Authentic Television

CIA Agents Assess: How Real Is ‘Homeland’?

Homeland The TV drama accurately presents the mission, intensity, pace, contradictions and complexity of a CIA station engaged in deadly battle, say two agency veterans.

David Bloomer/Showtime

As the Season 4 finale of Homeland ironically coincides with the United States draw-down of combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of the month, we wanted to use this opportunity to provide some insight and context to our long history with a complicated region. While the two of us can hardly claim impartiality here, we do bring to this commentary more than 60 years of operational experience at CIA. Collectively, we have served as chief of station in seven countries and have had extensive involvement in the problems that Homeland presents to us this season. Chuck Cogan also headed the Middle-Eastern and South Asian operational division and John MacGaffin was head of the Central Eurasian operational division as well as associate deputy director for operations at CIA. Finally, John has been a consultant to Homeland throughout this season.

Season 4 sees Homeland make a course change and set itself in Pakistan with Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) as COS (chief of station) in what is undoubtedly the most complex and dangerous assignment—the Islamabad Station. The show is able to capture this on multiple levels. Unlike other shows, this is not set in a fictitious "Ruritania;" it portrays a real country, Pakistan, and a real terrorist group, the Haqqani network.

Homeland has been able to accurately present the mission, intensity, pace, contradictions and complexity of a CIA station engaged in deadly battle with this implacable terrorist. Finally, it shines uncomfortable and uncompromising light on the moral and practical dilemmas in what now appears to be a religiously roiled future where we will face other implacable foes such as Haqqani who we see as evil, but who believe with equal fervor that we pose an existential threat to them and therefore must be destroyed.

Of course there are times when actual CIA practice would have been different from that portrayed in Homeland. It is, after all, supposed to be a secret business whose practices and methods are not known to adversaries or friends. What is important is the success Homeland has in capturing the core of the business.

While it is unlikely that CIA medics and management would have approved Carrie's assignment as COS because of her manic-depressive condition, the work that absorbs her, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) and the others rings true to those us who have been there. Almost all COS, to one extent or another have, have been in these shoes:

1) Carrie’s attempts at dealing with a duplicitous host government and liaison service whose real interests and intent differs from hers. In reality, there is no such thing as a “friendly” intelligence service. ISI, however, is the poster child for “duplicitous.”

2) Her ultimately successful attempt to spot an individual within ISI (Colonel Aasar Khan) who is out of step with his own leadership and can be convinced to help her against his own government. This is the heart of the agent recruitment process that is the lifeblood of CIA today.

3) Saul's early break with supporters of the wars and his prescient but “out of line” outburst to a group of generals in the Pentagon to whom Saul's new civilian employers are trying to sell more services and weapons. Popular characterizations aside, CIA officers are acutely aware of the potential moral hazards of their work and wrestle with them just as Saul does.

3) Saul's frustration in retirement to find himself “out of the game” and unable to contribute to the country as he once did. He chooses, as many CIA retirees do, to find somewhat similar work—in Saul's case providing a protective security detail for Carrie and her station.

4) Peter Quinn's classic case of PTSD and his acting out when he attacks the mockers in the diner is an extreme example of the stresses that often pursue CIA officers when they return from a difficult overseas assignment. And just as the episode depicts, CIA would also find psychiatric help for him.

5) Carrie and Peter's concern about the legitimacy of the source whose reporting led to the bombing of the wedding party. CIA goes to great lengths to understand the reliability and accuracy of every source. Good intelligence comes when multiple sources and types (human, technical, open) of information are pulled together. "Single source" reporting, as Carrie learns as the season's first episode takes off at full speed, is a very dangerous thing.

6) Saul's anguish at the prospect of becoming the key that frees Haqqani's operational network brilliantly captures the core imperative for every case officer—protect your sources at all costs and focus on the mission.

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As the show depicts, Pakistan is indeed a two-speed society: on the one hand there are the poor and struggling masses, radicalized by the former (and later executed) Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and now more inclined toward Islamist soothsayers in place of the erstwhile nationalist ones. On the other hand there are the elites, mostly Punjabi, civil and military, who run the country. During the colonial period the Punjabi Muslims formed the prized martial class for the British Raj. (As the critic Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked, "Sometimes I think that the only real Englishmen left are in India. By this he meant the whole Indian sub-continent, not just India.) The Punjabi Muslim elites, descendants of the former Muslim conquerors, naturally assumed themselves to be fighters superior to the Hindus. The trouble is, Pakistan kept losing its wars with India and is indeed no match for India. In short, Pakistan is an aggrieved state that got the short end of the stick when Partition happened. One wonders whether Partition was, after all, a good idea.

