Between Fact and Fiction

I have a guilty secret. I love J.J. Abrams' hit ABC show, Alias.

I am not alone in my adoration of Agents Bristow and Vaughn. Alias is one of primetime television's most-watched shows, consistently pulling in high ratings and earning rave reviews from entertainment pundits. The scripts are intelligently written, with plenty of intriguing plot twists and exasperating cliff-hangers. Yet I feel ashamed when I tell friends about my Alias addiction, mainly because the show unabashedly glorifies a shameful American institution--the Central Intelligence Agency.

Since its inception in 1947, the CIA has undermined democratically-elected governments in countries like Iran and Chile, meddled with free elections in scores of countries, including France and Italy, distributed massive quantities of propaganda in violation of international sovereignty laws, and funded and/or trained mercenaries who have terrorized countless civilians all over the world. And, since the CIA takes great pains to operate as secretly as possible, this list is just the tip of the iceberg--an abbreviated indication of the true range and scope of the Agency's activities over the past 60 years.

Yet, if we depended on Alias alone for information about the CIA, we would never know about this institution's dark history. The ways in which Alias writers and producers have subtly reinforced the image of the CIA as a righteous organization are fascinating. While the show's Chinese, Russian, Cuban, Irish and Egyptian villains routinely torture and murder their innocent victims, the CIA agents themselves rarely use real guns in confrontations, opting instead to use stun guns or tranquilizer darts most of the time. On the rare occasions when Sydney Bristow or another CIA agent does use gunfire, it is invariably in self-defense. The message is simple: CIA agents do not randomly kill or routinely sanction extreme violence.

History belies this message, however. To cite but one example, the CIA published two tactical manuals designed to train counterinsurgents to overthrow Nicaragua's democratically-elected government during the clandestine contra war in the 1980s. In "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare," the CIA promoted acts of terrorism "against the civilian population, including assassination of government employees and sympathizers." One entire section of this manual was dedicated to "Selective Use of Violence for Propagandistic Effects"; here, the CIA affirmed that "it is possible to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges, [municipal] judges, police and State Security officials, etc."

Alias is misleading when it comes to CIA protocol for torture, too. Most of the time, torturers on the show are foreign terrorists or criminals. When Agent Vaughn takes an enemy into custody, the prisoner is accommodated in a spacious and well-lit jail cell or comfortable CIA safe house--never tortured in a filthy, cramped cage. In the rare instances when an American officer does resort to torture or illegal detention, it is usually someone affiliated with the FBI, National Security Council, or National Security Agency--or a rogue White House operative, like Robert Lindsey in season three. Sure, there have been times when Jack Bristow or Marcus Dixon roughed up a detainee--but it is always made clear that the Agency does not officially sanction such behavior. As Lauren Reed remarked last season, "The United States is not in the business of torturing witnesses for information."

This rosy picture of CIA protocol is ludicrous, particularly in light of the present controversy over the Agency's involvement in the prison abuse atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Alias writers have conveniently avoided plot lines that mention hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan, where CIA operators are currently accused of torture and other human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has reported that CIA tactics in Iraq have included the use of muzzled dogs to threaten prisoners, sleep deprivation, near drowning (or "water boarding"), and exposure to extreme temperatures. On March 3, Washington Post journalist Dana Priest reported that a CIA officer who had killed an Afghan detainee by leaving him naked overnight in a freezing cell had been promoted within the Agency, while the CIA inspector general was supposedly investigating the case. Priest points out that the classification of CIA records, sanctioned by the Bush administration, has prevented American citizens from learning about all the Agency's criminal transgressions since the start of the "War on Terror."

On Alias, most CIA agents participate in short-term missions designed to simply extract a critical piece of information or new technology needed to prevent global apocalypse. Sydney Bristow's exploits in Tunisia or Brazil are glamorous and exciting in that classic James Bond kind of way, and she never sticks around long enough to destabilize a local government or disseminate subversive propaganda designed to protect, say, U.S. business interests. While this may make for great television, it is an absolute misrepresentation of the CIA's actual modus operandi, which has always involved the long-term infiltration of sovereign states as well as the manufacture of various forms of propaganda to undermine targeted governments. Throughout 1954, for example, CIA radios transmitted fabricated reports of civilian uprisings, military defections, and incidents of sabotage into Guatemala in preparation for a military coup d'état which ultimately overthrew the democratically elected Arbenz government. More recently, European governments have begun investigating the role of long-term CIA operatives in the abductions and disappearances of purported terrorists from various Western European countries since 9/11.

Since its creation, Alias writers have consistently used the oversimplified rhetoric of the "War on Terror," referring constantly to "good guys" and "bad guys." In the first season, Sydney Bristow opened each episode by reminding viewers "I thought I was working for the good guys [the real CIA]--until I told my fiancé about SD-6, and they had him killed. That's when I learned the truth: that SD-6 is part of the very enemy I thought I was fighting." Such language reinforces the idea that the world can be divided into good and evil. More insidiously, it perpetuates the myth that the CIA is a morally upstanding organization dedicated to eradicating "evil," unethical, and inhumane behavior from the planet.

To what extent is it reasonable to expect a primetime television show on a major network to be either historically accurate or politically accountable? Where should viewers and critics draw the line between entertainment and propaganda?

Are we responsible for discerning fact from fiction when we watch television? I believe the answer is yes. I will continue to watch Alias and be intrigued and even entertained by the flashy covert operations and fantastical story lines. But I will continue to feel guilty about it, because I know that it is a farce and a lie, an inexcusable misrepresentation of a deplorable organization.

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