Frontline: The United States of Secrets

Last Tuesday PBS’ Frontline broadcast the first of two documentaries about the origins of the National Security Agency’s data-gathering activities, known simply as The Program. Of all the many things I find disturbing about our leaders, the people who influence them to mostly not govern, nothing makes me more twitchy than the NSA’s activities.  Every American who is fond of spouting their rights in the face of perceived government tyranny should be outraged–but generally they just yawn.

The United States of Secrets traces the data collection measures back to the disaster of 9/11 and the panic that followed.  Interviews with Bush insiders Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzalez and NSA director Michael Hayden lay out the President’s rationale for invoking the war powers to systematically violate Americans’ constitutional rights.  There are heroes too. Frontline tells the story of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decisions from his hospital bed to block renewal of warrantless wire tapping despite pressure from Gonzales and Card.   There are the NSA insiders who retired in protest, rather than participate in program that clearly violated NSA’s mission as well as the constitutional rights of Americans.  Some of these same men would later be suspected of leaking information to the New York Times and faced FBI agents at dawn outside their front doors, guns drawn.

This first episode is important for two reasons.  The first is it reveals the origins of The Program, the data-collection scheme that began in the Bush White House with the full support of the President, Vice-President and their various hangers on.  However it also demonstrates that despite candidate Obama’s campaign promises for intelligence transparency in the 2008 election, Senator Obama voted for continuing the NSA programs before he took office in 2009.  Though the Bush Administration fathered this abomination, Obama has happily been the god-father.

Secondly, this episode sets up the current discussion of The Guardian’s revelation of documents provided to it by Edward Snowden.  Snowden emerges as a young contractor drawn to the the NSA for patriotic reasons, but cannot stomach the agency’s abuse of power and determines to reveal what he can.  This will be the subject the May 20th Frontline episode.

This is an incredibly important issue.  I encourage everyone to watch.  Frontline has links to the first episode and valuable supporting issues if you missed it and want to see.

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