Friday, July 25th, 2008

Throwback Friday :: Conspiracies & The X-Files After 9/11

In honor of The X-Files opening tonight, here’s a throwback piece I did for the late, great newsstand edition of Punk Planet shortly after 9/11.

It was about the wave of CIA/FBI/Intelligence-themed shows. From a TV perspective, it seems a little dated now. “Alias” jumped the shark really fast, “The Agency” lasted less than a blink, and we now know “24” was the work of a right-winger.

Still, I am pretty proud of this piece for trying to capture the vibe of the time, a vibe that today–after the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Katrina, and more–hardly seems marginal anymore.

It also gets to why I still love Chris Carter’s Mulder and Scully so much.


By Jeff Chang


These are the times that demand entertainment. In this New War, police and fireman continue to recover 4000 bodies, the FBI interrogates a list of 5000 suspects, and countless more (they won’t tell us how many) sit in Federal and INS detention centers. And every week, 5000 resumes arrive at the C.I.A. while 20 million viewers tune in to see the new faces of central intelligence.

These faces are emotionally cold lone gunmen, like “24”’s Jack Bauer on “24”. They are built for speed but haunted by death, like “Alias”’s Sydney Bristow. They fall in love with beautiful, dark-skinned agents of Al-Qaeda, like the hapless, balding Jackson Haisley of “The Agency”.

Sometimes they fight with their daughters or turn in their homework late. In a typical 9 to 5, they might manufacture ancient Buddhist scrolls and dot them with monkey piss to prevent the destabilization of Tibet. They get their coffee and drive their SUVs to work in offices that look like last-year’s dot-com.

They’re your spooks next door. They have emotional attachments and cell phones. They have friends of other races. They hope for somebody to love and trust. They’re no longer the reclusive ROTC recruit in the next dorm room, they’re walking signboards for the 21st Century intelligence agent.

All of these shows reveal a huge debt to “The X-Files” and its exemplars of anti-intelligence, FBI agents Dana Scully and the now-departed Fox Mulder of “The X-Files”. And the timing couldn’t be better. Because of network competition to fill the void soon to be left by the slow-motion exit of “The X-Files” and tragic coincidence, the shows have arrived on network television just in time to run between news clips of the New War.

But while Mulder and Scully fought for their future with rebel hearts under a hopeless rallying cry—“The truth is out there”—the career spooks of “The Agency” adhere to the company line: “Truth is what we make it.” (“Alias” has an even dumber tag: “Sometimes the truth hurts.”) It seems as if the new agents were born to fight for the past—restoring the Old Normal of the Cold War, when intelligence and “failure” weren’t synonymous.


Meanwhile, the New War continues.

Dr. Siddharth Shah, 29, cuts a fine profile—tall, dark, handsome, with chiseled cheekbones and a strong chin. On Monday, September 17, as he was leaving the Kansas City airport, he was stopped by a Missouri state trooper.

He had just arrived from New York City to visit a terminally ill friend. The trooper told them he was stopping Shah and his South Asian friend for a loud muffler. No, a quick lane change. Finally he simply asked for what he really wanted—their ID’s. “I’m just giving you a warning’”, the cop said. “I don’t mean to give you a ticket.”

Another officer pulled up and together they did a computer check. It seemed to take a long time. When the cop returned to the car, Shah asked why they had been stopped. The cop answered, “I think you’d agree if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be doing my job.” Somewhat embarassed, the cop released them and admitted, ‘This is a great lesson in diversity for me.’”

The next day, when Shah tried to depart from Kansas City International Airport, an announcement came over the p.a. system, “There has been an equipment change which will require the shifting of some seats. Would Mr. S-H-A-H please come to the desk?” When Shah went to the desk, he was met by a police officer and an FBI officer who took him to a windowless room and began interrogating him.

They asked where he had been born, if he was a citizen. Shah was born in Houston, Texas. They asked him why he was leaving so quickly. He explained that, as a doctor, he had very little time off. They asked for his physician’s badge, and he produced it. They replied, “We’re very sorry. We’re responding to the airlines’ worries. Your name is on a list of Muslim names.”

Shah laughs at the memory: “My first name points them to me probably being Buddhist, Jain, or Hindu. And I explained to them, ‘Did you know that Shah is the second most common last name among Indian Americans?’” The agent replied, “I’m sorry. We’re very ignorant about your culture. I’m sorry for your inconvenience.’”


On the night of November 5, 2001, M. William Cooper did not die on his knees. One of the two Apache County sheriffs that came for him received a bullet in the head. The other shot Cooper dead on the desolate stretch of Arizona desert where he lived with his shortwave radio, two dogs, a rooster, and a chicken.

In recent months, the author of *Behold A Pale Horse* was being sought for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and charges of endangerment, the result of incidents in which Cooper threatened people who had stopped near his home. He had previously been sought for tax evasion. After he sent his family overseas, he used his popular shortwave and Internet radio broadcasts to boast that he would not be taken alive.

His death did not only raise fears within the Patriot movement for whom he was a hero. In Harlem, at the Universal Zulu Nation’s annual celebration of Hip-Hop Month, Brother Ernie Pannicioli spoke to a gathering about Cooper’s death, placing it alongside New Black Panther Party leader Khallid Abdul Muhammad’s February death by aneurysm. “The sleeping is over,” Pannicioli thundered. “They’re coming for our freedom fighters.”

What made Cooper so compelling to rural white militiamen and street peace-makers in communities of color? His worldview grafted post-COINTELPRO conspiracy onto New World Order paranoia. *Behold A Pale Horse*, which has reportedly sold hundreds of thousands of copies, is like an overstuffed folder, 500 pages of autobiography, news clippings, photos, and allegedly top secret documents meant to document the creation of a malign, shadowy one-world government. Armageddon’s already here, Cooper was saying. *Behold A Pale Horse* is your late pass.