The Punjabi general who heads the ISI and leads the negotiations with Ambassador Martha Boyd (Laila Robins), the visiting CIA director (Tracy Letts) and COS Carrie Mathison for the release of the kidnapped former Director Saul Berenson is a perfect portrayal of that elite Pakistani group: tall, commanding and deep-voiced and dressed for the occasion a la Savile Row. The discussions are not friendly, but arrangements are made for the exchange—which does come off after a very tense scene, only to have the returning American convoy from the transfer scene attacked near the Embassy. Though Carrie and Saul survive, the attack turns out to be a diversion so that the Embassy, minus its Marine guards who are at the attack site, can be penetrated by the Haqqanis who obtain the codes giving the names of CIA agents in the country. Washington decides to evacuate the Embassy, but Carrie stays behind alone to attempt to locate (and presumably rescue) Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) who has gone off on a “rogue” mission to get Haqqani.

The origins of what Carrie faces over Season 4—and which her successors as chief of station in Islamabad will continue to face in the future, were largely presented accurately in Charlie Wilson’s War, a dramatic account of that war that the two of us developed and oversaw when we were at CIA. Although the tactical and strategic success of humiliating the world's only other superpower was short-lived as the U.S. almost immediately turned its attention from those Mujahidin fighters we had armed and trained. The ISI secretly sponsored the Taliban rise to power and established a radical Islamic government in Kabul which soon gave shelter and assistance to Osama bin Laden and the leadership of Al Qaeda as they plotted the 9/11 attacks.

Our involvement goes back many decades. In the operational context, the CIA developed the U-2 spy plane during the 1950s, and the military base at Peshawar, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, was selected as the takeoff point for the reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. The CIA, as the creator of the U-2, and the ISI, assigned the management of the Peshawar base, were put together in what became a continuing, but often difficult, liaison relationship.

The next major test for CIA and ISI came in 1978 when the Communist Party takeover in neighboring Afghanistan set off alarm bells in Pakistan, which shares in part a population with Afghanistan—the Pashtuns—and which considers Afghanistan, a Muslim country, as its "strategic depth" vis-à-vis India. The ISI came to the CIA for assistance in fostering a revolt that had developed in the Afghan countryside against Communist rule. When the Soviet Union actually invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, the CIA and ISI, who had been aiding the Afghan rebels with "non-lethal" materials, turned to providing arms in ever-increasing quantity and quality.

Following a presidentially-approved, congressionally-sanctioned covert action program lasting over 10 years and 14,000 dead later, the Soviet Army left the country. The sponsored rebellion of the Mujahidin had cost some 2 billion dollars, with Saudi Arabia footing half the bill; and the arms, mostly Soviet manufacture, were brought variously from China and Egypt. In the later stages of the war, the American-made Stinger missile was introduced and wreaked havoc among the Soviet helicopters. Some 1,000 of them went down.

We often pointed out to those who favored almost unlimited support to the Mujahidin that we did not design an 'off button' into the program and that when the Soviets had left, the tribal leadership would not hesitate to turn its attention (and our arms) against us or any other “alien” foreigners with the same intensity they used against the Russians.

The terrible irony of this period is that the forces that Carrie's Islamabad Station targets with drone attacks and who kidnapped Saul Berenson as part of a brilliant and complex plan are the linear descendants of those Afghans we supplied and trained during the 10 years of this covert action program. As the new government took root in Afghanistan, it rapidly became clear that the ISI had “cherry-picked” the recipients of their weapons and training largesse. The most radical and extreme elements of the Mujahidin rose to the top, fulfilling ISI's vision of the next-door neighbor they wanted.

Above all, Homeland is distinguished for its portrayal of the pace, intensity, and complexity of the CIA's efforts against terrorism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other near ungoverned places around the world. Some “informed observers” have found fault with aspects of the story and its depiction of clandestine tradecraft—"case officers would never use cell phones within a Station," "would never have operational discussions in an unsecured area," "would always keep Washington fully informed of every event and every plan." These observers may have claim to being informed, but they apparently have not seen the test of real operational pressure and the compromises which time and danger promote.

In conclusion, we can expect that the struggle between the Sunni jihadism of ISIS (and future permutations) on the one hand, and Jews, Christians, and Muslim minorities on the other, is liable to be a long one; it is liable to be accompanied by defeats as well as victories; and it is liable to take place in any parts of the world.

(The CIA Publication Review Board has required that the following statement be included with this commentary.)

All statements of fact, opinion or analysis expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the authors' views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.