It's hard to remember a time in U.S. history when public attention was more sharply focused on issues of domestic security, civil liberties and the role of U.S. intelligence agencies. A prime-time dramatic series on the CIA could contribute mightily to public understanding--if rigorously independent and unencumbered.
Unfortunately, that's not the approach CBS is taking with "The Agency," its new series about the CIA, made with the support of the CIA. As Brian Lowry reported in The Times ("TV Viewers Flock to What Is Familiar," Oct. 2), CBS is running reverential promos for the show: 'Now, more than ever, America needs the unsung heroes of 'The Agency."'
One wonders if CBS executives remember "The FBI," the Efrem Zimbalist Jr. series that was one of the great feats in propaganda history. Week after week for nine years, it presented an unvaryingly upbeat--and largely distorted--portrait of a supremely ethical, non-politicized institution.
The unsullied portrait was shaped jointly by ABC and the FBI, which had say over scripts and story lines. The series was part of J. Edgar Hoover's effort to polish the bureau's image in the mass media as a means toward more power and more funding.
After "The FBI" went off the air in 1974, congressional hearings and Freedom of Information lawsuits revealed that, during the nine years of sanitized hero worship on ABC, the bureau was systematically abusing the 1st Amendment rights of countless civil rights and peace advocates, from grass-roots activists to John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. "The FBI" offered no episodes about that FBI.
Seemingly unconcerned with this history, CBS' "The Agency" has invited the participation of the CIA, an institution with a history at least as controversial as the FBI's. The CBS project readily won the support of the CIA and its official liaison with Hollywood, Chase Brandon, whose job is CIA image-polishing. "Right now the American public needs a sense of reassurance," Brandon told The Times ("The CIA Spins Itself," by Patrick Goldstein, Sept. 29), referring to the Sept. 11 attacks. "If anything, a show like 'The Agency' couldn't be more timely."
What might be more timely is an independent look at the CIA. In light of Sept. 11, Americans have a right to question how that agency has performed lately and what sort of people it has been associating with, in Afghanistan and in other secret wars. These questions could be posed in a dramatic series but not on a show inclined more toward glorification than elucidation.
After meeting the creator of "The Agency" and reviewing scripts, Brandon granted unprecedented support for the CBS series, which was allowed to shoot scenes at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., using off-duty agency employees as extras. For interior sets in Los Angeles, the CIA has provided agency seals. "Much to the delight of the agency," the New York Times reported, "CBS clearly has become an agency booster."
Series producers say the CIA will have input on scripts but not script "approval." Executive producer Shaun Cassidy discussed the CIA's script involvement with the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "Their support is [on] a strictly case-by-case basis. If they don't like the script, we won't have their support that week, and that may happen."
In a country where separation of media and state is so valued, should network TV producers be showing scripts to a government agency in hopes of getting its support? And if a series is that cozy with its subject, how much integrity can the program have?
In recent years, the CIA has worked hand-in-hand with brutal regimes and armies. It has helped overthrow elected governments. CBS knows it will lose its access and support if "The Agency" focuses on the CIA's less savory activities or blunders. CIA liaison Brandon is unabashed about denying requests for help to any Hollywood project he deems insufficiently friendly.
So as long as CBS and the CIA remain wedded, we can expect more episodes like last Thursday's, in which the CIA director's lying under oath to the Senate is portrayed as the correct and ethical choice. But don't expect hard-hitting episodes on the CIA's past alliance with terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. Or on the agency's role in the bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and the Chinese Embassy in Serbia.
A tough-minded show about the real CIA would make for riveting drama. But how much reality can we expect from a series that goes to the agency every week for approval?