[Ppnews] Torture in Hollywood - The politics of the man behind “24.”

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Feb 22 11:53:46 EST 2007

The politics of the man behind “24.”


The New Yorker
Issue of 2007-02-19
Posted 2007-02-12

The office desk of Joel Surnow­the co-creator and 
executive producer of “24,” the popular 
counterterrorism drama on Fox­faces a wall 
dominated by an American flag in a glass case. A 
small label reveals that the flag once flew over 
Baghdad, after the American invasion of Iraq, in 
2003. A few years ago, Surnow received it as a 
gift from an Army regiment stationed in Iraq; the 
soldiers had shared a collection of “24” DVDs, he 
told me, until it was destroyed by an enemy bomb. 
“The military loves our show,” he said recently. 
Surnow is fifty-two, and has the gangly, coiled 
energy of an athlete; his hair is close-cropped, 
and he has a “soul patch”­a smidgen of beard 
beneath his lower lip. When he was young, he 
worked as a carpet salesman with his father. The 
trick to selling anything, he learned, is to 
carry yourself with confidence and get the 
customer to like you within the first five 
minutes. He’s got it down. “People in the 
Administration love the series, too,” he said. 
“It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.”

Surnow’s production company, Real Time 
Entertainment, is in the San Fernando Valley, and 
occupies a former pencil factory: a bland, 
two-story industrial building on an abject strip 
of parking lots and fast-food restaurants. 
Surnow, a cigar enthusiast, has converted a room 
down the hall from his office into a salon with 
burled-wood humidors and a full bar; his friend 
Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk-radio host, 
sometimes joins him there for a smoke. (Not long 
ago, Surnow threw Limbaugh a party and presented 
him with a custom-made “24” smoking jacket.) The 
ground floor of the factory has a large 
soundstage on which many of “24” ’s interior 
scenes are shot, including those set at the 
perpetually tense Los Angeles bureau of the 
Counter Terrorist Unit, or C.T.U.­a fictional 
federal agency that pursues America’s enemies with steely resourcefulness.

Each season of “24,” which has been airing on Fox 
since 2001, depicts a single, panic-laced day in 
which Jack Bauer­a heroic C.T.U. agent, played by 
Kiefer Sutherland­must unravel and undermine a 
conspiracy that imperils the nation. Terrorists 
are poised to set off nuclear bombs or 
bioweapons, or in some other way annihilate 
entire cities. The twisting story line forces 
Bauer and his colleagues to make a series of grim 
choices that pit liberty against security. 
Frequently, the dilemma is stark: a resistant 
suspect can either be accorded due 
process­allowing a terrorist plot to proceed­or 
be tortured in pursuit of a lead. Bauer 
invariably chooses coercion. With unnerving 
efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, 
electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or 
more exotically abused; almost without fail, 
these suspects divulge critical secrets.

The show’s appeal, however, lies less in its 
violence than in its giddily literal rendering of 
a classic thriller trope: the “ticking time bomb” 
plot. Each hour-long episode represents an hour 
in the life of the characters, and every minute 
that passes onscreen brings the United States a 
minute closer to doomsday. (Surnow came up with 
this concept, which he calls the show’s “trick.”) 
As many as half a dozen interlocking stories 
unfold simultaneously­frequently on a split 
screen­and a digital clock appears before and 
after every commercial break, marking each second 
with an ominous clang. The result is a riveting 
sensation of narrative velocity.

Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, 
admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you 
that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never 
occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our 
show it happens every week.” According to Darius 
Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed 
College and the author of the forthcoming book 
“Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the 
ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean 
Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written 
during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. 
The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab 
dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent 
plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must 
race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who 
has examined the available records of the 
conflict, told me that the story has no basis in 
fact. In his view, the story line of “Les 
Centurions” provided French liberals a more 
palatable rationale for torture than the racist 
explanations supplied by others (such as the 
notion that the Algerians, inherently 
simpleminded, understood only brute force). 
Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity 
shared by many liberal societies­that their 
enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.

“24,” which last year won an Emmy Award for 
Outstanding Drama Series, packs an improbable 
amount of intrigue into twenty-four hours, and 
its outlandishness marks it clearly as a fantasy, 
an heir to the baroque potboilers of Tom Clancy 
and Vince Flynn. Nevertheless, the show obviously 
plays off the anxieties that have beset the 
country since September 11th, and it sends a 
political message. The series, Surnow told me, is 
“ripped out of the Zeitgeist of what people’s 
fears are­their paranoia that we’re going to be 
attacked,” and it “makes people look at what 
we’re dealing with” in terms of threats to 
national security. “There are not a lot of 
measures short of extreme measures that will get 
it done,” he said, adding, “America wants the war 
on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot.”

