‘Homeland’: Showtime’s Thriller Gets Fact Checked by an Intelligence Expert
Would that really happen to Brody? Samantha Zalaznick talks to an intelligence expert about the level of realism within Showtime’s Emmy Award–winning drama Homeland. WARNING: Contains major spoilers for Sunday’s episode. Read at your own risk.
Last night's Homeland thrillingly ripped itself open. Over the course of a single episode, Brody (Damian Lewis) was outed, as he admitted to working with Abu Nazir (Navid Negabhan), loving Issa, and planning to kill VP William Walden (Jamey Sheridan). It’s all out on the intense interrogation table between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody. So now they’re double flipping him, and Brody's going to help the CIA stop Nazir’s impending attack, while we go back to debating which side he’s really on.
Last night's episode approached 24 status with a knife through Brody's hand, so we thought it'd be a good time to do some intelligence work of our own and find out—could any of this really happen?
The Daily Beast checked in with former counterterrorism planner, CIA expert, and Homeland fan Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, and the answer is ... no, not really. We talked about this interrogation and other plot points we’ve questioned, and Nelson breaks down for us what’s real and, mostly, what’s not.
Can the CIA even operate in the U.S.?
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson: No, the CIA does not conduct domestic spying or collect intelligence on U.S. citizens. It's not their job, it's the job of the FBI. So if there were a counterintelligence threat in the U.S., whether it's an agent from a foreign nation that was trying to collect intelligence or there was a terrorist cell operating, the FBI would have the lead on that because it has to fall under legal construct.
Is it otherwise somewhat of an accurate portrayal?
Nelson: It's a good show, but it's not an accurate portrayal of what happens inside the military or the intelligence community. They get a certain percentage of things right—they get the interrogation pretty accurate, but only a small portion of it, because then when you put it in a larger context—that you’re gonna do that to a congressman, on U.S. soil, without his lawyer present, in an unknown location, and you’re gonna get him back in eight hours—then it becomes not believable. They start with a grain of realism and then they add Hollywood around it, and that’s what makes it intriguing and enjoyable.
The interrogation was pretty accurate?
Nelson: That was pretty accurate in the way you would work someone and how you play good cop/bad cop except for the whole knife through the hand. How you try to get them to confess and come across onto your side, that element is correct. The fact that they did it off the grid, without a lawyer present, all the other things, is not. And that happened pretty quickly. It’s unlikely that someone with that level of knowledge and that level of skill set would change their mind in a day.
A more realistic scenario would’ve been if the FBI had gone in and brought him in for questioning and put all the evidence in front of him and then said, OK, we’re either gonna arrest you or you’re gonna help, and then they’d bring the CIA in.
How about that stabbing?
Nelson: That was over the top. That would never happen. Especially to a U.S. citizen.
Where were they?
Nelson: Probably just a safe house. There are lots of safe houses overseas, and they have safe houses inside the United States, which are facilities law enforcement can operate without taking somebody to headquarters.
Do you think they would be so quick to give him a deal like that?
Nelson: Well I think they don't have a choice. Speed is of the essence in this case, playing into the scenario, and an attack on the United States is imminent, and they need to do everything they can. You have a lot more to gain by flipping him than by prosecuting him. Immunity is something government can definitely do, that happens quite regularly.
What was that justification when Carrie says, "Thanks to your friends, we have broad powers to interrogate"?
Nelson: That’s a reference to the Patriot Act—there's a grain of truth that the Patriot Act gave U.S. law-enforcement authorities greater ability to do certain counterterrorism activities, but they didn’t give the CIA ability to do off-the-grid interrogation of a U.S. congressman without his lawyer present.
Would they have really put a bag over his head when they arrested him?
Nelson: Nope, that's just Hollywood.
What about Carrie? Would someone with a psychotic disorder be able to be in the CIA and hide it?
Nelson: That could happen, but the consequences of getting caught are pretty significant. Someone wouldn't be punished for having a mental disorder or any other type of disease, but they need to make [the CIA] aware of it so they know how it can impact their job or how it could be used against them by someone trying to exploit their position.
Would it have been OK if she told them?
Nelson: There's no blanket policy, but as long as it’s manageable, I think it’s certainly something they can work with. Her character is probably pushed too much to the extreme. If she were portrayed as slightly less unstable, it would be more believable. She does things that are too unacceptable and puts other people’s lives at risk.
