolic resolution, in fiction, of an intractable real-world contradiction. On one hand you have the implicit faith in the panoptical surveillance state—and not just faith, but the tacit understanding that such apparatus is necessary and indeed a given, something so universally understood as reality that there is no question of it being, well, questioned. And let’s be clear on what this means: though all we ever see of it are the dim offices of a subterranean CTU station, it represents a vast and omnipresent governmental reach with apparent impunity to spy on both citizens and foreigners. On the other hand, I don’t believe there has been a single season of 24 in which Jack Bauer hasn’t gone rogue in some capacity, because working within the confines of the “law” (however egregiously attenuated it might be) straitjackets Jack and prevents him from doing what has to be done.

Hence, 24 has always been equally invested in pervasive and invasive government and the need to escape it. It’s really no surprise that 24 is a favourite of neoconservatives, as it articulates that contradiction at the heart of their creed: the desire for American omnipotence co-existing with an ideological antipathy to “big government.”

And while the series’ main ongoing controversy—and its most egregious and troubling element—has been the use of torture as a legitimate means of extracting actionable intelligence, more subtly pernicious is the depiction of Jack Bauer’s preternatural competence, as well as that of CTU. This is not, of course, anything different from the dozens and hundreds of films and television shows about espionage and clandestine military ops—from James Bond to the Smoking Man to every film about elite commandos ever, the appeal of these stories lies in their illusion of mastery and control and the unerring accuracy of intelligence, intuition, and interpretation.

Legacy_smpbAll of which is, of course, a patent fallacy. I probably wouldn’t be writing about all this if I hadn’t recently read a history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes (2007), by Tim Weiner. It might as well have been subtitled “A History of Abject Failure,” given that it is a brutal chronicle of the CIA’s chronic ineptitude, from the opening salvos of the Cold War to the clusterfuck that was the catastrophic intelligence failures of Iraq. Much of Weiner’s source material is reams of documents that were declassified in 2004-2005, so the story he tells is not only a new one but decidedly at odds with the way the agency has been depicted in popular culture, and how it depicted itself. Depending on when the CIA has been depicted in film, fiction, or television largely determines whether it is portrayed as malevolent or heroic; but one way or another it has tended to appear as a ruthlessly efficient operation, sometimes riven by internal rivalries and discord, but always a terribly efficacious tool in the service of either good or evil.

The reality of its history as detailed by Weiner is one in which failure, incompetence, and willful institutional blindness are the norm. If the agency has been consistently good at one thing, it is the ability to whitewash those failures, spin them as successes, and burnish its reputation as an omniscient and omnipotent force for American security and freedom.

Weiner starts his book by noting that the CIA was founded for the sole purpose of intelligence aggregation and analysis. Harry Truman basically wanted a small agency whose job would be to present him on a daily basis with a snapshot of what was going on in the world. The agency that developed, however, was very quickly hijacked by men far more interested in covert operations: who instead of keeping tabs on international communism and other threats, saw themselves as freebooters whose job was to actively combat these threats and work to roll them back. As the Cold War took shape and the USSR emerged as the United States’ principal antagonist, their energies went into clandestine skirmishes. They never succeeded in providing the president with what he most desired: a window into Soviet operations and a reliable intelligence that would warn of an imminent nuclear threat.

In fact, the first two hundred pages of Legacy of Ashes reads not so much as a comedy of errors as a tragic farce. It took the CIA over a decade to realize that the Soviets had spies riddling both American and British intelligence. In operation after operation, they trained refugees from behind the Iron Curtain (and in the Korean War, South Korean nationals) in combat and intelligence gathering and dropped them into enemy territory. The failure rate for these operations was one hundred percent, as the enemy knew precisely when and where these drops would take place and often had men there waiting for them. The hapless agents were imprisoned and tortured (if they weren’t summarily shot on sight), and either turned by the KGB or executed. Ten years the CIA bloody-mindedly continued … and that is only a single story from Weiner’s six hundred page litany of incompetence. As he remarks about the early, enthusiastic forays of the fledging agency, the United States was childishly blundering into a world of espionage that Russia had been playing like a chess master for two centuries.


When I watched Homeland for the first time, my initial thought was that here was a series that functioned in part as a corrective to 24—it approached the questions of nation, identity, faith, and loyalty (as well as the business of intelligence-gathering more generally) with a nuance and complexity alien to 24. And yet in the aftermath of reading Weiner’s book, it becomes obvious that even Homeland manages to completely overestimate the CIA’s efficacy and competence.

The figure of the elite soldier or agent backed by a technologically sophisticated agency has become increasingly commonplace in popular culture. James Bond might have blazed the trail, but you see his progeny strewn throughout film and television. I don’t care to speculate on why precisely—that’s a post for another day—but we’ve moved far away from the images of the grunt and the common soldier which dominated war films until the first post-Vietnam movies introducing us to the likes of John Rambo started to focus on the elite, hypercompetent soldier to the exclusion of mere mortals. On one hand, such musclebound commandos as portrayed by Stallone and Schwartzenegger were an obvious overcompensation for America’s symbolic emasculation in Vietnam; but I’m also tempted to say it becomes bound up in the delusions of conspiracy theory that pervaded the 1970s and afterward, so beautifully summed up by Don DeLillo in his novel Libra:

If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act.

Certainly this figuration of conspiracy is what animates 24—the specter of such “cold, sure, undistracted,” perfect schemes perpetrated by “silent nameless men with unadorned hearts,” which cannot be countered with anything so wishy-washy as legal or democratic means.

That is the fantasy, and yet everything we learn from history teaches us otherwise. I’ve never actually met a real 9/11 Truther (at least none who have declared themselves as such), but my counter-argument would have nothing to do with the ostensible physics of building collapses, and everything to do with the simple question “Do you honestly think that the Bush Administration would be competent enough to pull something like that off?” In the aftermath of 9/11, Elaine Scarry wrote a remarkable essay titled “Citizenship in Emergency” which did a wonderful job of taking down all our assumptions about the “fast response” capabilities of the military and civil defense and arguing that there was only one response to the terrorists’ attack that succeeded: the ad-hoc resistance of the passengers on United 93.

The more I dwell on this topic, the more it bothers me, and the more I come to believe that the fantasy of hypercompetence, while appealing as a popular trope, is also culturally pernicious. It affords the delusion of precision and exactitude in spheres of action that are inherently chaotic and unpredictable. It is why Wayne LaPierre’s mantra “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is just so much horseshit. It assumes that the good guy with the gun will unerringly put down the bad guy as opposed to adding to the carnage with shots that go wide of the target. Even highly trained peace officers or soldiers, when put in the crucible of a firefight, can’t shoot with the innate accuracy of a nickelodeon gunslinger; what are we to expect of a well-meaning citizen whose only experience firing his weapon has been on the gun range? When two police officers in Manhattan fire sixteen rounds at a man with a gun and succeed in wounding nine bystanders, the comforting idea that a firefight can be contained sort of goes out the window.

On the other hand, if we all get together and be reasonable about the topic, we can come to the comforting conclusion that the uber-terrorists of 24 are just as much of a fantasy.

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Filed under maunderings, television, what I'm reading

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