For all its fictional liberties, “24” depicts the 
fight against Islamist extremism much as the Bush 
Administration has defined it: as an 
all-consuming struggle for America’s survival 
that demands the toughest of tactics. Not long 
after September 11th, Vice-President Dick Cheney 
alluded vaguely to the fact that America must 
begin working through the “dark side” in 
countering terrorism. On “24,” the dark side is 
on full view. Surnow, who has jokingly called 
himself a “right-wing nut job,” shares his show’s 
hard-line perspective. Speaking of torture, he 
said, “Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke 
in New York City that was about to blow­or any 
other city in this country­that, even if you were 
going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?”

Since September 11th, depictions of torture have 
become much more common on American television. 
Before the attacks, fewer than four acts of 
torture appeared on prime-time television each 
year, according to Human Rights First, a 
nonprofit organization. Now there are more than a 
hundred, and, as David Danzig, a project director 
at Human Rights First, noted, “the torturers have 
changed. It used to be almost exclusively the 
villains who tortured. Today, torture is often 
perpetrated by the heroes.” The Parents’ 
Television Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group, 
has counted what it says are sixty-seven torture 
scenes during the first five seasons of “24”­more 
than one every other show. Melissa Caldwell, the 
council’s senior director of programs, said, “ 
‘24’ is the worst offender on television: the 
most frequent, most graphic, and the leader in 
the trend of showing the protagonists using torture.”

The show’s villains usually inflict the more 
gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on 
hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked 
with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with 
sanding machines. In many episodes, however, 
heroic American officials act as tormentors, even 
though torture is illegal under U.S. law. (The 
United Nations Convention Against Torture, which 
took on the force of federal law when it was 
ratified by the Senate in 1994, specifies that 
“no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, 
whether a state of war or a threat of war, 
internal political instability or any other 
public emergency, may be invoked as a 
justification of torture.”) In one episode, a 
fictional President commands a member of his 
Secret Service to torture a suspected traitor: 
his national-security adviser. The victim is 
jolted with defibrillator paddles while his feet 
are submerged in a tub filled with water. As the 
voltage is turned up, the President, who is 
depicted as a scrupulous leader, watches the 
suspect suffer on a video feed. The viewer, who 
knows that the adviser is guilty and harbors 
secrets, becomes complicit in hoping that the 
torture works. A few minutes before the suspect 
gives in, the President utters the show’s credo, 
“Everyone breaks eventually.” (Virtually the sole 
exception to this rule is Jack Bauer. The current 
season begins with Bauer being released from a 
Chinese prison, after two years of ceaseless 
torture; his back is scarred and his hands are 
burnt, but a Communist official who transfers 
Bauer to U.S. custody says that he “never broke his silence.”)

C.T.U. agents have used some of the same 
controversial interrogation methods that the U.S. 
has employed on some Al Qaeda suspects. In one 
instance, Bauer denies painkillers to a female 
terrorist who is suffering from a bullet wound, 
just as American officials have acknowledged 
doing in the case of Abu Zubaydah­one of the 
highest-ranking Al Qaeda operatives in U.S. 
custody. “I need to use every advantage I’ve 
got,” Bauer explains to the victim’s distressed sister.

The show sometimes toys with the audience’s 
discomfort about abusive interrogations. In 
Season Two, Bauer threatens to murder a 
terrorist’s wife and children, one by one, before 
the prisoner’s eyes. The suspect watches, on 
closed-circuit television, what appears to be an 
execution-style slaying of his son. Threatened 
with the murder of additional family members, the 
father gives up vital information­but Bauer 
appears to have gone too far. It turns out, 
though, that the killing of the child was staged. 
Bauer, the show implies, hasn’t crossed the line 
after all. Yet, under U.S. and international law, 
a mock execution is considered psychological torture, and is illegal.

On one occasion, Bauer loses his nerve about 
inflicting torture, but the show implicitly 
rebukes his qualms. In the episode, Bauer 
attempts to break a suspected terrorist by 
plunging a knife in his shoulder; the victim’s 
screams clearly disquiet him. Bauer says to an 
associate, unconvincingly, that he has looked 
into the victim’s eyes and knows that “he’s not 
going to tell us anything.” The other man takes 
over, fiercely gouging the suspect’s knee­at 
which point the suspect yells out details of a 
plot to explode a suitcase nuke in Los Angeles.

Throughout the series, secondary characters raise 
moral objections to abusive interrogation 
tactics. Yet the show never engages in a serious 
dialogue on the subject. Nobody argues that 
torture doesn’t work, or that it undermines 
America’s foreign-policy strategy. Instead, the 
doubters tend to be softhearted dupes. A 
tremulous liberal, who defends a Middle Eastern 
neighbor from vigilantism, is killed when the 
neighbor turns out to be a terrorist. When a 
civil-liberties-minded lawyer makes a high-toned 
argument to a Presidential aide against 
unwarranted detentions­“You continue to arrest 
innocent people, you’re giving the terrorists 
exactly what they want,” she says­the aide 
sarcastically responds, “Well! You’ve got the 
makings of a splendid law-review article here. 
I’ll pass it on to the President.”

