Richard McComb has a hotline to the CIA's counterterrorism chief - if only he knew how to use it.
My mobile phone trills on the desk.
The screen flashes up an unfamiliar number and no name. This isn’t someone I speak to often, possibly ever. My mind whirrs through the possibilities until the penny – or rather the dime – drops.
Good grief, it’s him. I hadn’t expected him to call so quickly, if at all. This is a Code Red.
David Estes, the director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Centre, is replying to a speculative text I sent just ten minutes ago. I am simply not ready for the call. My landline isn’t rigged up with its covert recording and voice recognition system. I won’t get a trace on Estes. But if I don’t answer the phone now, he won’t ring back. If I let it ring any longer, the call with divert to ansaphone.
I hit ‘answer’.
“Hi, it’s David,” he says.
S***! It is him. Lock down! Lock down!
“Hi,” I say, adopting a casual air. “Do we have to do this now, or can it wait? Have you availability later? Or is it now or never?”
“It’s now or never,” says the spy chief.
Right. Stall him. And act cool: “Can I phone you back in a minute? On this number?”
“Cool.” Click. The phone goes dead.
I fumble into action, attaching my listening device to the landline. I spot the tape is half-way through, so I hit the rewind button. It takes ages to spool backwards. What is Estes thinking? “Bloody British amateur.” I’m probably holding up a US drone attack on a Yemeni bomb-maker.
I give the recorder a quick test – “One, two. One, two. Testing. Testing.” I hit rewind, then playback. There’s something not quite right with the recording. My voice is faint. Maybe it’s nerves. I press on and ring Estes’ mobile.
When he picks up, his voice is barely audible. And it’s coming out of the recording machine, not the phone earpiece. What the hell’s going on? Is he recording me recording him?
I’m in meltdown. Breathe, breathe. Keep calm. “David, you are very faint. Can I ring you back? Straight away.”
I’m pushing my luck but I have to get this right.
“Cool,” he says. Click.
I take a look at my cutting-edge, high spec 1992 Sony cassette recorder and spot the problem. It’s a schoolboy error. I’ve run a lead into the recorder’s earpiece, not the mic. Holy crap. I carry out a quick switch and hit phone redial, sweat beading on my forehead.
Estes answers. He’s fine, but tells me in no uncertain terms that he is “knackered”. It’s hardly surprising. For the last 12 weeks, he has been investigating a terrorist plot aimed at mainland America. A sniper has struck and a suicide bomber is on the loose.
However, you don’t have to be a CIA foreign languages expert to realise there is something very different about Estes’ accent today. It is not like millions of people are used to hearing him speak. In fact, it sounds very British. And is that a slight Brummie inflection I can hear?
David Estes, one of the characters of hit US conspiracy thriller Homeland, is played by David Harewood, who grew up in Small Heath. When I ring he is at his home in Streatham, south London, preparing to fly out to North Carolina to start filming Series 2 of what is Barack Obama’s favourite TV show. He has an apartment waiting there, with a pool on the roof. The boy from Washwood Heath Comp has done good.
Despite the critical adulation for Homeland, and pulling off his personal goal of cracking America, the actor is in a “morning after the night before” mood.
Hours earlier, his beloved Birmingham City missed out on making the Championship’s play-off final, losing out to Blackpool.
He’s still a fan? “Once a Blue Nose, always a Blue Nose,” says Harewood, a 46-year-old father of two young daughters.
“I don’t get to see any games any more because I live down here. But I think Chris Hughton has done a fantastic job. It’s a shame the boys couldn’t quite manage it. But I think we would have struggled in the Premiership in all honesty.”
Harewood is in self-imposed lock down in preparation for filming and says the only reason he is doing this interview is because I’m from his home city. “I have been doing a lot of interviews and people have asked me to speak at their schools, and can I come and do this and can I come and do that. It’s been lovely but I suddenly realised I was exhausted,” says Harewood. “We have a couple of weeks to go before we start shooting Homeland Season 2 and I thought I’d better take a step back.”
Harewood has been overwhelmed but not surprised by the success of Homeland, which challenges post 9/11 notions of moral authority and turns the issue of heroism on its head. It’s a highly controversial show. “I think it is like Marmite. You either love it or you don’t really take to it. People have become loyal fans of the show,” says the actor.
I’m one of them. I tell Harewood how the recent bank holiday weekend turned into a Homeland marathon as my wife and I watched eight episodes in quick succession. This is perfectly normal, Harewood assures me, laughing: “In America, Homeland plays without adverts. It’s on Showtime and plays for a straight hour and people have Homeland parties. They sit in all day and say, ‘Well, Saturday’s Homeland day’. And they show all 12 episodes in the same day.”
Other than the fine acting, compelling action and sharp scripts, one of the reasons for the show’s success has been the way it has questioned the moral imperatives of US foreign policy during the war on terror.
Harewood says: “It’s created quite an anxiety among people, particularly with the Americans. It’s such a sensitive subject having the all-American hero being a baddie. It really does ratchet up the anxiety levels with the Americans, but it seems to have done the same thing here.”
When he read the storyline, in which a US Marine (played by fellow Brit Damian Lewis) may, or may not, be a jihadist, did Harewood fear patriotic US viewers would run a mile?
“I think the writers did,” admits Harewood. “There’s a certain amount of terrorism fatigue. If you look across the spectrum of post 9/11 movies, or movies that have dealt with terrorism, they haven’t really worked. I think the writers kind of felt there was going to be that fatigue, but in between shooting the pilot and the series, Bin Laden was killed and I think they felt that bookended the 10 years, this whole 10 years of American reaction to 9/11.
“I have been reading a lot of books and the gloves really came off in the days after 9/11. The CIA and America basically stomped all over the world and really took revenge. It’s impossible to under-estimate the effect on the psyche that those attacks had in America, when questionable things happened in the days and years after 9/11.
“I think what Homeland is seeking to do is to question whether everything that was done was right or correct. I think what we did brilliantly (in Homeland) was to show there is a huge grey area between what was right, what was necessary and whether it has been successful.”
Harewood concedes he did not know much about the CIA before he landed the role of Estes. “It was such a phantom of an institution. I had heard about it but I didn’t know about it,” he says.
The actor read The Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA, and Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, about the war on terror, for an insight. But he says he struggled to get a grip on the character of David Estes. His outlook changed when he read the final two scripts of season one and learned of Estes’s complicity in a disastrous drone attack, overseen by the vice president.
“All the way through, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Something’s missing here. I don’t quite know where this character is’. All the way through the shooting of the first series, I didn’t feel comfortable because I didn’t feel I knew who this guy was. So for me personally getting the whole storyline with the vice president was a huge relief for me. Then I realised he has sold part of his soul to get the job that he wanted. I didn’t know about that (the cover up) until the very end.”
But does he know the answer to the big question? Does he know the identity of the Al Qaida mole inside the CIA?
“I worked it out. It’s all there,” says Harewood.
“I said to one of the producers, ‘I think I know who the mole is’. And when I said who it was, he said ‘You are absolutely right.’ The whole tagline is ‘listen carefully, watch closely’ and that’s exactly what I did.”
I did the same thing but am still no clearer.
“That’s what is so great about the show. People really didn’t know where it was going to go. For a TV programme to pull that off is great.”
So does the double agent inside the CIA become apparent in Season 2?
“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” says Estes. I mean Harewood.