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Rubicon and the Art of Intelligence

on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 00:00

Although the AMC drama Rubicon is a conspiracy thriller along the lines of such 1970s films as Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, it also paints a detailed portrait of the art of intelligence work within its narrative. Will Travers, the main protagonist of the series, is a team leader at the American Policy Institute, a think tank government agency that sifts through top secret reports, clandestine photographs and other items of interest in an attempt to make rational sense of it all. Thus during a majority of the series, Travers and colleagues Miles Fiedler, Grant Test and Tanya MacGaffin spend a considerable amount of time investigating an al-Quaida operative known as Kateb in order to ascertain the terrorist’s whereabouts.

In his book Securing the State (Columbia University Press, 2010), former British intelligence officer David Omand offers an evaluation of current intelligence efforts as well as his personal viewpoints on how this important governmental function should operate. In simplistic terms, Omand writes that “good intelligence assessment has explanatory value in helping deepen real understanding of how a situation has arisen, the dynamics between the parties and what the motivations of the actors involved are likely to be.”

Under that definition, API is a textbook example of intelligence assessment work at its best. Although other government agencies—such as the military, CIA and NSA—have their own set of analysts, it is Travers and his colleagues that are consistently at the forefront in regards to the Kateb investigation. In the episode “Caught in the Suck,” for instance, Miles Fiedler and Tanya MacGaffin are commissioned by the CIA to assist in determining whether a detained al-Quaida operative has factual information about Kateb. In the episode “Wayward Sons,” meanwhile, it is API that takes the lead in finding Kateb when it is discovered that he has entered the United States.

What makes Will Travers, Miles Fiedler, Grant Test and Tanya MacGaffin so good at their jobs? The episode “A Good Day’s Work” offers significant insight. During the installment, the intelligence community is abuzz with chatter regarding Kateb and approach API chief Truxton Spangler for assistance.

“We’ve got him in five different countries right now,” Spangler is informed in regards to the terrorist.

“And we’ve got him in three others,” another intelligence official adds.

“We’ve got communications that support all eight scenarios,” chimes in a third.

“The US intelligence apparatus is being mocked,” the first speaker admits at that end of the conversation. “Politically, this could be disastrous. Our usefulness is questioned far too often these days. We need to get ahead on this one. There is a mountain of crap to sift through and not a whole hell of a lot of time to do it.”

It is thus up to Travers and his analyst team to restore trust in the intelligence community. Initially they examine the information at hand in the same fashion that David Omand advocates in Securing the State. “What is the degree of confidence in the report?” Omand asks in his book. “Is there confirmatory intelligence? Does this intelligence assessment match earlier reporting? Is there a possibility of being taken in by a deceptive operation?”

In terms of determining where Kateb is located, it is obvious to the API team that the information they have has been “fed” to them by the enemy. “Instead of starting from eight locations and working backwards to figure out the truth, let’s start with one man and follow him,” Will Travers therefore suggests to his colleagues. “Let’s profile this guy, figure out who the hell he is.”

As the group pieces together what little information is known about Kateb—he has never even been photographed—they inevitably reach a dead end. All of the reliable intelligence that they have is post-2004 and none of it paints a complete picture of the al-Quaida operative. It is at this moment that Grant Test has an illuminating theory about their predicament. “Kateb may be who this guy is, but it’s not who he was,” Test explains to the others. “It’s a manufactured identity. The reason we don’t have anything on this guy’s past is that before 2004 he didn’t exist. For 20 some years this guy was someone else, someone who hated himself. So he ditched his old life and became Kateb.”

With the scope and nature of their investigation now focused in a different direction, the group resifts its way through the files, documents and photographs spread out across their conference room table and are indeed able to finally decipher the identity of Kateb, who turns out to be an American named Joseph Purcell.

In his book, David Omand argues that there are two types of intelligence work, one involving “secrets” and one involving “mysteries.” As he explains it, “A secret is best thought of as information that exists, although it may be carefully hidden and protected, but which at least in theory is capable of being found out by an effective intelligence agency.” The deductions made by Grant Test and the rest of the API team outlined above are an example of such “secret” solving.

“A mystery on the other hand is highly desirable information concerning intentions not yet crystallized into decisions or predictions of the outcome of events that have not yet taken place,” Omand continues. In the follow up episode to “A Good Day’s Work,” Rubicon explores the nature of “mystery” intelligence work.

API’s deciphering of the riddle regarding Kateb’s real identity leads to the startling and potentially devastating news that Joseph Purcell has entered the United States just 36 hours earlier. Faced with an imminent terrorist attack on US soil, API is teamed with other government agencies to figure out a way to prevent it. With Will Travers and Grant Test in New Jersey to question relatives of Purcell, Miles Fiedler and Tanya MacGaffin are assigned to work with another agency in order to develop a “top 10” list of potential targets that would result in the largest number of casualties.

“You can’t start with a tactic—the target follows the tactic, not the other way around,” Fiedler immediately protests. “Opportunity is not a meaningful criteria. We have to know why Kateb is here before we can figure out where.”

When API chief Truxton Spangler walks in on the group for an update on the proceedings, Fiedler again raises his objections to the assignment. “I believe our best hope is to use the known information about al-Quaida’s goals and what little information we know about Kateb’s history to quickly hone in on a list of potential targets,” he tells Spangler. “Our colleagues from uptown think this is too slow and unreliable and that we should make a top 10 list of worse case terrorist scenarios and then work that list.”

His argument sways Spangler, who ultimately agrees that Fiedler’s suggestion is a far more effective use of the analyst’s talents, especially since countless other government agencies had no doubt already devised their own “top 10” lists more times than anyone could count. Omand writes in Securing the State that “there is a school of thought that would hold that it is better for the intelligence world to stick to secret reporting, as factual as possible, and leave crystal ball gazing to those in the policy world.” Rubicon and the American Policy Institute would obviously disagree with that viewpoint, even if they were ultimately unsuccessful.

Intelligence assessment is a vital element in regards to the safety of the nation, as it provides important information pertaining to the potential actions of both known and unknown terrorists. Rubicon offers a realistic exploration of that profession at its best, and by doing so adds a connect-the-dots style mystery to go along with the overall conspiracy of the series. In the end, these two seemingly separate storylines dovetail into one coherent narrative, rewarding the attentive viewer and raising the level of intelligent, quality television even higher in the process.

Anthony Letizia

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