“More is good. A hell of a lot more can be bad.” National security expert Richard Clarke’s pithy observation comes near the end of Top Secret America: From 9/11 to the Boston Bombings, the repurposed Frontline episode airing on 30 April on PBS. And after watching the show—again, for those of you who saw the previous iteration in September 2011—you may be feeling the “more” in multiple ways. The report’s repetitions are in themselves disturbing, first that the costly ramping up of top secret America has gone on and on since 9/11, and second, that the results look negligible. It’s true that it’s hard to measure what doesn’t happen, but still, as the program lays out, the past decade’s efforts to “secure the homeland,” however tremendous, not only leave the homeland insecure, but also, in some cases, increase the risks. This is not only because advancing surveillance technology is ever incomplete, though it is, but more urgently, that some programs, say, drones or black sites, incite frustration, anger, and resistance in affected populations.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Dana Priest notes several pressure points in the US national security buildup, including black sites where interrogators use “stress and duress techniques,” the massive contracts for weapons companies (Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics) who made the pivot to security technologies, and the increasing use of surveillance within the US: as Priest’s reporting partner William Arkin puts it, “You never know who’s watching you.” When the program, in its final few minutes, turns to Boston and so offers new images under a mix of old and new storytelling (concerning the city lockdown, the reliance on citizens’ tips, and the Tsarnaevs slipping through US surveillance anyway). Here again, Clarke’s phrasing is aptly excessive, as he offers too many sports metaphors: “We’re never going to bat 1000,” he says, “There’s always going to be that hockey goalie that unfortunately lets the puck go by every once in a while.”
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