An Ex-Green Beret Models His TV-Star Hat for His Comrades

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

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.

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