Bill Broyles Jr. was trying to come up with a new TV series. He wanted "ordinary people with families," plus something on world affairs and politics, plus elements of divided loyalties, moral confusion, lots and lots of dilemmas.
He was intrigued with how people function in a bureaucracy: "It's similar everywhere, whether it's Newsweek (he was editor-in-chief) or the Social Security Administration or Aetna life insurance," he said, "(but) no one was particularly interested in a show about insurance companies."
Finally he landed on the Central Intelligence Agency as "the most interesting bureaucracy there is . . . a place where people get up in the morning, kiss the kids goodby, drive to work, and they're spies."
The other attractions were topicality, secret lives and subterfuge and killing or be killed.
Broyles put them all together and came up with "Under Cover," a Warner Bros. production that debuts on ABC tonight at 9 with a two-hour adventure about a plot to assassinate a Soviet reform politician in the Ukraine.
Then the series begins a run Saturday night at 9 with the first of a topical two-chapter episode called "Sacrifice." It takes place in Kuwait and Iraq a few days before the invasion. The operatives for the NIA, as the agency is called, learn about Iraqi plans to launch rockets full of deadly germs. Can the attack be thwarted in time?
The other executive producer, John Sacret Young, with whom Broyles created "China Beach," was not overjoyed with the Saturday-night time slot. Except for NBC comedies, that time period has been a veritable Bermuda Triangle of missing series. "China Beach," which had been in that slot, now is in "deep hiatus, somewhere between comatose and expiring," he said.
Linda Purl and Anthony Denison play the family of spies, Kate and Dylan Del'Amico, although their three children seem oblivious to why the folks are gone so much.
Outside the trip to Yalta in tonight's pilot--which was shot in Yugoslavia--L.A. environs stand in for the rest of the world. Kuwait and Iraq were played by a landfill in Valencia, a cemetery in Compton and the Green Hotel in Pasadena.
Today, the cast is shooting in the Peruvian jungles, set deep in the back lot of Warners' Burbank studio.
One of the intriguing names on the "Under Cover" roster is story editor-consultant-writer Frank Snepp, 47, who is notorious around the real CIA. He toiled for the agency (1968-1976), including duty as its chief strategy analyst in Saigon. But in 1977 Random House published his "Decent Interval," a 600-page litany of outrageous behavior in Vietnam. The Justice Department brought suit, claiming that Snepp violated his CIA oath, required of all employees, that nothing can be revealed by agents unless approved.
He lost the landmark legal battle, which amounted to "a lifetime gag order," he claims. He was ordered to pay all his book profits to the government and figured it amounted to $200,000.
"One day I walked out of the Justice Department where I had gone to turn the check over and I didn't have a cent left to my name, literally," Snepp recalled in an interview.
He has to clear any writing, including his scripts, through the CIA, although he said that in working with scripts he can offer suggestions and advice on plot.
He has worked on investigative projects with ABC News, including a story that he helped break about three years ago on Iraq's development of biological weapons--which turns up as a vital ingredient in the "Sacrifice" plot.
Another episode deals with "a very personal experience with torture," Snepp said. "We set up an interrogation room that is a spitting image of a room I worked in, all snow white and highly air conditioned to the point where it's frigid so the prisoner is put on the defensive."
The story deals with "one of the quintessential questions of morality in the intelligence business--the one place where you can play God," he said, ". . . and when do you become a torturer simply by acquiescence?"
Snepp, as one of the CIA's principal interrogators in Vietnam, said that torture was "an ever-present phenomenon." He recalled questioning a prisoner for several weeks, then walking in one day to find him beaten horribly by South Vietnamese interrogators.
"I went to the senior CIA official and I said, 'This is a moral outrage.' And he said, 'I don't want to talk about morality. We've got 140,000 North Vietnamese within 30 to 40 miles of Saigon. How am I going to go to the president of the republic here and say to him, "Tell your cops to cut it out because it offends our moral sensibilities"?'
"The officer said, 'Don't talk to me about morality; talk to me about pragmatic things.'
"I said, 'This guy's got strategic information and he's lying on the floor and can't talk.'
"He said, 'Yes, that I can argue, not morality in the intelligence business.' "