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Homeland Security Goes Prime-Time "Threat Matrix's" Feel-Good Illusions

Homeland Security Goes Prime Time

by RICHARD FORNO

For those who missed it, this season ABC is running a new prime-time drama on Thursday about the Homeland Security Department. The show is based on the concept of a special-operations team contained within DHS whose purpose is to respond to and preempt potential attacks indicated in the president’s daily "Threat Matrix" briefing. Coincidentally, the show is called "Threat Matrix."

The show’s opening begins with a spoken monologue: "Every morning, the president receives a list of the top ten terrorist threats–this list is known as the threat matrix." As a student of national security studies, this is mildly amusing given the current Administration’s questionable use of intelligence information both before and after September 11 — not to mention such a statement assumes the president can both read and comprehend such reports in order to make an effective decision.

True to form, in its attempt to create a drama about America’s newest security apparatus, Hollywood takes its typical artistic license a bit far. Viewers see fictional DHS agents and staffers working inside a spacious industrial aluminum "operations center" (reminiscent of the set of "Le Femme Nikita") that’s adorned with flat-screen monitors. And like the tricorders from Star Trek, team members carry Sony Clie organizers–likely a marketing tie-in–serving up a variety of gee-whiz functions depending on plot requirements from week to week. (Granted, the real-world Clie doesn’t do everything it does on the show, but give it time.)

During each episode, viewers are bombarded with high-speed images of satellites in orbit, digital communications, and computer-generated imagery to remind them that DHS utilizes all available technology in its quest to secure America. As a result, ABC’s "Threat Matrix" team can accomplish such feats as detecting a faint trace of a terrorist’s fingerprint on a telephone or use headquarters computers to discover a single person in a crowded street, even if they person in question has undergone cosmetic surgery to alter his appearance. Ask any intelligence professional–in the real world, it’s not that easy.

As a computer security technologist by trade, I’m most amused–if not frustrated — by the weekly (and ongoing Hollywood) fantasy whereby "Threat Matrix" computer jockeys in their downtown Washington headquarters can instantly tap into any computer, surveillance camera or communications system anywhere in the world in support of the week’s mission. The first episode showed these console cowboys "retasking Echelon" (the NSA electronic eavesdropping system) to listen into a sheriff’s walkie-talkie conversation in the middle of Montana. Give me a break. That’s about as realistic as a GS-12 staff member at the NSA asking for satellite imagery by requesting "immediate KeyHole satellite coverage" of Washington, DC when on the trail of Will Smith in the movie "Enemy of the State." Again, ask any intelligence professional — tasking a satellite is not an on-demand activity, despite what Hollywood may think. It requires serious planning, time, and money to happen.

But it makes for enticing plot development and awesome eye-candy on the screen.

Amazingly, the ‘Threat Matrix" team can travel anywhere in the world on short notice to accomplish its mission. How they accomplish this within the timeframe of a single episode’s plot is beyond me, particularly since there are no Star Trek "transporters" to instantly zap operatives around the world. Incidentally, many of the "Threat Matrix" team are deployed into the field on various assignments, yet it’s unlikely any of them–linguists, computer geeks, forensic profilers, and other support staff–have been trained in the fieldcraft or military tactics required during such deployments. This is a glaring hole in the program’s believability.

Yet, there are a few positives to this DHS love-fest, particularly when it incorporates real-world news items and concerns into the plot line. Perhaps the best example of this was the show’s attempt to illustrate the many civil liberties concerns surrounding the still-controversial USA PATRIOT Act. Chillingly, viewers were shown material witness detentions, surveillance of Americans peacefully disagreeing with national policies, and government invasion of university computer systems looking for suspicious activities such as odd book-checkouts at a college library among other real-world USA PATRIOT-endorsed items that should be the object of both concern and scorn by the American public.

Although the acting is bland and the casting is both stereotypical and politically-correct for a program about inter-agency activities and coordination–the multicultural cast includes a lead character being Muslim–special recognition should be given to Shoshannah Stern who plays one of the team’s computer specialists at headquarters. Despite being deaf in real-life, this Gallaudet University graduate delivers a fine performance in her supporting role. Hopefully, her success in television will serve as an example to other deaf actors to follow in the future.

Bottom line? Hollywood tricks of the trade aside, "Threat Matrix" has the potential to become a decent prime-time drama and convey real messages about the complexities of post-September-11 American law enforcement in a meaningful way. However, should the show deviate from its homeland security premise into a generic television-cop program, get too enamored in the high-tech wizardry of how Hollywood thinks the real DHS operates, or become nothing more than a prime-time propaganda film for the Bush Administration’s policies on how to deal with terrorism, it will serve little more than mindless entertainment for America’s masses while perpetuating an illusory, feel-good myth about American security.

RICHARD FORNO, a Security technologist, is the former Chief Security Officer at Network Solutions. His latest book is "Weapons of Mass Delusion: America’s Real National Emergency." His home in cyberspace is http://www.infowarrior.org/.