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Frontline: Are We Safer?

Director: Michael Kirk
Cast: Dana Priest, Richard Clarke, Michael Hayden, Thomas Kean, Martin O'Malley
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET

(PBS; US: 18 Jan 2011)

Blank Check

Half a century ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the rising “military-industrial complex,” what he termed the unprecedented “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.” The conjunction posed its own danger, Eisenhower observed, “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”


Such danger is exacerbated today, submits the new episode of Frontline, Are We Safer?. As advanced surveillance technologies are added into the mix, the complex is not more expensive, more entrenched and also elusive, more “complex.” And still, the fundamental impulse Eisenhower identified is the same, the impulse to escalate, to spend more money and time, and to lose sight of effects and effectiveness.


On the night of 9/11, remembers Richard Clark, President Bush called security experts into the White House basement. Here they were instructed to escalate. “As soon as we went to the Congress,” Clarke says, “They said, ‘Just tell us what you need.’ Blank check.” This has had a slew of consequences, namely, an increased dedication to counter-terrorism, in the form of expensive new surveillance technologies and facilities. The question posed by the program’s title is a real one, however, as there is little evidence that all this activity has produced “safety.”


Are We Safer? is more an introduction to an investigation than an investigation itself. (It closes with a promise of a more in-depth follow-up; the show is itself followed by a frankly alarming follow-up to Miles O’Brien’s investigation of airline safety, Flying Cheap, which reveals that the industry is ” borrowing from its safety margin,” by outsourcing maintenance.)


The reporting in Are We Safer? is cursory. An early image has Washington Post reporter Dana Priest hunched over her steering wheel as she drives in an underground parking lot, a composition that recalls any number of spy movie scenes. As the camera keeps close on her profile, George Bush’s audio intones, “In this first war of the 21st century,” the goal of U.S. agencies is to “pursue terrorists with tools they already used against other criminals.”


These tools, according to Priest’s own investigation, “Top Secret America,”, have produced a system of government agencies and private contractors that is “so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.” As Clarke puts it, the Department of Homeland Security is itself “the largest merger in government’s history, [combining] 17 agencies from multiple departments.”


The sheer size is illustrated by models and drawings of the headquarters, still under construction, and photos taken by the Post‘s Michael Williamson. He and Priest marvel at “gigantic” buildings that appear vague and obscured in the nighttime shot showed here. Williamson underscores the spooky “secrecy,” noting, “They might only be four stories high, but they go down ten stories. And there’s a whole world down there, like shops and places to eat that you don’t know about. That’s just for them.” (You might imagine a population of techs, shopping at the Gap or eating at Taco Bell, unseen by outsiders.)


Clarke says that one result of the reorganization is that “the Homeland Security Department funded intelligence fusion centers in every state.” However, Are We Safer? argues that results are far from clear, and moreover, the visible work has been done by local police and regular people. The Underwear Bomber evaded airport security before his device failed and fellow passengers jumped him. Clarke notes that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab slipped through because someone misspelled his name: “Google does it if you mistype something on Google. It says, ‘Did you mean this?’ Despite spending all the billions of dollars on databases, that simple spell check ‘Did you mean this?’ kind of software wasn’t operating.”


According to Are We Safer?, basic technologies currently used by law enforcement agencies, including license plate cameras and Facebook, are helping to make identifications—and they have little to do with the new fusion centers or pricey DHS imperatives. Moreover, Martin O’Malley repeats what so many observers have already said, that post 9/11 security is “the great American conundrum.” That is, “Our freedom as individuals, our freedom of movement, are the very things that are most vulnerable to terror attacks. And also, sadly, are most vulnerable to our own systems of government turning on those things and doing more harm than the terrorists do in their attacks.” 


Yes and yes, and this harm is enhanced by media too. And still, Eisenhower saw through it 50 years ago. “It is the task of statesmanship,” he insisted, “to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system—ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”


 

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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