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Through the Looking Glass - The Bureau and Homeland: Countering Real Terror with Fiction

Through the Looking Glass - The Bureau and Homeland: Countering Real Terror with Fiction
 Jérôme Poirot
Intelligence Specialist

Warning, this article may contain spoilers. 

The French intelligence services started to gain visibility and popularity only after the wave of attacks that began in 2012. Before that, they were unnoticed, or then vilified, even mocked for any scandal or failed operation. When it came to representations in fiction, rare and successful as they were - OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006), and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, (2009) - they were above all parodic. It was also in the early 2010s that French espionage series appeared: No Limit, in 2012, featuring an agent of the DGSE (General Directorate of External Security) and La Source, in 2013, devoted to the DCRI (Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, which became the DGSI). But who can really remember these minor works? The real breakthrough happened in 2015 with Bureau des Legendes, or The Bureau, whose unprecedented success has been confirmed each year after that with every new season. 

The situation is quite different on the other side of the Atlantic. Since the Second World War, Hollywood has been a vector of influence in American foreign policy. As a result, fiction that depicts war, international tensions or espionage tends, for the most part, to promote the actions of the United States and, if need be, of its intelligence agencies. In the gravest of situations Hollywood becomes all the more patriotic, except when it comes to the Vietnam War. On the other hand, in France, the world of cinema and theatre, with rare exceptions, adapted very well to the German occupation in 1940. Many writers, directors and actors actively collaborated with Continental Films, the production company created by Joseph Goebbels for propaganda purposes in Germany-occupied France. In America, eight seasons of a series like Homeland, from 2011 to 2020, is not necessarily a remarkable occurrence in the world of production - which does not at all downplay their quality and success. The Bureau, on the other hand, brought about a new era in the relationship between espionage fiction and intelligence in France. 

So then, why are The Bureau and Homeland featured in the same article? These two series turn out to have many things in common. They speak volumes about the fight against terrorism, and often with a good deal of realism. They treat its complexity, the need to decide and act without having all the necessary information, the risks taken by field agents, the confrontation with a fanatical enemy who doesn’t mind risking their own life. But they also leave a lot of room for fantasy: superheroes (or the maverick for Homeland); contempt for rules - and incidentally for hierarchy - as the key to success; intense operations by the two foreign intelligence services, the CIA and the DGSE, on national territory (especially in the American series), although their mission is to act abroad; and finally, the autonomy, even independence, of the intelligence agencies from the political authorities. Regarding this last point, the authors of both series seem to agree with James Jesus Angleton ("JJA", the boss of counter-espionage within the CIA from 1954 to 1974, "JJA" also being the nickname given to the character played by Mathieu Amalric in the fourth and fifth seasons of the The Bureau) who dared to state: "It is inconceivable that a secret branch of government should have to comply with all the overt orders of the government".

Homeland and The Bureau are set is the same context: the fight against Islamist terrorism. But the approaches are quite different.

Homeland and The Bureau are set is the same context: the fight against Islamist terrorism. But the approaches are quite different.

The issues of a specific period set the scene, as is always the case with fiction espionage: the German peril before the First World War, during the Cold War, the Red Peril, atomic rivalry, decolonization, then, from the 1990s onwards, geopolitical tensions, state or separatist terrorism, and finally, after 11 September 2001, Islamist terrorism. So, while Homeland deals with this issue and The Bureau makes it one of the themes of the series, they also address the other threats facing the services. 

It is interesting to note that while counter-terrorism is the priority of the French intelligence services (according to the very official National Intelligence Strategy published in July 2019), it is only the fourth of the seven priorities set for the American community (the 2019 National Intelligence Strategy puts strategic intelligence at the top of its concerns).

As far as counter-terrorism is concerned, Homeland and The Bureau have very different approaches - approaches that in some ways reveal the views of the CIA and the DGSE, and beyond that, of the American and French counter-terrorism intelligence communities. These perspectives also reveal the American and French visions of terrorist threat. With the exception of the Season 7 episodes that deal with Russian interference, the attempted assassination of the President of the United States and a serious internal crisis within the CIA (three perfectly credible subjects), Homeland tells a story akin to a September 11, 2001 with a happy ending. The threat that plays out is just as inconceivable, if not more so, than the September 11 attacks, and is also the subject of sophisticated long-term preparation. The unimaginable happens on the screen: an American, who has secretly converted to radical Islam, is about to become Vice-President at the White House. It’s an incredible as much as a frightening scenario. In fact, it is much more unlikely than the attacks of September 11, 2001, for which American intelligence services actually had a number of rather strong warnings. 

Another similarity between September 11 and the plot of Homeland, is how the threat reached the heart of America: the Twin Towers were of considerable symbolic significance to the world, just like the White House is the heart of American power. But as we said, this is a September 11 with a happy ending, like any American blockbuster. The vice-president ends up being assassinated after a first failed attempt - not thwarted by the CIA -, and even if an attack at Langley (the CIA’s headquarters) kills 219 people, the Islamist plot fails. For despite all their faults, both the heroine, with the help of some of her colleagues, and the CIA itself, manage to make good triumph over evil. America is safe.Homeland is thus a symbolic revenge on September 11 (the US is affected, but its intelligence services are active and fight the enemy, whereas in 2001 they were powerless witnesses of a tragedy), on Al Qaeda (which wins battles but loses the war) and on Bin Laden (in the series, Abu Nazir, the leader of the Islamist plot, is fairly quickly neutralized and is an educated, even refined individual, unlike Bin Laden, which makes him a worthy adversary for America).