In another episode, a human-rights lawyer from a 
fictional organization called Amnesty Global 
tells Bauer, who wants to rough up an uncharged 
terror suspect, that he will violate the 
Constitution. Bauer responds, “I don’t wanna 
bypass the Constitution, but these are 
extraordinary circumstances.” He appeals to the 
President, arguing that any interrogation 
permitted by the law won’t be sufficiently harsh. 
“If we want to procure any information from this 
suspect, we’re going to have to do it behind closed doors,” he says.

“You’re talking about torturing this man?” the President says.

“I’m talking about doing what’s necessary to stop 
this warhead from being used against us,” Bauer answers.

When the President wavers, Bauer temporarily 
quits his job so that he can avoid defying the 
chain of command, and breaks the suspect’s 
fingers. The suspect still won’t talk, so Bauer 
puts a knife to his throat; this elicits the 
desired information. He then knocks the suspect 
out with a punch, telling him, “This will help you with the pain.”

Howard Gordon, who is the series’ “show runner,” 
or lead writer, told me that he concocts many of 
the torture scenes himself. “Honest to God, I’d 
call them improvisations in sadism,” he said. 
Several copies of the C.I.A.’s 1963 KUBARK 
interrogation manual can be found at the “24” 
offices, but Gordon said that, “for the most 
part, our imaginations are the source. Sometimes 
these ideas are inspired by a scene’s location or 
come from props­what’s on the set.” He explained 
that much of the horror is conjured by the 
viewer. “To see a scalpel and see it move below 
the frame of the screen is a lot scarier than 
watching the whole thing. When you get a camera 
moving fast, and someone screaming, it really 
works.” In recent years, he said, “we’ve resorted 
a lot to a pharmacological sort of thing.” A 
character named Burke­a federal employee of the 
C.T.U. who carries a briefcase filled with 
elephantine hypodermic needles­has proved 
indispensable. “He’ll inject chemicals that cause 
horrible pain that can knock down your defenses­a 
sort of sodium pentothal plus,” Gordon said. 
“When we’re stuck, we say, ‘Call Burke!’ ” He 
added, “The truth is, there’s a certain amount of 
fatigue. It’s getting hard not to repeat the same 
torture techniques over and over.”

Gordon, who is a “moderate Democrat,” said that 
it worries him when “critics say that we’ve 
enabled and reflected the public’s appetite for 
torture. Nobody wants to be the handmaid to a 
relaxed policy that accepts torture as a 
legitimate means of interrogation.” He went on, 
“But the premise of ‘24’ is the ticking time 
bomb. It takes an unusual situation and turns it 
into the meat and potatoes of the show.” He 
paused. “I think people can differentiate between 
a television show and reality.”

This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General 
Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States 
Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern 
California to meet with the creative team behind 
“24.” Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of 
the most experienced military and F.B.I. 
interrogators in the country, arrived on the set 
as the crew was filming. At first, 
Finnegan­wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his 
chest covered in ribbons and medals­aroused 
confusion: he was taken for an actor and was 
asked by someone what time his “call” was.

In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to 
voice their concern that the show’s central 
political premise­that the letter of American law 
must be sacrificed for the country’s security­was 
having a toxic effect. In their view, the show 
promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had 
adversely affected the training and performance 
of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to 
stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. 
“They should do a show where torture backfires.”

The meeting, which lasted a couple of hours, had 
been arranged by David Danzig, the Human Rights 
First official. Several top producers of “24” 
were present, but Surnow was conspicuously 
absent. Surnow explained to me, “I just can’t sit 
in a room that long. I’m too A.D.D.­I can’t sit 
still.” He told the group that the meeting 
conflicted with a planned conference call with 
Roger Ailes, the chairman of the Fox News 
Channel. (Another participant in the conference 
call attended the meeting.) Ailes wanted to 
discuss a project that Surnow has been planning 
for months: the début, on February 18th, of “The 
Half Hour News Hour,” a conservative satirical 
treatment of the week’s news; Surnow sees the 
show as offering a counterpoint to the liberal 
slant of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Before the meeting, Stuart Herrington, one of the 
three veteran interrogators, had prepared a list 
of seventeen effective techniques, none of which 
were abusive. He and the others described various 
tactics, such as giving suspects a postcard to 
send home, thereby learning the name and address 
of their next of kin. After Howard Gordon, the 
lead writer, listened to some of Herrington’s 
suggestions, he slammed his fist on the table and 
joked, “You’re hired!” He also excitedly asked 
the West Point delegation if they knew of any effective truth serums.

