Roger Carstens went on a mission over the weekend to present his new reality show, "The Wanted," to his fellow special-ops commandos outside MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Unlike all the other missions this soldier has undertaken since graduating from West Point in 1986, there was no way to train for this particular sort of military theater.
The earnest, 44-year-old counterterrorism expert had a case of the nerves. He downed two glasses of wine before the screening. Media ethicists and a human-rights group had already trashed the show, but if his fellow soldiers hated it too, then that would crush him. The NBC series (airing at 10 p.m. Monday) purports to track down terrorists and war criminals and deliver them to justice, no matter where in the world they are hiding. It goes after these suspected evildoers with a blend of military know-how, "The Bourne Identity" camera trickery, and gotcha journalism. Months before it aired, critics were making unflattering comparisons to "Dateline NBC's" controversial "To Catch a Predator" series.
Would real soldiers think Carstens's show -- in which he is cast as the polished Green Beret alongside a Navy SEAL and an investigative journalist -- is an artful, pulse-quickening action reel for their values? Or some perverse showcase for showboats?
The Tampa event was the second outreach screening Carstens had to sweat through. The first was a Thursday viewing for invited lawmakers on Capitol Hill. There he'd introduced the premiere episode and stood off to the side as a crowd of about 300 lawmakers, journalists and defense think-tankers watched in the main theater of the Capitol's opulent marble visitor center. Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and was interviewed for an episode in the works on Rwanda, gave a brief introduction.
The lights dimmed in the theater and an explosion from Iraq filled the theater's 40-foot-wide screen. After about a minute, Carstens, square-jawed and fit, appeared sprinting up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "Roger Carstens is one of the world's leading authorities on unconventional warfare," a narrator says on screen. "He's what the Pentagon likes to call a snake-eater." The camera cut to a shot of Carstens in sunglasses charging forward and firing an M-16 rifle. A few seconds later, he's clad in a suit, shaking hands with Adam Ciralsky, the show's investigative reporter, on a crowded Washington street.
"The bottom line: We are going to do our own work on the ground?" he asks Ciralsky.
"Absolutely," the NBC reporter says.
"Sign me up," Carstens replies.
A few minutes later, Carstens, Ciralsky and Scott Tyler, a Navy SEAL, gather in a dark command center that is cluttered with maps, flat-screen televisions and photographs. The camera quickly pans past the television unit's "Super Friends"-esque insignia -- a panther striding across a globe, an olive-leaf wreath and a trident reminiscent of the Navy SEALs' trademark.
The room where the trio meet is actually a soundstage. Their target is real: an Islamic militant leader called Mullah Krekar who lives in Norway. Krekar fled Iraq in the early 1990s and spent the next decade shuttling between Oslo and Kurdistan, where he founded an armed separatist movement called Ansar al-Islam. The group, which has ties to al-Qaeda, has carried out attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and is responsible for dozens of beheadings and suicide bombings that killed Iraqi civilians.
In 2007, a Norwegian court declared that Krekar should be expelled, but there's a catch: Norwegian law won't allow him to be deported back to a country where torture or execution are likely to follow. In recent years, Krekar has sued Norway for violating his rights. Not mentioned in the show: He's also done more than a dozen interviews with U.S. and other Western publications. His wife teaches at an Oslo kindergarten. The portly jihadi is hardly in hiding.
Tyler and another former commando spend much of the first episode lurking outside Krekar's house. The show delves deeply into their clandestine techniques: the blacked-out windows in their van, the cameras they hang in trees and the hours of sweaty boredom they spend waiting and watching. Ciralsky travels to Iraqi Kurdistan to secure promises from Kurdish officials that they won't execute Krekar. Carstens and David Crane, the show's case vetter, meet with politicians from Norway's opposition party, who are outraged that a terrorist is living openly among them.
The episode ends when the NBC team interviews Krekar in his apartment.
"When I served in Iraq, I went over thinking that I would put my life on the line to liberate the Iraqi people," Carstens says to Krekar.
"You deserved to be killed when you were in the streets of Baghdad," Krekar shoots back. "You are one of the soldiers of the new Hitler. And you came to kill us and destroy our mosques. You came to tear our Koran."
