Quora Question: Is the NSA As Seen On TV?

Homeland
Shows like 'Homeland' and 'The Blacklist' may be skewing Americans' understanding of what the NSA actually does. Kent Smioth/Showtime Everett Collection

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Answer from Amy Zegart, a Stanford professor, Hoover senior fellow, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and  author of Spying Blind

Absolutely. I’ve been conducting research into “spytainment” for several years now and believe that while blurring the line between fact and fiction makes for great entertainment, it comes at a hidden cost: Americans are steeped in misperceptions about what intelligence agencies actually do.

For example, in two national polls I commissioned last year and this October, I found that most Americans don’t know what the NSA really does. About one-third thought NSA officials were responsible for interrogating terrorists. They aren’t. Some 27 percent believe the NSA builds spy satellites. It doesn't. And half of the respondents didn’t know that the NSA engages in codebreaking. It does. A lot. The NSA was established by an order of President Harry Truman in 1952 with codebreaking as its core mission.

Further, 39 percent of the respondents in the October poll believe that metadata – the information the NSA collects as part of its bulk phone records program – includes the content of phone calls. It doesn’t.

Even our national figures are getting in on the game. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has twice suggested in public that he would turn to the fictitious intelligence operative Jack Bauer of 24 to resolve legal questions about interrogation methods.

And the relationship between Hollywood and the intelligence community in Washington is cozier than ever. The CIA has pitched storylines on its website; the Pentagon has set up an entertainment liaison office in LA; and Zero Dark 30 director Kathryn Bigelow got better access to operational details of the Osama bin Laden raid than most intelligence officers or members of Congress.
 
The February 2012 TV show, Act of Valor, used real U.S. Navy SEALS to act out a fake plotline with real tactics. In Bigelow’s Zero Dark 30, the opening frame reads: “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” Sounds and feels like a documentary, right? It isn’t. In fact, the film makes factually incorrect assertions that left many Americans confused about whether torture was used to obtain Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

And though 43 percent of Americans could correctly name James Clapper as the director of national intelligence, the figure jumps to 74 percent when asked to identify the celebrity who caused a global stir when she twerked on nationwide TV (Miley Cyrus).

That’s when you know American spy agencies have some major PR work to do.

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