At other moments, the discussion was more 
strained. Finnegan told the producers that “24,” 
by suggesting that the U.S. government 
perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the 
country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is 
a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a 
course on the laws of war to West Point 
seniors­cadets who would soon be commanders in 
the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He 
always tries, he said, to get his students to 
sort out not just what is legal but what is 
right. However, it had become increasingly hard 
to convince some cadets that America had to 
respect the rule of law and human rights, even 
when terrorists did not. One reason for the 
growing resistance, he suggested, was 
misperceptions spread by “24,” which was 
exceptionally popular with his students. As he 
told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture 
is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The 
disturbing thing is that although torture may 
cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed 
and taught the Law of War for Commanders 
curriculum at West Point, told me that he had 
similar arguments with his students. He said 
that, under both U.S. and international law, 
“Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would 
be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his 
students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever 
it takes.” His students were particularly 
impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a 
room where a stubborn suspect is being held, 
shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the 
other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten 
seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates 
plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. 
Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that 
this technique would open the wrong doors, but it 
was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

The “24” producers told the military and 
law-enforcement experts that they were careful 
not to glamorize torture; they noted that Bauer 
never enjoys inflicting pain, and that it had 
clearly exacted a psychological toll on the 
character. (As Gordon put it to me, “Jack is 
basically damned.”) Finnegan and the others 
disagreed, pointing out that Bauer remains coolly 
rational after committing barbarous acts, 
including the decapitation of a state’s witness 
with a hacksaw. Joe Navarro, one of the F.B.I.’s 
top experts in questioning techniques, attended 
the meeting; he told me, “Only a psychopath can 
torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people 
like that in your organization. They are 
untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.”

Cochran, who has a law degree, listened politely 
to the delegation’s complaints. He told me that 
he supports the use of torture “in narrow 
circumstances” and believes that it can be 
justified under the Constitution. “The Doctrine 
of Necessity says you can occasionally break the 
law to prevent greater harm,” he said. “I think 
that could supersede the Convention Against 
Torture.” (Few legal scholars agree with this 
argument.) At the meeting, Cochran demanded to 
know what the interrogators would do if they 
faced the imminent threat of a nuclear blast in 
New York City, and had custody of a suspect who 
knew how to stop it. One interrogator said that 
he would apply physical coercion only if he 
received a personal directive from the President. 
But Navarro, who estimates that he has conducted 
some twelve thousand interrogations, replied that 
torture was not an effective response. “These are 
very determined people, and they won’t turn just 
because you pull a fingernail out,” he told me. 
And Finnegan argued that torturing fanatical 
Islamist terrorists is particularly pointless. 
“They almost welcome torture,” he said. “They 
expect it. They want to be martyred.” A ticking 
time bomb, he pointed out, would make a suspect 
only more unwilling to talk. “They know if they 
can simply hold out several hours, all the more 
glory­the ticking time bomb will go off!”

The notion that physical coercion in 
interrogations is unreliable, although widespread 
among military intelligence officers and F.B.I. 
agents, has been firmly rejected by the Bush 
Administration. Last September, President Bush 
defended the C.I.A.’s use of “an alternative set 
of procedures.” In order to “save innocent 
lives,” he said, the agency needed to be able to 
use “enhanced” measures to extract “vital 
information” from “dangerous” detainees who were 
aware of “terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else.”

Although reports of abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq 
and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have 
angered much of the world, the response of 
Americans has been more tepid. Finnegan 
attributes the fact that “we are generally more 
comfortable and more accepting of this,” in part, 
to the popularity of “24,” which has a weekly 
audience of fifteen million viewers, and has 
reached millions more through DVD sales. The 
third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, 
a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He 
told the show’s staff that DVDs of shows such as 
“24” circulate widely among soldiers stationed in 
Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the 
shows, and then walk into the interrogation 
booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” 
He recalled that some men he had worked with in 
Iraq watched a television program in which a 
suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from 
a neighboring cell; the men later tried to 
persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part 
of a torture “victim,” in a similar intimidation 
ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.

“In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence,” 
Lagouranis told me. “I worked with someone who 
used waterboarding”­an interrogation method 
involving the repeated near-drowning of a 
suspect. “I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and 
sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers 
had gone into their homes and broken their bones, 
or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes 
until they got third-degree burns. Nothing 
happened.” Some people, he said, “gave 
confessions. But they just told us what we 
already knew. It never opened up a stream of new 
information.” If anything, he said, “physical 
pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.”

