After two seasons and dozens of covert meetings, we know this much, at least, about the counterterrorist drama 'Homeland': It wins a ton of Emmys and is watched at the highest level of the U.S. government – Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, even the president himself. But what's also increasingly clear is that the way the show depicts the lives of CIA agents in the shadows of the war on terror is actually pretty credible. As the second season wraps, we interviewed a half-dozen officials – some of whom had just recently left the CIA, others still in the intelligence world – to assess the veracity of 'Homeland''s spycraft. The consensus: It's about as real as a popular spy drama could be.
Everyone we spoke to agreed that the show nails the emotional core of the war on terror, and many of the operational details as well. "From what I've seen," says a former CIA operations officer who calls 'Homeland' his favorite show, "it's done very well on some of the tradecraft, the tactics, and what it's like in the field."
Early this season, for example, Carrie Mathison, the agent played by Claire Danes, reconnects with a valuable asset, a source who is the wife of a Hezbollah leader. "The CIA does have those kinds of sources," the official says. "It penetrates terrorist organizations." The most recent high-profile instance: a double agent in Yemen, working for the CIA and the Saudis, foiled the underwear-bomber plot in May 2012.
The care and cultivation of those human assets remain a daily preoccupation of the 'Homeland' characters – and their real-world counterparts. "If there's a fully recruited source, you have a moral, ethical, and operational obligation to keep them alive and to help them," says the official. "In the counterterrorism business, it's really hard to do. If you think recruiting a terrorist is hard, keeping them in play is even harder. It's one of the biggest things a case officer has to deal with."
Intelligence collection is becoming more and more dangerous. The burn rate for agency assets has increased exponentially after 11 years of hot wars – and now, with fewer boots on the ground overseas, Washington lacks the resources to carry out its covert campaigns. In 'Homeland,' the CIA or a rival organization often ends with the source dead, as we saw in Season One with Carrie's high-priced American escort. Last year, a dozen CIA assets working in Lebanon and Iran were caught and later executed – two of the informants were reportedly discovered meeting CIA officers at a Beirut Pizza Hut; in 2009 in Khost, Afghanistan, a Jordanian CIA-source-turned-double-agent killed seven American CIA officials in a suicide attack.
Both current and former officials say that the spy business is becoming more precarious. "You're going to lose them, an asset or agent. Even if nobody makes a mistake, you just get killed. It's not unusual, sadly," adds the CIA official.
To many viewers, the idea of an American turncoat like Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) infiltrating the government on behalf of an Al Qaeda-like organization is a far-fetched plot, but not to the intelligence professionals we interviewed. In fact, in one of the first major strikes against the West, the Nairobi embassy bombing in 1998, Al Qaeda had just such an inside asset. Ali Mohamed was an Egyptian army officer who immigrated to the United States, married an American woman, and then joined the U.S. Army in 1986. He made it to the rank of sergeant – same as Brody. He eventually left the military, armed with both an American passport and impeccable credentials, and started working as a double agent for both U.S. law enforcement and Al Qaeda, even meeting with Osama bin Laden on several occasions. But in the end, he sided with Al Qaeda, withholding crucial information that the U.S. could have used to stop the Kenya bombing. He was eventually arrested and pleaded guilty to terrorism conspiracy charges. But strangely, there is no record of his ever going to prison, and subsequently he seems to have disappeared altogether. "Why would you think a terrorist organization wouldn't infiltrate us?" asks the former intelligence official. "That's pretty naive, and we know they want to. If you're Al Qaeda or Hezbollah, you want to have a source in the government." He says also that, in a Brody-like prisoner situation, "there can be a deep bond between a hostile service and its source. Look at these Americans and Brits that have been recruited for suicide missions. That's committed."
Carrie, too, is particularly believable because she is a woman. It's no longer just the "21-year-old white guy from Yale," according to one former female CIA official who just left the agency. According to 'The Finish,' 'Black Hawk Down' author Mark Bowden's new book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, the CIA field agents involved in the search for the terrorist leader were almost entirely women (including a unit chief named Jennifer Matthews who in 2009 died in a suicide-bomb attack in Afghanistan).
Carrie exemplifies this kind of woman, out there on the edge, jumping from war zone to war zone. "People that are drawn to this work tend to be characters," adds the former official. "They don't go work for the State Department. They don't want to be diplomats. They like being able to take risks, and walking the line between being risky and reckless." It is in Carrie – or rather, in Carrie's mental health – that 'Homeland''s veracity is most strenuously tested. She is in many ways a composite – she does both operations and analysis, more work than any one person could really pull off. But the stress and isolation are real.
"It's clandestine service," one official explains, and the burden of carrying around secrets without being able to be honest about it can lead to breakdowns. "There are lots of people like [Carrie] in the agency," says another former official. "I think it accurately touches on these sensitive issues. It's hard to walk around knowing all this stuff."
It would be unlikely, however, that any CIA division chief would keep someone as mentally disturbed as Carrie in the field. "A very small percentage of the men and women down range, we had to pull them out quietly for some professional counseling," says the official. "If it's a deep psychological or emotional problem, the CIA will do a lot to take care of them. It's in their self-interest. To have someone as severely damaged as Carrie, there's no way they'd have her in operations. They'd put her into some non-sensitive, non-stressful job, and work with her there."
Season Two has ventured further into the intersection of the intelligence and policy worlds. The season opens with Israel having just bombed Iran's nuclear sites. "I like how they're handling the Iran issue," says a U.S. official who works on national-security issues for the White House. "There's a nuance to it, a complexity." This official, who has been involved in every major Middle East foreign policy discussion of the Obama administration, says that 'Homeland' is the first television drama or movie that has managed to successfully translate the past decade of war into something both watchable and relatively true to the experience of people actually doing this work. "There are very few shows or movies that accurately depict the CIA post 9/11," the official says. "You had all these great Cold War stories: Tom Clancy, Harrison Ford, movies and books. It really hasn't happened since 9/11. The CIA is an entertaining place."