We normally associate "lost episodes" with defunct TV series. The only reason they never aired was that the shows were cancelled. But the USA Network's Dead Zone, a successful series in its second season, already has such an episode--held back by the heavy hand of censorship.
The episode was originally titled "The Hunt for Osama." Even before USA yanked it from the schedule they had demanded, first, that the title be shortened to "The Hunt," and then that the name "Osama bin Laden" be deleted from the script. (The name was only mentioned twice, and wasn't strictly necessary. He's generally referred to as "the target," with the context making clear who that target is.)
The series chronicles the exploits of psychic Johnny Smith, a character created by Stephen King. This episode is the brainchild of executive producer Michael Piller, who has made the script available for downloading. It deals with Johnny's being recruited by the CIA to participate in a psychic hunt for bin Laden. Piller claims that while Johnny's involvement is fictional, ex-CIA contacts have told him there really has been such a hunt, and the episode portrays accurately how the agency has gone about it.
The script isn't politically incorrect. It casts the CIA as good guys, and doesn't question the desirability of taking out bin Laden. It doesn't glamorize or glorify him, nor does it dwell painfully on the horror of 9/11. Bin Laden himself is never shown, except for a glimpse of a tall man's Arab headgear towering over the other men around him; it may or may not be he.
I'm troubled by TV dramas that attribute fictional terrorist acts or plots to real people (or, in the current political climate, to fictional people who are Arab or Muslim). I have no problem with this script, because it doesn't show al-Qaida planning a new, fictional attack on America. Al-Qaida's only "plot" here is a direct response to the Americans' targeting them. And what the Americans are doing is, of course, understandable in light of 9/11.
Here's a synopsis of "The Hunt":
After confirming Johnny's psychic ability, CIA operatives take him to a secret base in the U.S., where he meets several other psychics on the team. The psychics are discouraged from comparing notes.
Johnny demonstrates that he can pick up correct impressions from war-related objects linked with Americans. Then his CIA handler asks him to try to pick up impressions from a tattered fragment of a garment. Unknown to him, it was found in a Tora Bora cave; the CIA is hopeful that the garment was worn by bin Laden, and he died there. Johnny finds himself psychically "in" the cave, under heavy bombardment. He reports that the man who wore that garment is dead. But he's barely out of his teens...not bin Laden.
The discouraged CIA handler tells him to pull out of the cave. But before Johnny can do so, he finds himself experiencing more of what's happening there. A group of men make a break for it and get out alive. They appear to be bodyguards shielding that tall man in their midst. The lead bodyguard loses his glasses...dashes back for them...finds they're broken, and throws them away. Johnny gets a good look at his face.
Now the CIA is elated: they also retrieved those broken glasses from the cave! Handling the glasses, Johnny eventually picks up their owner in a Pakistani village, buying clear plastic tubing. He psychically "follows" him into an upstairs apartment, where two armed men are standing guard. A man wearing a stethoscope around his neck comes out of an inner room. It seems he had told the bodyguard to purchase the tubing. They try to connect it to a high-tech device, but it won't fit. The man with the stethoscope bawls out the purchaser and goes back into the inner room, slamming the door.
The CIA analysts are only briefly puzzled by that stethoscope. Then they realize the high-tech device is...a portable dialysis machine.
They're sure they've found an ailing bin Laden. Though they can't actually confirm it, because Johnny runs into a psychic "wall" when he tries to penetrate the inner room...
Over a period of days, Johnny is able to provide so much detail about the neighborhood--area residents' dress, layout of streets and shops, etc.--that they can identify the village and pinpoint the house. Satellite imagery confirms the exterior looking exactly as Johnny has seen it. But he's shocked when he learns that the U.S. military is planning a dangerous daytime raid to snatch bin Laden. It bothers him that he hasn't actually been able to see bin Laden.
He violates protocol by talking it over with the other psychics. He learns there have been several "remote viewing" situations that involved medical equipment and inaccessible inner rooms. Apparently, none led to a raid because the psychics couldn't provide enough detail. No one has seen bin Laden.
Finally, Johnny tries again to penetrate the inner room, with another psychic touching him to boost his power. This time he gets in...and realizes it's a trap! There's no indication bin Laden was ever there. It's a roomful of explosives, obviously meant to be detonated by remote control after U.S. forces burst in.
It's too late to call back the commandos. But with Johnny communicating what he sees to his CIA handler and the CIA relaying instructions to the commandos, they stay clear of the explosion, kill some al-Qaida snipers, and get out alive.
In the end, Johnny decides not to continue working for the CIA. (It would, of course, change the entire format of the series if he did.)
I think this is an excellent script that must have made for a gripping episode, and I hope fans of the show will be able to see it. Since it's unlikely anyone would find it offensive, I can think of only two possible explanations for USA's having held it back. I'll discuss both possibilities; but first, some other thoughts.
It's been suggested that the al-Qaida men in this story aren't aware they're being monitored by psychics, and haven't deliberately shielded the inner room. They've laid a trap for enemies they believe are closing in on them, but they think their pursuers are using conventional surveillance techniques. Johnny's difficulty penetrating the inner room is related to his exhaustion and the "bad vibes" surrounding it.