Last December, the Intelligence Science Board, an 
advisory panel to the U.S. intelligence 
community, released a report declaring that “most 
observers, even those within professional 
circles, have unfortunately been influenced by 
the media’s colorful (and artificial) view of 
interrogation as almost always involving 
hostility.” In a clear reference to “24,” the report noted:

Prime-time television increasingly offers up plot 
lines involving the incineration of metropolitan 
Los Angeles by an atomic weapon or its 
depopulation by an aerosol nerve toxin. The 
characters do not have the time to reflect upon, 
much less to utilize, what real professionals 
know to be the “science and art” of “educing 
information.” They want results. Now. The public 
thinks the same way. They want, and rightly 
expect, precisely the kind of “protection” that 
only a skilled intelligence professional can 
provide. Unfortunately, they have no idea how 
such a person is supposed to act “in real life.”

Lagouranis told the “24” team what the U.S. 
military and the F.B.I. teach real intelligence 
professionals: “rapport-building,” the slow 
process of winning over informants, is the method 
that generally works best. There are also 
nonviolent ruses, he explained, and ways to take 
suspects by surprise. The “24” staff seemed 
interested in the narrative possibilities of such 
techniques; Lagouranis recalled, “They told us 
that they’d love to incorporate ruses and 
rapport-building.” At the same time, he said, 
Cochran and the others from “24” worried that 
such approaches would “take too much time” on an hour-long television show.

The delegation of interrogators left the meeting 
with the feeling that the story lines on “24” 
would be changed little, if at all. “It shows 
they have a social conscience that they’d even 
meet with us at all,” Navarro said. “They were 
receptive. But they have a format that works. 
They have won a lot of awards. Why would they 
want to play with a No. 1 show?” Lagouranis said 
of the “24” team, “They were a bit prickly. They 
have this money-making machine, and we were telling them it’s immoral.”

Afterward, Danzig and Finnegan had an on-set 
exchange with Kiefer Sutherland, who is 
reportedly paid ten million dollars a year to 
play Jack Bauer. Sutherland, the grandson of 
Tommy Douglas, a former socialist leader in 
Canada, has described his own political views as 
anti-torture, and “leaning toward the left.” 
According to Danzig, Sutherland was “really 
upset, really intense” and stressed that he tries 
to tell people that the show “is just 
entertainment.” But Sutherland, who claimed to be 
bored with playing torture scenes, admitted that 
he worried about the “unintended consequences of 
the show.” Danzig proposed that Sutherland 
participate in a panel at West Point or appear in 
a training film in which he made clear that the 
show’s torture scenes are not to be emulated. 
(Surnow, when asked whether he would participate 
in the video, responded, “No way.” Gordon, 
however, agreed to be filmed.) Sutherland 
declined to answer questions for this article, 
but, in a recent television interview with 
Charlie Rose, his ambivalence about his 
character’s methods was palpable. He condemned 
the abuse of U.S.-held detainees at Abu Ghraib 
prison, in Iraq, as “absolutely criminal,” 
particularly for a country that tells others that 
“democracy and freedom” are the “way to go.” He 
also said, “You can torture someone and they’ll 
basically tell you exactly what you want to hear. 
. . . Torture is not a way of procuring 
information.” But things operate differently, he 
said, on television: “24,” he said, is “a 
fantastical show. . . . Torture is a dramatic device.”

The creators of “24” deny that the show presents 
only a conservative viewpoint. They mention its 
many prominent Democratic fans­including Barbra 
Streisand and Bill Clinton­and the diversity of 
political views among its writers and producers. 
Indeed, the story lines sometimes have a liberal 
tilt. The conspiracy plot of Season Five, for 
example, turns on oligarchic businessmen who go 
to despicable lengths to protect their oil 
interests; the same theme anchors 
liberal-paranoia thrillers such as “Syriana.” 
This season, a White House directive that flags 
all federal employees of Middle Eastern descent 
as potential traitors has been presented as a 
gross overreaction, and a White House official 
who favors police-state tactics has come off as 
scheming and ignoble. Yet David Nevins, the 
former Fox Television network official who, in 
2000, bought the pilot on the spot after hearing 
a pitch from Surnow and Cochran, and who 
maintains an executive role in “24,” is candid 
about the show’s core message. “There’s 
definitely a political attitude of the show, 
which is that extreme measures are sometimes 
necessary for the greater good,” he says. “The 
show doesn’t have much patience for the niceties 
of civil liberties or due process. It’s clearly 
coming from somewhere. Joel’s politics suffuse the whole show.”

Surnow, for his part, revels in his minority 
status inside the left-leaning entertainment 
industry. “Conservatives are the new oppressed 
class,” he joked in his office. “Isn’t it bizarre 
that in Hollywood it’s easier to come out as gay 
than as conservative?” His success with “24,” he 
said, has protected him from the more righteous 
elements of the Hollywood establishment. “Right 
now, they have to be nice to me,” he said. “But 
if the show tanks I’m sure they’ll kill me.” He 
spoke of his new conservative comedy show as an 
even bigger risk than “24.” “I’ll be front and 
center on the new show,” he said, then joked, 
“I’m ruining my chances of ever working again in Hollywood.”