The Bureau tells a very different story: more subtle, more interesting, more realistic, even if the script is not short of implausible happenings, for spectacle’s and audience’s sake. If The Bureau tells the fight against Islamist terrorism, it also shows many other aspects of the DGSE’s supposed activities. These include counter-proliferation, in this case the need to hamper Iran's ambitions in the field of nuclear weapons; counter-espionage, when France's best and oldest ally, the US, is quite indelicate in conducting an undercover operation in the Piscine (one of the DGSE's nicknames); and its ease of operation in the cyberspace. This last aspect is not anecdotal: unspectacular activity (geeks in front of their keyboards), cyber-intelligence, for counter-intelligence purposes or to conduct offensive operations, has become an important part of the activity of the major intelligence services. Another essential difference between Homeland and The Bureau is reflected in the world view, in the relationships between nations, and hence in the different ways in which the two foreign intelligence services operate. In Homeland, the struggle is between good, embodied by the United States, and its lone heroine, Carrie Mathison, and evil, Al Qaeda. Nothing else, neither friendly nor allied countries, no intelligence service partner - the German BND appears in a few episodes but plays no notable role.

The Bureau, on the other hand, offers a very different view of power relations between states and shows how indispensable, but complex and often ambiguous, relations between foreign intelligence services are. Malotru, his colleagues and the service as a whole are confronted with Algerian, Iranian, Russian and Syrian services. As for the Israeli and American services, they are both partners and adversaries. The attitude of the latter, who set out to infiltrate the DGSE, seems to prove Henry Kissinger right when he said: "It may be dangerous to be America's enemy, but to be America's friend is fatal." Ultimately, the DGSE is confronted with foreign intelligence services when the CIA is confronted with itself, which is a fairly accurate reflection of the history and culture of these two agencies.

The Bureau, on the other hand, offers a very different view of power relations between states and shows how indispensable, but complex and often ambiguous, relations between foreign intelligence services are. 

The heroes of the series convey a pernicious image of the intelligence services and raise concerns about their ability to accept the rules of democracy. 

Malotru and Carrie Mathison are, at the very least, undisciplined agents. However, compliance with rules and procedures, while sometimes cumbersome, is always indispensable and a constituent element of any intelligence service, and even more so of a foreign service. The personal and political risks are higher in this department than in domestic intelligence. Many of their colleagues are insubordinate. For Carrie Mathison, among others we can list Peter Quinn, her best ally, Saul Berenson, her boss, Virgil Piotrowski (who is no longer a member of the CIA, which does not excuse the liberties he takes). For Malotru, there is Cyclone (Mehdi Nebbou, who also plays in the fifth season of Homeland). Cyclone refuses to take part in a training requiring him to drink, which will have serious repercussions. Malotru’s boss then lies to his hierarchy about it. Then, there is also Laurène Balmes (Léa Drucker), recruited by the Americans. It is even possible to argue that Carrie Mathison and Malotru are traitors: they are leading their own battles, including against their service, and in the case of Malotru, against France, during a good part of the saga. It is surprising that these two quality and successful fictions give such an image of how the DGSE and the CIA work. They suggest that the intelligence agencies are either ineffective (the CIA) or have massive difficulty in controlling agents who can simply do whatever they want.

Even more worrying is the fact that the two agencies seem to have their own agendas, instead of being tasked with implementing the policies of their respective governments. Political guidance by the White House or the Elysée is either absent, or then so tenuous and caricatural that it just makes it worse. The truth is that political leadership is crucial for intelligence agencies. This seems somewhat unfortunate for The Bureau, which is in many other ways realistic and often true to reality, but not so much for Homeland, which is more of a blockbuster that is not intimidated by the idea of implausibility. In this respect, the fact that Carrie Mathison suffers from a severe form of bipolarity should have rendered her unfit from the outset. But the fact is that it is because of this disease and the intellectual capacities it offers her at times that she defeats America's enemies.

What if Homeland and The Bureau were influence operations of the American and French governments?

The heroes and many of the secondary characters in both series have so many flaws and are so undisciplined that viewers may end up agreeing with John Le Carré, when in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold he says: "What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives."

But what if Homeland and The Bureau were influence operations of the American and French governments?

Given that we have the tendency to see conspiracies everywhere these days, why not consider that these two series are the result of the discrete will of Washington and Paris to make their populations aware of the threats facing their nations and - despite their shortcomings - to enhance the value of their intelligence services and agents? The question is not theoretical. Modern espionage fiction is the fruit of an influence operation born in the United Kingdom in the minds of the novelist William Le Queux and one of England's great military leaders, Lord Frederick Roberts. The aim was to convince public opinion and Parliament of the need to arm themselves in the face of the threat from Russia (until the rapprochement between London and Moscow), France (until the Entente Cordiale in 1904), but above all Germany, suspected of wanting to invade Great Britain. In France, films or series did not usually feature the security forces. However, since the revolution in the French intelligence community in 2007-2008, the government has made an effort to bring together the academic world, the press and the authors of documentaries and fiction. Although we cannot surely state that there is an active collaboration between the creator of the The Bureau and the DGSE, it is clear that a form of partnership has been established to the benefit of both parties.

In any case, Homeland and The Bureau both have the merit of promoting a better understanding of the threats facing Western democracies and the fact that countering them is a difficult exercise. These two series illustrate, more than two centuries later, George Washington's ever-present statement: "There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, & nothing requires greater pains to obtain."


Copyright : TOP THE OLIGARCHS PRODUCTIONS CANAL+ & Showtime Networks Inc.

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