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Frontline: Top Secret America

Director: Michael Kirk
Cast: Dana Priest, William Arkin, Richard Clarke, Michael Hayden, Cofer Black
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET

(PBS; US: 6 Sep 2011)

Scatter it Around

The primacy of JSOC within the Obama administration’s foreign policy—from Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan—indicates that he has doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of US foreign policy.
—Jeremy Scahill, “JSOC: The Black Ops Force That Took Down Bin Laden”


Candidate Barack Obama used to say the Bush administration’s covert war on terror “should be dramatically reined in.” As Dana Priest remembers these olden days—some three ago—questions continue to swirl concerning the extent and costs of that war. As she and William Arkin pursued these questions for their Washington Post series and book, Top Secret America, they came to see how deeply post-9/11 America is immersed in secrets.


As the guide for Frontline‘s investigation, also titled Top Secret America, Priest is by turns informative, poised, and suitably horrified by what she’s found, the government’s escalation, its efforts not only to deceive and manipulate, but also to expand itself surreptitiously, and to claim power in the name of protecting others. Given that the intelligence community’s stated directive following 9/11 was to consolidate, to work together, and to share information in order to ensure that such an attack could never happen again—an attack that came as an apparent complete surprise to everyone in that community—it’s troubling that this end is nowhere in sight.


This secrecy, Frontline notes, is “key” to the plans formulated in the days after 9/11, mainly by the CIA’s Cofer Black. “All you need to know is there was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11,” he tells a congressional panel in archival footage, “Gloves come off.” Even as this secrecy became institutionalized—as agents and workers came to see their activities as secret by definition—the intelligence community has been transformed. It’s not that the CIA or the Defense Department Intelligence Agency (DIA) were new to this game. The changes involve size (the numbers of workers, technologies, and spaces used have grown exponentially) and also philosophy. That is, Top Secret America submits, secrecy is not only a means to an end so much as it seems a self-justifying mode of thought, a self-perpetuating process—with devastating effects. When Dick Cheney said the U.S. would “have to work the dark side, if you will,” he was laying out a rationale that would shape the objective. As Priest says, “I think the reality is that they wanted to keep it secret because they were doing things that a lot of people would not approve of and they wanted to do them as long as they could without being found out.”


Perhaps “they” needn’t have worried. For it appears that even as some of these distasteful and/or illegal “things” emerge, they’re able to keep doing them. Even if Top Secret America covers ground that will be familiar to viewers who have read the Post series or seen the 18 January Frontline, Are We Safer? The new Frontline includes pieces from the previous one, like Post photographer Michael Williamson’s interview concerning the building now housing intelligence offices: “It’s four stories high, but goes down 10 stories,” creating a “whole world, with of shops and places to eat, that’s just for them.” Such material reality speaks to a disturbing metaphor, that agents and workers are immersed in that “whole world,” removed from the rest of us. These spaces exist everywhere (that is, in 10,000 locations across the United States), says Richard Clarke. The program offers a map, and also a drive through DC, where, Clarke observes, the decision was made to “scatter it around so it fits into the fabric of metropolitan Washington,” where 33 building complexes have been built since 2001, making this system at once hidden and also pervasive. 


While Are We Safer? asked an earnest question, Top Secret America asks how “safety” has come to be a business, subject to decisions by individuals with a stake in particular answers. Following the military-industrial complex identified by Dwight Eisenhower (and expanded to include corporate interests, with lobbyists, according to Eugene Jarecki’s film, Why We Fight), the new system turns to private contractors to get its work done. Priest lists the many technologies manufacturers with dogs in the hunt (companies like Boeing and Casci, some 1,931 private companies and counting), who have been working with the CIA, JSOC, and the NSA—even the supposedly overarching National Intelligence Program, first headed by John Negroponte. He appears here briefly, mostly to outline how impossible his job was from 2005 to 2007, when he had no actual authority to run the program.


Lack of oversight is a problem noted repeated by Top Secret America. Priest makes this case in dramatic ways (she appears, for instance, driving her car in a shadowy parking garage, her eyes eerily visible in her rearview mirror) and also in her commentary. Reporting on the moment when the CIA blew up a vehicle bearing “known terrorists” in Yemen, firing a Hellfire missile from a drone that was controlled from Tampa, Florida, in November 2002. “They fired an armed predator at a vehicle in Yemen with a weapon we didn’t know they had,” she says. The public response was muted.


This is alarming, but so is Frontline‘s interview with Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, former deputy commander to General Tommy Franks at Central Command (CENTCOM), who explains why the event should have passed without fanfare: “It’s just war,” he says, “No different than going to the store to buy some eggs. That’s something you’ve got to do.” He goes on to describe the vehicle’s passengers as “the same people who killed 3,000 people” on 9/11, but of course that’s not accurate. The war on terror has changed the ways targets are “acquired,” how they’re dispatched, and what kinds of damage they can wreak (and a Hellfire missile wreaks a lot of it).


At least part of this aggression was enabled by the expanded role taken on by JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) after 9/11, namely “paving the way” for the shock and awe campaign in Iraq in March 2003, as well as capture and targeted killing operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Moreover, Priest underscores the secret facilities built after 9/11 for holding prisoners, the black sites in other nations (including Libya, Egypt, and Morocco) where interrogators used “enhanced interrogation techniques.”


Top Secret America reports on these techniques, as well as targeted assassinations and captures, not to celebrate successes but to ponder the consequences of all this expanded secrecy. As it notes as well that the Obama administration has expanded the expansion, the future looks increasingly unknowable.

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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