Although he was raised in Beverly Hills­he 
graduated in 1972 from Beverly Hills High­Surnow 
said that he has always felt like an outsider. 
His classmates were mostly wealthy, but his 
father was an itinerant carpet salesman who came 
to California from Detroit. He cold-called 
potential customers, most of whom lived in 
Compton and Watts. Surnow was much younger than 
his two brothers, and he grew up virtually as an 
only child, living in a one-bedroom apartment in 
an unfashionable area south of Olympic Boulevard, 
where he slept on a foldout cot. If his father 
made a sale, he’d come home and give him the 
thumbs-up. But Surnow said that nine out of ten 
nights ended in failure. “If he made three sales 
a month, we could stay where we lived,” he 
recalled. His mother, who worked as a saleswoman 
in a clothing store, “fought depression her whole 
life.” Surnow, who describes his parents as 
“wonderful people,” said, “I was a latchkey kid. 
. . . I raised myself.” He played tennis on his 
high-school team but gave it up after repeatedly 
losing to players who could afford private lessons.

Roger Director, a television producer and 
longtime friend, said that he “loves” Surnow. 
But, he went on, “He feels looked down upon by 
the world, and that kind of emotional dynamic 
underpins a lot of things. It’s kind of ‘Joel 
against the world.’ It’s as if he feels, I had to 
fight and claw for everything I got. It’s a tough 
world, and no one’s looking out for you.” As a 
result, Director said, “Joel’s not sentimental. He has a hard-hearted thing.”

Surnow’s parents were F.D.R. Democrats. He 
recalled, “It was just assumed, especially in the 
Jewish community”­to which his family belonged. 
“But when you grow up you start to challenge your 
parents’ assumptions. ‘Am I Jewish? Am I a 
Democrat?’ ” Many of his peers at the University 
of California at Berkeley, where he attended 
college, were liberals or radicals. “They were 
all socialists and Marxists, but living off their 
family money,” he recalled. “It seemed to me 
there was some obvious hypocrisy here. It was 
absurd.” Although he wasn’t consciously 
political, he said, “I felt like I wasn’t like 
these people.” In 1985, he divorced his wife, a 
medical student, who was Jewish, and with whom he 
has two daughters. (His relationships with them 
are strained.) Four years later, he remarried. 
His wife, who used to work in film development, 
is Catholic; they have three daughters, whom they 
send to Catholic schools. He likes to bring his 
girls to the set and rushes home for his wife’s 
pork-chop dinners. “I got to know who I was and 
who I wasn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t the perfect 
Jewish kid who is married, with a Jewish family.” 
Instead, he said, “I decided I like Catholics. 
They’re so grounded. I sort of reoriented myself.”

While studying at Berkeley, Surnow worked as an 
usher at the Pacific Film Archive, where he saw 
at least five hundred movies. A fan of crime 
dramas such as “Mean Streets” and “The 
Godfather,” he discovered foreign films as well. 
“That was my awakening,” he said. In 1975, Surnow 
enrolled at the U.C.L.A. film school. Soon after 
graduation, he began writing for film; he then 
switched to television. He was only modestly 
successful, and had many “lost years,” when he 
considered giving up and taking over his father’s 
carpet business. His breakthrough came when he 
began writing for “Miami Vice,” in 1984. “It just 
clicked­I just got it!” he recalled. “It was just 
like when you don’t know how to speak a language 
and suddenly you do. I knew how to tell a story.” 
By the end of the year, Universal, which owned 
the show, put Surnow in charge of his own series, 
“The Equalizer,” about a C.I.A. agent turned 
vigilante. The series was a success, but, Surnow 
told me, “I was way too arrogant. I sort of 
pissed off the network.” Battles for creative 
control have followed Surnow to “24,” where, 
Nevins said admiringly, he continues to push for 
“unconventional and dangerous choices.”

Surnow’s tough stretches in Hollywood, he said, 
taught him that there were “two kinds of people” 
in entertainment: “those who want to be geniuses, 
and those who want to work.” At first, he said, 
“I wanted to be a genius. But at a certain point 
I realized I just desperately wanted to work.” 
Brian Grazer, an executive producer of “24,” who 
has primarily produced films, said that “TV guys 
either get broken by the system, or they get so 
tough that they have no warmth at all.” Surnow, 
he said, is “a devoted family man” and “a really 
close friend.” But when Grazer first met Surnow, 
he recalled, “I nearly walked out. He was really 
glib and insulting. I was shocked. He’s a tough 
guy. He’s a meat-eating alpha male. He’s a 
monster!” He observed, “Maybe Jack Bauer has some parts of him.”

