Homeland, the award-winning Showtime series that centers on the post-9/11 Central Intelligence Agency, has been the topic of intense debate in CIA circles since its first season aired in 2012, primarily because of its sensational bipolar protagonist, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes. Critics wonder: is Homeland accurate? Does it realistically portray what it’s like to be a CIA analyst and operative in the wake of September 11, 2001?
While most former CIA employees who have been interviewed about the show agree it does a remarkable job capturing many of the tensions, complexities, and emotional realities of what it’s like to be in international intelligence today, they also have some pretty serious criticisms of the veracity of certain aspects of the show. For example, if you’ve ever found yourself shouting at the TV during one of Carrie’s breakdowns that she should DEFINITELY be fired for this one, you’re probably not wrong. For the most part, real members of the intelligence community agree; some of Carrie’s most rogue moments probably are, in reality, fireable offenses.
Certainly, drama is drama, and must take liberties with the truth in order to be true to its characters and tell the best, most impactful story possible, while servicing its themes. That said, it's still interesting to know what Homeland gets wrong about the intelligence community. Also worth considering: all of the information contained herein comes from the lips of current or former CIA agents, who may have some stock in presenting a respectable image for the agency.
In one of Season 2’s big reveals, Saul discovers “analyst” Peter Quinn is actually a covert black ops agent sent by CIA director David Estes to assassinate Nicholas Brody. Valerie Plame says, though, this is a completely fictionalized directive. CIA agents would never be tasked with the direct assassination of someone who isn’t considered a foreign combatant, especially not an American citizen. So, while the whole Peter Quinn secret-double-agent thing was an exciting plot line, it doesn’t match reality in the least.
So this feature of the show is just unequivocally false, and pretty much every current and former CIA employee interviewed on the topic attests to this fact: you would never see agents walking around Langley on their phones. For one thing, it’s generally a bad idea to discuss secrets and situations that could have global terror impacts on non-secure lines. For another thing, cell phones aren’t allowed inside Langley. Analysts check them at the door. As a narrative device, cell phones help reveal details relevant to moving while helping increase or maintain suspense; this simply wouldn’t and doesn’t happen.
Season 3 of Homeland centers on the hunt for the Langley bomber, who killed David Estes and many other CIA employees by smuggling a car bomb to the agency parking lot. And the manhunt takes place on US soil. In reality, the CIA wouldn’t be allowed to investigate the bombing, let alone chase down the perpetrator. Former analyst Aki Peritz says if the CIA tried to investigate a crime like this, they would be “caught immediately” by the FBI. This kind of domestic chase is really a job for an agency like the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Justice.
When Carrie Mathison heads deep into the field (like, for example, when she meets a contact in Beirut in the first episode of Season 2), she dons a brown wig and a burka, but otherwise pretty much looks like herself. Valerie Plame, also a blonde former analyst, says that while it’s easier to move unnoticed as a female operative than a male one (because “in many places in the world women are wallpaper”), CIA operatives have to make sure they blend completely with their surroundings, which Carrie simply doesn’t do. Plame says female agents with blonde hair probably wouldn’t even be asked to infiltrate terrorist cells, because they couldn’t blend. They’d find more field success in areas where their looks more closely match those of the local population.