Edward Jay Epstein on Homeland

A new series on Showtime called Homeland is about a CIA agent (played by Claire Danes) who believes that a newly-released American prisoner of war may have been “turned” during his years in Iraqi captivity. In the first episode, she tries to find evidence to support her belief. Judging by that episode, it is very good.

I told Edward Jay Epstein about it — his book on James Angleton centers on CIA infiltration by “moles”. He commented:

What is interesting here is the schism between the fictional world and real world of counterespionage. In the former, it is an issue of “who”. Find the guilty man and arrest or kill him. In the real world, the issue is vulnerability. The bureaucracy has two choices: admit its methods are vulnerable to penetration and paralyze the organization, or deem the search for a mole to be paranoia and sick think. That latter course is what happens in the real world, alas. Some fiction writers understand this: Graham Greene in Human Factor and Le Carre in Smiley’s People.

Yes. If you go back in time, I predict you will find that the term kill the messenger arose at the same time as powerful organizations. I have a theory: Only people who derive power from their placement in big organizations want to kill the messenger (who says the organization assumes something not true). In other situations, bad news is less threatening. In health care, outside ideas are met by insiders, such as doctors, with where’s the double-blind placebo-controlled study? As Epstein says, the dismissiveness is partly motivated by fear: fear that something is wrong with their system and its values.

3 Replies to “Edward Jay Epstein on Homeland

  1. FYI: The lore on killing the messenger goes back to the Greeks at least; I’m struck by how often I encounter the phenomenon when I offer people psychological or scientific findings that do not please them — they get mad at me…

    From Wiki:

    Plutarch’s Lives has this line: “The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’s coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him…”.[5]

  2. Powerful organizations predate written language and even agriculture by thousands of years. They were religions, of course. Respect for facts was never their strong suit.

    “Where’s the double-blind controlled trial?” is a good question, years after it should have been done, published, and acted on. But we are constrained to depend on admitted monopolists to perform those few that are done.

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