The lights came up and the stars of the show took a few questions.
"How did you keep a straight face when you were talking to Mullah Krekar?" one of Carstens's former Army buddies asked. A few skeptics asked about legal issues surrounding the Krekar case.
Finally a friend in the crowd wondered if Carstens worried about his safety. "As a soldier your job is to get on and off the objective without the enemy ever knowing who you are," Carstens replied. On the TV show that wasn't an option. "But I've always believed a noble cause is worthy of your life," he said.
After the event, the crowd moved into a nearby ballroom for wine and beer. Charlie Ebersol, the show's co-executive producer and son of NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, was already focused on the next episode, which involves a car chase through the streets of Hamburg. The suspected terrorist had been speeding the wrong way down a one-way street when Carstens took control of one of the show's helicopters, which had been shooting panoramic shots of the city's skyline.
"He retasked my helicopter to conduct surveillance on the target," said Ebersol, who was dressed in an expensive gray suit and black Chuck Taylor Converse shoes. A Tag Heuer watch dangled from his wrist. The thought of a Green Beret interfering with his airborne B-roll camera made the 26-year-old producer grin.
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"The Wanted" producers found Carstens through a somewhat incestuous telephone game among Washington defense and intelligence insiders.
Carstens left the Army in 2007 because he couldn't persuade the service to send him back to war. He was going through a divorce and was ready to go back. His only post-9/11 tour had been a five-month deployment in 2007. It's one of the oddities of the Army that while some soldiers have deployed as many as three times to Iraq or Afghanistan, about one-third of the force has yet to go anywhere. As a lieutenant colonel in the Army's Special Forces, Carstens had relatively few battlefield assignments available to him.
Instead he helped run Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Next, he schmoozed lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides for U.S. Special Operations Command. "I got tired of begging the Special Forces branch to send me to Iraq, Afghanistan or the Philippines. If I was fighting for al-Qaeda, I'd have seven years on the battlefield," he said recently. "There are times I actually envy my enemy. At least he gets to fight."
In early 2008, Carstens began a comfortable stint -- catered lunches, in-office espresso machine -- with the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington whose senior fellows are scattered throughout the top levels of the Obama administration. (Full disclosure: I was a writer-in-residence at the think tank for a year, while working on a book about the Army.) Carstens volunteered as a part-time foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. But the work preparing think-tank reports left him unfulfilled. "I had a hard time connecting the sinews between what I was writing and the impact it was having on policy," he says.
After about a year at the think tank, Carstens got a call from Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former analyst at the CIA. "I know someone at NBC who needs a guy just like you," Pollack told him.
It was Ciralsky, the NBC television reporter, who was assembling a cast for "The Wanted." Ciralsky had worked with Pollack at the CIA before becoming a journalist, and was now looking for a Special Forces officer with a military intelligence background, Pollack recalled, "who liked to live life on the edge."
"After I got over my initial shock at the whole thing, I thought of Roger," Pollack said. "It really wasn't like anything I had heard of, but I don't watch much reality TV."
Carstens certainly fit the part. He is unfailingly polite, even in unguarded moments, and walks with a military bearing, almost as if he's marching. He keeps himself in top shape. He's good at casual patter. The first episode makes a joke of him asking Crane -- the former head of the U.N. war-crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone -- about his "peeps" in Norway (Crane is of Norwegian descent). Even when you put Carstens in a suit, he still looks like a Green Beret.
Carstens, of course, wasn't doing the show because he wanted a future in television. He'd signed up for the series, despite its weirdness, because he really thinks it can make a difference. That's why reaction of his fellow soldiers at Special Operations Command in Tampa meant so much to him.
Anxiety is mounting. Will this show ruin his 23-year military record, his serious career in Washington? Has he set himself up to be a part of some "reality-show embarrassment," as some fellow soldiers warned him before he signed on?
On Saturday night, after the Tampa screening ended, a recently retired two-star general approached him, slapped him on the shoulder and said, "Roger, you made SOCOM proud." For the next hour, Carstens was mobbed by soldiers and their spouses. He was so pumped, he said, he stayed out talking and drinking and telling stories about the show until 2 o'clock in the morning.