The book’s influence remains stunning. South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang recently stirred an international outcry when she distributed to fellow African health officials a memo and excerpts of the book that argued that AIDS was introduced into Africa in 1978 by the Illuminati. “Protect your continent now”, the memo said. Cooper’s eclecticism had become a worldview.

While he probably expected his readership would largely be high-plains tax protestors and free-land patriots, the book found a willing readership on the streets as well. For many, it confirmed what they had believed for years, in sometimes prescient fashion. Cooper spoke of CIA ops that smuggled drugs into the ghetto to finance covert political operations. The proof would later be uncovered by reporter Gary Webb in his famous “Dark Alliance” series, and further investigated by Congresswoman Maxine Waters in hearings.

Cooper argued that drug war legislation and the FEMA act was laying the ground-work for the establishment of a police state, reviving memories of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. But, as further evidence of the New World Order, Cooper also offered up the long-discredited “Protocols of The Elders of Zion” (to which he affixed instructions that “any reference to Jews should be replaced with the word ‘Illuminati’”).

Cooper’s worldview—sans its apparently anti-Semitic leanings—hit the mainstream on September 10, 1993 when “The X-Files” debuted. Fox Mulder’s Cooper-esque rantings about one-world government, master-race plotters, alien abductees, secret torture chambers, and massive Tuskegee-style bioterror experiments felt realer than reality, like a speculative history of the Cold War in which the actual struggle was between the leaders and the people. Set against end-of-history crowing and wwweb ecstasy, the “X-Files” message was subversive and immediate: Evil still walks among us. Governments and nation-states are involved. All of humanity’s survival is at stake.

For the small screen, it was a pretty big picture.


These days, the picture on the screen is merely pretty, as if to melt the images of September 11 with beauty and quick-cuts.

“Alias”’s Sydney Bristow (played by Jennifer Garner, GQ’s September 2001 “Woman On Our Mind”) is thin as an arrow, and runs like Franka Potente’s Lola around a very short track. Recruited off the UCLA campus before she could legally drink, she came to the agency wide-eyed seven years ago, and now is trapped on a treadmill of fear.

Her fiancé is dead because she revealed to him that she was a C.I.A. agent. She has since learned that she actually works for SD-6, a rogue agency moved by unseen hands. She has become a double-agent, working with the real C.I.A. to bring down SD-6, whom she blames for her fiancé’s murder. She reports to her father, whose own shifting loyalties may have directly led to her mother’s murder (Sydney’s Samantha Mulder).

These are neat circular plot devices, and each episode plays just like the tight loops of driving techno playing beneath. The exotic locales, body-tight costumes, and decent kick-boxing, are softened by intimate interludes of “normalcy” among friends. “Sydney”, wrote Joyce Millman in the New York Times, “is the perfect television heroine for the times.”

The shows display a west-coast 21st century multiculti sheen. Unlike the real C.I.A., affirmative action apparently seems to have worked. Translating Middle Eastern languages will be no problem. Sydney’s best friends and her SD-6 partner are African American. “24” adds a twist.

Its day-in-the-life story arc centers on a plot to kill David Palmer, the first Black presidential candidate, a moderate with a real chance to win the White House (no apologies to Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton). “24”’s Jack Bauer, played by the scruffily handsome Kiefer Sutherland, is runs a federal Counter Terrorism Unit office in Los Angeles. Like Clinton, Bauer is an effective leader, but a personal fuck-up. “24”’s eye-popping split screens capture Bauer’s compartmentalized conscience.

Bauer soon learns that the assassins have ties within the Agency, and that they may be also involved with the kidnapping of his daughter. Jack Bauer’s mission is to keep hope alive—and if he fails, his daughter dies and the country will descend into race riots. “24”, too, is set in Los Angeles.

Unlike most Cold War spy-hero dramas, these stories require the intelligence community to be dirty. (Indeed, “The Agency” sucks because it has no such tension.) But most of the enemies will remain dark-skinned and conveniently foreign. You will probably not see agents providing military and intelligence training to guerillas with dubious political agendas who support their war-making by growing opium or coca. You will not see agents devastating the ghettos by cutting drugs-for-arms deals. You will not see the surveillance and harassment of nonviolent peace, anti-prison, and anti-globalization activists. You will not see dragnet roundups of thousands of innocent Arab, South Asian, and Muslim men and women. They will not be rescued from their indefinite detentions by lock-picking spooks like Sydney.

Sydney and Jack, along with the redundant cast of Cold-War dust-offs in “The Agency”, live in a safely fictional world in which Dark Alliances and COINTELPRO never occurred. The worlds are hermetically sealed, most secure from insecure global realities. A symptomatic theme is the loss of memory. In “Alias”, the Irishman who killed Sydney’s fiancé is a sleeper, remotely programmed by SD-6 to murder during black-outs that he can only recover during dream time. He is therefore completely innocent of his crimes. Sydney efficiently and obediently carries out her dual orders from the C.I.A. and SD-6. Whenever death happens, she is shocked anew to learn that her work has bloody consequences.

The “X-Files” never strayed far from the relationship of knowledge to justice: what you did not know could not only kill you, but millions of other innocents. But “24” and “Alias” operate on a “need to know” basis. Everything you need to know is right there on its shiny, quickly moving surfaces. As Karl Rove and Jack Valenti bring together politicians and entertainment execs to figure out new ways of collaborating in the New War, Sydney and Jack are signs of redemption. They bend “trust no one” into a closed question. They mark the end to Beltway/Hollywood culture-wars. They fight for an undivided America we want to remember, one that never existed. The new faces of central intelligence represent a future without a past, well insulated from the present.

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