"The Wanted," a series that purports to send its own team to hunt down accused terrorists and war criminals -- concierge-service justice -- so far has mostly brought NBC News unwanted scrutiny.
The program, which [began] on Monday night, sounds suspiciously like an international edition of "To Catch a Predator," the infamous pedophile-entrapment series on NBC's "Dateline" newsmagazine. Media critics complain that NBC News has crossed an ethical line between reportage and vigilantism; some say that news organizations have no business doing business with government officials or law-enforcement agencies.
Actually the only journalistic rule that NBC News violates in Monday's premiere is the most basic one: Don't bury the lead.
The first episode is presented as a manhunt for Mullah Krekar, the founder of the militant organization Ansar al-Islam, but his whereabouts is not exactly a mystery. He lives quite openly in Oslo, where he received refugee status in 1991.
Beneath many scrims of reality-show gimmickry and stagy "Dateline"-style melodrama, the episode raises a perfectly legitimate "60 Minutes" kind of question: Why is it that Mullah Krekar, who is a wanted man in Iraq and was deemed a threat to national security by the Supreme Court of Norway, is still at liberty in Oslo, even though his refugee status was revoked and the Norwegian government says it wants him gone? "The Wanted" doesn't supply much of an answer; it doesnât even pose the question very well. Reporting on "The Wanted" keeps being pushed aside by the demands of show business.
Before the show has even begun its run, NBC has been criticized for other episodes in which reporters seem to collaborate with law enforcement agencies (including, in one case, Rwandan prosecutors). In the premiere episode there is no collusion with any government entity, just a few theatrical but uninformative interviews with Iraqi officials and Norwegian politicians.
Adam Ciralsky, an NBC News producer, and David Crane, a former chief prosecutor of an international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, team up with a former member of the Navy Seals, Scott Tyler, and a former Green Beret, Roger Carstens, to form a kind of D.I.Y. hit squad.
They hold stilted briefings in an office designed to look like a Pentagon war room and tell one another things like: "These individuals are living amongst us, they could be on checkout lines at the local supermarket." Then, striding purposefully to pounding music, they divide up like contestants on "The Amazing Race," and spread out to complete self-assigned missions with self-imposed and utterly artificial deadlines.
Mr. Ciralsky travels all the way to northern Iraq, the base of Mullah Krekar's group, to "take a firsthand look at the evidence," but he doesn't talk to Iraqi witnesses or survivors of terrorist acts. He tapes an interview with an Iraqi security official, who assures him that Mullah Krekar is an instigator. ("His tongue is his weapon," the Iraqi says.)
Mr. Ciralsky requests -- and obtains, quite easily -- a letter from an Iraqi official pledging that if Mullah Krekar is extradited by Norway, the Iraqi government will give him a fair trial, without killing or torturing him. The program makes a big show of delivering this letter to Norwegian parliamentarians, as if that alone will spur that government to action.
Meanwhile the Delta Force Majeure is renting cars and loading cameras to stake out Mullah Krekar's leafy neighborhood in Oslo with the kind of hush-hush stealth and coiled tension associated with special-ops missions in Afghanistan. One team member sneaks into the target's courtyard and hides a camera in a tree, but the team is spying on a suspect living in plain sight: when they ask for a meeting, Mullah Krekar sends an e-mail message inviting them to his house.
Interviews with Norwegian members of Parliament and opposition leaders allow those politicians to express their outrage at the government's heel dragging in sending Mullah Krekar back home, and it takes forever to get to the point: Norway, like many European countries, doesn't extradite accused criminals to countries that have the death penalty, and Iraq does. There are ways to finesse that rule, but the program doesn't probe why the Norwegian government hasn't tried harder to find them.
Viewers are told almost nothing about Mullah Krekar's arrival in Norway in 1991 after the gulf war or his 2002 arrest.
There are no interviews with American government officials or independent analysts; the only Norwegian government official is a bureaucrat in the immigration office who stonewalls.
There is, however, a rather chilling interview with Mullah Krekar. The team calls the encounter a confrontation, but actually the Americans are polite and can't shame their host, who is unrepentant in English and Arabic. When Mr. Carstens says that he served in Iraq and considered Iraqi soldiers his brothers, the mullah is scornful. "You deserved to be killed when you were on the streets of Baghdad," he says.
There is a good story buried somewhere in the Scandinavian gloom, but "The Wanted" leaves it almost untouched. Mr. Ciralsky complains that "Norway is letting justice get in the way of justice." NBC News is letting reality-show aesthetics get in the way of journalism.