I can't accept that interpretaton. First, let's suppose the writer intended that an ill bin Laden had been there and had been safely evacuated. It's hard to believe several different psychics, on different occasions that probably involved different locales, would have found inner rooms blocked if no one was consciously shielding them.
It's conceivable that a leader of bin Laden's stature might have a powerful psychic aura that would create a "wall" around him without his being aware of it. But if that were the case in this story, Johnny would have sensed it in the Tora Bora cave.
In an earlier episode, Johnny was briefly unable to "enter" a room because of pain associated with it. So perhaps "walls" existed because bin Laden was ill and suffering? Could be, but it's unlikely several psychics would have been affected in the exact same way.
Moreover, the actual wording of the script seems to rule out the writer's having intended that bin Laden was there. CIA agents are struck by the realization that the setup may be a decoy. That's presented in a way that implies it's the true explanation. But if it is, we have to account not only for the blocked room, but also for a faux "doctor's" wearing a stethoscope and the al-Qaida men's making a "production" of trying to fit the tubing into the dialysis machine. They can't imagine anyone other than a psychic can see what they're doing in an upstairs apartment.
It's interesting to note that this story idea would work equally well whether bin Laden was in fact alive or dead. But the producers were taking a chance with it: real-world developments could have rendered it dated before it aired. It is dated in some ways. By March (when it should have aired), the U.S. knew bin Laden hadn't died at Tora Bora. And it's unlikely experts still give credence to the idea that he suffers from kidney disease and needs dialysis.
Now for the reasons USA censors may have nixed the episode.
Possibility No. 1: They suspected Piller was right about the U.S. using psychics, and they were concerned about aiding the enemy by revealing military secrets.
But if the use of psychics is real, publicizing it in this way can't give al-Qaida an edge; nor could it have helped Saddam's Iraq. The story idea works well if a reader (or hypothetical viewer) doesn't give it more than the normal amount of thought devoted to a TV episode. On reflection, however, I think it's very unlikely al-Qaida--or an enemy like Iraq--could actually oppose U.S. psychics in the way we see here.
First, the plot requires that al-Qaida have psychics of at least as high quality as their U.S. counterparts. They have to be aware of what the Americans are doing, and capable of erecting a psychic shield around a room. But the U.S. has a population of 288 million from which to draw psychics. Estimates of the numbers of al-Qaida range from several hundred to the low tens of thousands. Even if they had easy communication with all their people--which they don't--there's no way their talent pool could match the Americans'.
A nation the size of Iraq (pop. 24 million) would fare little better unless it had been recruiting and training psychics for years. And it would only have done so if it had been aware of the U.S. program.
Second, as the story plays out, it's a seemingly lucky break for al-Qaida that an American psychic tunes into their operative just when they'd want him to: while the operative is shopping for the plastic tubing. Suppose that didn't happen? In the story, al-Qaida must have invested a lot of time and effort and gone to great expense in setting up that booby trap for U.S. commandos. Would they have hung around the safehouse for weeks, talking ad infinitum about the difficulty of finding tubing for their dialysis machine? Any discussion of what they were really doing would have to be carried on in the shielded room--and they couldn't be sure it was adequately shielded. This is a good fictional idea that wouldn't be practical in the real world, for al-Qaida or as adapted by a nation.
And there's another possible problem. Bin Laden said in a recent message to his followers that in preparation for war, all Muslims, himself included, should repent of their sins and draw closer to God. He went on to remind them of what Islam considers the most grievous sins: a list that clearly dates from the time of Mohammed and reflects the concerns of 7th-century Arabia. Second on the list, after only rejection of God, is "the practice of magic"! It seems possible the conservative Muslims of al-Qaida still take that seriously and would equate active development of their psychic abilities with the practice of magic. Significant numbers of Muslims in Iraq and other countries might share that concern.
So al-Qaida can't really detect or block U.S. psychics. And if Iraq had learned about a possible threat from this source in March 2003, the knowledge would have come far too late to do Saddam's regime any good. The thought of intrusive psychics would be frightening and demoralizing for either enemy.
Possibility No. 2: USA's concern had nothing to do with bin Laden. Network brass envisioned critics of the Bush Administration having a field day with the notion that its "secret intelligence" about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction may have come from psychics.
This is a more legitimate concern; but it does not, in my opinion, justify censorship. Michael Piller has said there's plenty of information online about the CIA's use of psychics. The only thing that was new to him was the claim he heard that they've been used in the hunt for bin Laden.
Even if information about a psychic corps were not available elsewhere, I'd argue that it should be brought to the public's attention. This TV script deals with psychics trying to locate an individual whom the military hopes to seize or kill as soon as he can be found. In that situation, no one takes action based on psychic "visions" until satellite imagery provides some confirmation. But what if psychics had merely tried to identify suspect weapons sites? Might "visions" alone have resulted in sites being added to a list for future investigation? At a later date, might U.S. certainty about those sites have been overstated?
Psychic ability is a real phenomenon, but I don't believe it's reliable enough to be trusted as a sole source of military intelligence. The bottom line is that if the U.S. has a psychic corps, they've been hunting for the very-much-alive bin Laden for at least a year and a half and haven't found him.
If the Bush Administration didn't rely heavily on psychics in pinpointing Iraqi weapons sites, let them deny it. But if psychics were the source of their suspicions about specific sites--suspicions that have to date been proven wrong--both the American people and the Iraqis deserve to know.