Chertoff Brings Reality Check to '24' Crew

As top law enforcement officials prepared to brief the media on the arrest of seven suspected terrorists in Miami, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was otherwise involved. He was meeting with producers and some cast members of the Fox TV counterterrorism show 24.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

It was one of those signature Washington, D.C. moments. Top law enforcement officials were about to brief the media yesterday on the arrest of seven suspected terrorists in Miami. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was down street with the producers and some cast members from the Fox TV counterterrorism show 24. The topic was 24 and America's image in fighting terrorism: fact, fiction or does it matter?

NPR's Pam Fessler has the report.

(Soundbite of TV show 24)

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The following took place between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. Really.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Secretary of Homeland Security): One thing you don't see on 24 is when the computer is crashing and having to get the IT people to come and reboot and get the computer working again.

FESSLER: That's Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. With his dark gray suit and green tie, he's no Jack Bauer, the scruffy ruthless federal agent on 24. But that's really the point here. On the TV show, Homeland Security is a feared powerful agency. Last season, it rapidly took control of Bauer's troubled counterterrorist unit.

(Soundbite of TV show 24)

Unidentified Woman#1 (Actress): (As Character) The truth is CTU is being absorbed by Homeland, which means from now on every operational decision needs to go through me.

FESSLER: Well, that would never happen.

Mr. CHERTOFF: I wish we could have rapid execution of tasks within 24 hours. I think we're a long way from doing that.

FESSLER: In real life, Chertoff has to deal with a sluggish bureaucracy. He also has to answer to Congress and the American people, something no one on 24 ever seems to do. But Chertoff is a big fan of the show. And so too, it was revealed at this event, are Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The only ones that seem a bit disconcerted that they're taken so seriously were the actors.

Ms. MARY LYNN RAJSKUB (Actor): I like America. I think it's pretty cool.

FESSLER: That's Mary Lynn Rajskub, who on 24 plays Chloe O'Brian, the intense computer whiz. In real life, she's pretty funny. She was asked if her Hollywood friends object to a show that routinely tosses civil liberties into the trash can in the fight against terrorism.

Ms. RAJSKUB: I got into acting to avoid politics of any sort. And so I could remain in a fantasy world. And you guys are kind of bringing me out of it. So...

FESSLER: Actor Carlos Bernard who plays just-killed agent Tony Almeida, noted real Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the audience.

Mr. CARLOS BERNARD (Actor): There's a table here with microphones. There's Justice Thomas in front of us. Is this some sort of a hearing?

FESSLER: But the panelists did agree that the show seems to reflect a public desire to get things done, to see the evildoers dealt with decisively. James J. Carafano is with the Heritage Foundation, which sponsored the event.

Mr. JAMES J. CARAFANO (Heritage Foundation): We want to look at television. We want to see black, white, good, bad, and we want to make a judgment call because we're smart, intelligent people. But that is no what is going to make the nation safer. What's going to make this nation safer is a lot of mundane, ordinary things every day.

FESSLER: Things like the often mind-numbing work of Customs agents and others on the front lines. Chertoff says such perseverance is seldom shown on 24.

Mr. CHERTOFF: And that perseverance and that resoluteness is the one critical key to our winning this war on terror, which is as we all know is not going to be resolved in 24 hours, or 24 weeks, or even 24 months.

FESSLER: And with that, he excused himself and said he had to get back to work.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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