During three decades as a journeyman 
screenwriter, Surnow grew increasingly 
conservative. He “hated welfare,” which he saw as 
government handouts. Liberal courts also angered 
him. He loved Ronald Reagan’s “strength” and 
disdained Jimmy Carter’s “belief that people 
would be nice to us just because we were humane. 
That never works.” He said of Reagan, “I can 
hardly think of him without breaking into tears. 
I just felt Ronald Reagan was the father that 
this country needed. . . . He made me feel good that I was in his family.”

Surnow said that he found the Clinton years 
obnoxious. “Hollywood under Clinton­it was like 
he was their guy,” he said. “He was the yuppie, 
baby-boomer narcissist that all of Hollywood 
related to.” During those years, Surnow recalled, 
he had countless arguments with liberal 
colleagues, some of whom stopped speaking to him. 
“My feeling is that the liberals’ ideas are 
wrong,” he said. “But they think I’m evil.” Last 
year, he contributed two thousand dollars to the 
losing campaign of Pennsylvania’s hard-line 
Republican senator Rick Santorum, because he 
“liked his position on immigration.” His favorite 
bumper sticker, he said, is “Except for Ending 
Slavery, Fascism, Nazism & Communism, War Has Never Solved Anything.”

Although he is a supporter of President Bush­he 
told me that “America is in its glory 
days”­Surnow is critical of the way the war in 
Iraq has been conducted. An “isolationist” with 
“no faith in nation-building,” he thinks that “we 
could have been out of this thing three years 
ago.” After deposing Saddam Hussein, he argued, 
America should have “just handed it to the 
Baathists and . . . put in some other monster 
who’s going to keep these people in line but 
who’s not going to be aggressive to us.” In his 
view, America “is sort of the parent of the 
world, so we have to be stern but fair to people 
who are rebellious to us. We don’t spoil them. 
That’s not to say you abuse them, either. But you 
have to know who the adult in the room is.”

Surnow’s rightward turn was encouraged by one of 
his best friends, Cyrus Nowrasteh, a hard-core 
conservative who, in 2006, wrote and produced 
“The Path to 9/11,” a controversial ABC 
miniseries that presented President Clinton as 
having largely ignored the threat posed by Al 
Qaeda. (The show was denounced as defamatory by 
Democrats and by members of the 9/11 Commission; 
their complaints led ABC to call the program a 
“dramatization,” not a “documentary.”) Surnow and 
Nowrasteh met in 1985, when they worked together 
on “The Equalizer.” Nowrasteh, the son of a 
deposed adviser to the Shah of Iran, grew up in 
Madison, Wisconsin, where, like Surnow, he was 
alienated by the radicalism around him. He told 
me that he and Surnow, in addition to sharing an 
admiration for Reagan, found “L.A. a stultifying, 
stifling place because everyone thinks alike.” 
Nowrasteh said that he and Surnow regard “24” as 
a kind of wish fulfillment for America. “Every 
American wishes we had someone out there quietly 
taking care of business,” he said. “It’s a deep, 
dark ugly world out there. Maybe this is what 
Ollie North was trying to do. It would be nice to 
have a secret government that can get the answers 
and take care of business­even kill people. Jack Bauer fulfills that fantasy.”

In recent years, Surnow and Nowrasteh have 
participated in the Liberty Film Festival, a 
group dedicated to promoting conservatism through 
mass entertainment. Surnow told me that he would 
like to counter the prevailing image of Senator 
Joseph McCarthy as a demagogue and a liar. Surnow 
and his friend Ann Coulter­the conservative 
pundit, and author of the pro-McCarthy book 
“Treason”­talked about creating a conservative 
response to George Clooney’s recent film “Good 
Night, and Good Luck.” Surnow said, “I thought it 
would really provoke people to do a movie that 
depicted Joe McCarthy as an American hero or, 
maybe, someone with a good cause who maybe went 
too far.” He likened the Communist sympathizers 
of the nineteen-fifties to terrorists: “The State 
Department in the fifties was infiltrated by 
people who were like Al Qaeda.” But, he said, he 
shelved the project. “The blacklist is 
Hollywood’s orthodoxy,” he said. “It’s not a movie I could get done now.”

A year and a half ago, Surnow and Manny Coto, a 
“24” writer with similar political views, talked 
about starting a conservative television network. 
“There’s a gay network, a black network­there 
should be a conservative network,” Surnow told 
me. But as he and Coto explored the idea they 
realized that “we weren’t distribution guys­we 
were content guys.” Instead, the men developed 
“The Half Hour News Hour,” the conservative 
satire show. “ ‘The Daily Show’ tips left,” 
Surnow said. “So we thought, Let’s do one that 
tips right.” Jon Stewart’s program appears on 
Comedy Central, an entertainment channel. But, 
after Surnow got Rush Limbaugh to introduce him 
to Roger Ailes, Fox News agreed to air two 
episodes. The program, which will follow the 
fake-news format popularized by “Saturday Night 
Live,” will be written by conservative humorists, 
including Sandy Frank and Ned Rice. Surnow said 
of the show, “There are so many targets, from 
global warming to banning tag on the playground. 
There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.”