What are you thinking of specifically?
Nelson: Well, when she runs back into the building after they get [the informant] in Beirut. They’re out front in a hostile area, and they need to get her out, and Carrie runs back into the building on her own to gather intelligence—that was very Hollywood.
In that scene, would they really drive around in an Escalade?
Nelson: If you're trying to maintain a low profile, you don't drive around Beirut in a black suburban. It’s Hollywood, so they cut corners, like when Saul (Mandy Patinkin) leaves the embassy out the front gate through the protests. That’s not how you leave the embassy.
Do you believe they would have sent her back into the field so quickly at the beginning of the season?
Nelson: I don’t think something like that would happen, because the risk would be too great, but sure, if there was critical information they thought was going to protect American lives, they’re going to make decisions to the best of their interests, so it’s not unforeseen, but it would have to be very carefully managed.
How about when Brody breaks into Estes's safe in his office with the list of targets?
Nelson: That’s unrealistic from a couple of perspectives. First, there’s not a lot of things these days that are actually printed and kept in safes. We certainly use safes, and there is certainly material that is only kept on documents, so yeah, there might be something in a safe. But the fact that someone would get the combination and know exactly where in the safe to find it and be in the office unattended are all a bit of a reach.
Would it be possible for Carrie to just burst into that debrief and be like “Hey, you started without me!”?
Nelson: She wouldn’t be in that building unescorted, no matter what clearances she once had. Even if she did get away from her escort, doors are locked—you wouldn’t be able to move that freely around and walk into a room. That’s not a CIA thing, that’s a Department of Defense, DHS, anything. You can’t walk into the Pentagon, just open a door, and walk in.
How did Saul know to hide a fake video chip when he was going through the airport?
Nelson: That's classic spy-versus-spy tradecraft—things that folks in that position understand and know well. That was actually relatively realistic. You’re trying to outsmart the other person. [The video chip] was a valuable piece of intelligence, and he knew there was probably a high likelihood that they would want to get that piece back and there was also a likelihood that he might be escorting it out, so he needed to not only get the material through, but also have them feel confident that they got the material instead—so now they feel like they’ve recovered it, and that ends the operation for the adversary.
How about when Brody texts Nazir from the Situation Room. Would a congressman even be allowed in the room?
Nelson: He may or may not be allowed in the room. It’s unlikely that a congressman would be allowed to sit in on an ongoing operation. It’s more likely that he’d be briefed on it beforehand or briefed on it afterwards, but being in the room during an actual operation would be a bit of a reach, carrying a personal communication device into that type of environment is just—no one does it. I mean the director of the CIA wouldn’t be able to. On top of that, being able to transmit would be difficult as well. There’s a lot of precautions taken to make sure that kind of thing can’t happen. Even if it’s not the CIA, if you go into any government building where you’ll be subjected to classified information, you are not allowed to bring your portable electronic devices into the room, and some of the places you can’t even bring it into the building.
Would it have been a BlackBerry?
Nelson: Blackberries seem to be the choice for business entities. iPhones are known to be very vulnerable.
What do you think Homeland portrays well?
Nelson: They actually do a pretty good job of capturing politics and the bureaucracy that intelligence and counterterrorism operations are subject to.
And how they capture some of the terrorist network is pretty realistic. With Abu Nazir, a very lethal individual, with a very difficult network to penetrate who has a lot of power and influence and Carrie’s understanding of how important he is to the network and that kind of stuff. That’s pretty realistic in how we approach networks and how difficult those networks can be to penetrate. But then they embellish it—he’s too powerful and has too much access, with a media person who can get to the director of the CIA and sit down with a congressman and pass intelligence.
Brody told Jess (Morena Baccarin) last night he's working for the CIA. Are you allowed to tell your spouse that you’re working for the CIA?
Nelson: That depends. Normally you don’t, but sometimes. If you’re working inside the CIA, you’ll have to tell your spouse your occupation so they’ll know when you’re out at weird hours of the evening conducting meetings and they won’t think you're off doing other things. Details are never shared. But the rest of the immediate family may not know, like parents or grandparents.
We know Obama is a fan. What do people in the government say about the show?
Nelson: They see it as entertainment. They like it. It’s a good show. People talk about the plot and can’t wait to see what happens next, but no one in the community thinks, that’s what I do; they really got it right. It's a lot better than 24, but at the end of the day it’s not comparable to anything that actually goes on.