I am addicted to House of Cards, the British and American versions, but I suggest that both TV series have been looking at the wrong game.
On television, the story line is about a wicked political schemer, accompanied by his wicked wife, who climbs to the ultimate perch of power—prime minister or president—through fiendishly malevolent manipulations, including homicide. In the real world of Washington, however, politicians look more like impotent innocents compared to their true masters. It is the spooks and the spies who shuffle the deck and deal the cards. They hide their cut-throat intrigues behind bland initials—the CIA and the NSA.
In recent weeks, a lurid real-life melodrama has been playing out in the nation's capital that has the flavor of old-fashioned conspiracy theories. The two clandestine agencies are the true puppet masters.
It is elected politicians, even the president, who are puppets dancing on a string. I hope the TV writers are taking notes. This would make a swell plot outline for a third season of the popular drama—"House of Cards, the Reality TV Version."
The plot begins a decade ago in the bad years after 9/11 when the CIA embraced global torture in the war against terrorism. Official Washington was traumatized by the attack and looked the other way, pretending not to know what the spooks were doing. The men in black plucked various "terrorists" off the Arab Street and shipped them to less squeamish countries around the world where the US agents could use medieval methods for pain and punishment, techniques officially prohibited by US law.
The political system was at first shocked when gruesome details were exposed by vigilant reporters. But soon enough the spooks were being celebrated as our anonymous heroes—sticking it to the bad guys, satisfying the popular thirst for revenge. CIA operatives even taped the cruelty for agency archives. The torturers even got their own popular TV show called 24. The Bush administration issued far-fetched legal justifications explaining their torture wasn't illegal torture. The press backed off a bit and began gingerly noting differences of opinion on waterboarding and sleep deprivation.
Eventually, as truth caught up with official lies and the long war in Iraq was exposed as another gigantic fraud, Americans lost their stomach for lawlessness in Washington. The CIA discreetly destroyed its torture tapes (a pity since this would have been terrific footage for the TV show). The Agency denied everything and promised not to do it again. The new president took their word for it. In a forgiving tone, Obama urged Americans not to be obsessed with old controversies. Congress assured the nation that the Intelligence Committees of House and Senate were exceedingly vigilant and they would scold the CIA vigorously if it ever lied again (details, alas, were kept "classified" so as not to aid the enemy).
Public affairs in Washington might have settled down to usual pretensions of "straight talk" except that some high-minded computer geeks came along and blew the doors off government secrecy. First, it was the notorious Wikileaks gang that posted reams of official government documents on the Internet, lighting bonfires of indignation around the world. Reading the private cables from US embassies or the text of a secretly negotiated trade agreement is an educational experience. It desanctifies the lofty legends of diplomacy.