Last March, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas 
and his wife, Virginia, joined Surnow and Howard 
Gordon for a private dinner at Rush Limbaugh’s 
Florida home. The gathering inspired Virginia 
Thomas­who works at the Heritage Foundation, a 
conservative think tank­to organize a panel 
discussion on “24.” The symposium, sponsored by 
the foundation and held in June, was entitled “ 
‘24’ and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: 
Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?” Homeland 
Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who 
participated in the discussion, praised the 
show’s depiction of the war on terrorism as 
“trying to make the best choice with a series of 
bad options.” He went on, “Frankly, it reflects 
real life.” Chertoff, who is a devoted viewer of 
“24,” subsequently began an e-mail correspondence 
with Gordon, and the two have since socialized in 
Los Angeles. “It’s been very heady,” Gordon said 
of Washington’s enthusiasm for the show. Roger 
Director, Surnow’s friend, joked that the 
conservative writers at “24” have become “like a 
Hollywood television annex to the White House. It’s like an auxiliary wing.”

The same day as the Heritage Foundation event, a 
private luncheon was held in the Wardrobe Room of 
the White House for Surnow and several others 
from the show. (The event was not publicized.) 
Among the attendees were Karl Rove, the deputy 
chief of staff; Tony Snow, the White House 
spokesman; Mary Cheney, the Vice-President’s 
daughter; and Lynn Cheney, the Vice-President’s 
wife, who, Surnow said, is “an extreme ‘24’ fan.” 
After the meal, Surnow recalled, he and his 
colleagues spent more than an hour visiting with 
Rove in his office. “People have this image of 
him as this snake-oil-dirty, secretive guy, but 
in his soul he’s a history professor,” Surnow 
said. He was less impressed with the Situation 
Room, which, unlike the sleek high-tech version 
at C.T.U., “looked like some old tearoom in a Victorian house.”

The Heritage Foundation panel was moderated by 
Limbaugh. At one point, he praised the show’s 
creators, dropped his voice to a stage whisper, 
and added, to the audience’s applause, “And most 
of them are conservative.” When I spoke with 
Limbaugh, though, he reinforced the show’s public 
posture of neutrality. “People think that they’ve 
got a bunch of right-wing writers and producers 
at ‘24,’ and they’re subtly sending out a 
message,” he said. “I don’t think that’s 
happening. They’re businessmen, and they don’t 
have an agenda.” Asked about the show’s treatment 
of torture, he responded, “Torture? It’s just a television show! Get a grip.”

In fact, many prominent conservatives speak of 
“24” as if it were real. John Yoo, the former 
Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the 
Bush Administration’s “torture memo”­which, in 
2002, authorized the abusive treatment of 
detainees­invokes the show in his book “War by 
Other Means.” He asks, “What if, as the popular 
Fox television program ‘24’ recently portrayed, a 
high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows 
the location of a nuclear weapon?” Laura 
Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the 
show’s popularity as proof that Americans favor 
brutality. “They love Jack Bauer,” she noted on 
Fox News. “In my mind, that’s as close to a 
national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough 
tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as 
we’re going to get.” Surnow once appeared as a 
guest on Ingraham’s show; she told him that, 
while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast 
cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer 
torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” 
Surnow joked, “We love to torture terrorists­it’s good for you!”

As a foe of political correctness, Surnow seems 
to be unburdened by the controversy his show has 
stirred. “24,” he acknowledged, has been 
criticized as racially insensitive, because it 
frequently depicts Arab-Americans as terrorists. 
He said in response, “Our only politics are that 
terrorists are bad. In some circles, that’s 
political.” As he led me through the Situation 
Room set on the Real Time soundstage, I asked him 
if “24” has plans to use the waterboarding 
interrogation method, which has been defended by 
Vice-President Cheney but is considered torture 
by the U.S. military. Surnow laughed and said, 
“Yes! But only with bottled water­it’s Hollywood!”

In a more sober tone, he said, “We’ve had all of 
these torture experts come by recently, and they 
say, ‘You don’t realize how many people are 
affected by this. Be careful.’ They say torture 
doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that. I don’t 
think it’s honest to say that if someone you love 
was being held, and you had five minutes to save 
them, you wouldn’t do it. Tell me, what would you 
do? If someone had one of my children, or my 
wife, I would hope I’d do it. There is 
nothing­nothing­I wouldn’t do.” He went on, 
“Young interrogators don’t need our show. What 
the human mind can imagine is so much greater 
than what we show on TV. No one needs us to tell 
them what to do. It’s not like somebody goes, 
‘Oh, look what they’re doing, I’ll do that.’ Is it?”

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