'Frontline: United States of Secrets, Part 1': History of the NSA's Surveillance Program

Edward Snowden's reveal has had cascading effects. While more are now aware of what the NSA has done, efforts to limit the damage and perpetuate the Program persist.

Frontline: United States of Secrets

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Diane Roark, Edward Loomis, Michael Hayden, Thomas Drake, J. Kirk Wiebe, Barton Gellman, Glenn Greenwald, Jane Mayer, Peter Baker, Andrew Card, Ryan Lizza, Richard Clarke
Network: PBS
Director: Michael Kirk
Air date: 2014-05-13
"I saw some guys in suits outside. I said, ‘Who are you?’ and they said ‘FBI.’ I said, ‘What do you want?’ They flashed their badges and said, ‘Let us inside and we’ll tell you what we want.’”

-- Diane Roark

As Michael Hayden recalls it, his introduction to the Program -- the NSA's massive domestic surveillance plan instituted by the US after 9/11-- gave him brief pause. He remembers that he went home and spoke with his wife, without going into details, of course, telling her, "'One day it's gonna be public and it's gonna be very controversial.' She said, 'Well, is it the right thing to do?'" When he told her yes, she said, "Okay. We'll deal with that when it comes."

Hayden tells this story, for Frontline: United States of Secrets, as if to suggest his own foresight, his understanding that the eventual and inevitable revelation of the Program would have consequences, that the pursuit and redefinition of national security would raise legal, ethical, and political questions. In his recollection of this moment, Hayden appears peculiarly grounded, providing an abstract sort of common sense via "my wife," a common sense that allows he need only feel that what he's undertaking is "right thing to do." That he holds to this now, after Edward Snowden has made the Program public, hints at how the Program has been framed and implemented for over a decade.

United States of Secrets looks back on how this "right thing to do" was conceived and executed during the Bush Administration, and then pursued by Obama's White House. It's an incredibly chilling tale, recounted by supporters like Hayden and Alberto Gonzales, whistleblowers like Thomas Drake and Kirk Wiebe and also journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Jane Mayer, and Barton Gellman. Given that so much of what they recount happened in secret, much of Michael Kirk's film illustrates by not illustrating: as someone speaks, you see B-roll of traffic in DC, archival TV imagery of 9/11, massive computer equipment in long shots of basements, cameras on street corners, people's feet traipsing through shiny, blurred-focused hallways in the Capitol. Such pictures don't tell you much about who was where when, but they do inspire a pervasive anxiety: the surveillance is everywhere.

Such anxiety is a primary instruction in United States of Secrets, but its narrative allows for another concern, in that it suggests the less than methodical decision-making, the fear-mongering, and the bullying undertaken by both administrations to get what they want. This first film's focus is on the Bush years, or more accurately, the Cheney years (Part 2, airing 20 May, looks at the relationship between the NSA and Silicon Valley). Though he isn't interviewed, Cheney's photo and his name come up repeatedly, as speakers remember his directives and determination of the mission, that is, to "protect" the American people by stripping away their rights to privacy. Lacing together multiple interviews, the film connects stories that seem both trivial and epic.

Sometimes these stories are familiar, here retold by several interview laced together, as in the case of the now infamous visit by Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to John Ashcroft's hospital room in March 2004, in an effort to override acting AG James Comey's refusal to sign off on the surveillance program. These several perspectives on one event indicate the intricate interconnections of so many insistent lies and imaginable truths. Consider the differences between Hayden's version of his first meeting with Bush, when Hayden was director of the NSA, compared to Gellman's. According to Hayden, he was worried about the legality of the steps he wanted to take, but went along with what Bush offered (essentially, "What do you need?"). Gellman, in turn, tells this story, that the president put his arm around Hayden's shoulders, and "called him his childhood nickname, Mikey."

The still photo of the men together here shows another moment, as this meeting was not recorded. No one says another word about that childhood nickname, but Gellman's story -- apocryphal or not -- offers a frame for what comes next, that the boys who conjured this first step into the dark side (see: Dick Cheney), were at once conspiratorial and juvenile, perceiving the Program as a project they might put together amongst themselves, without regard for the law, telling themselves it was "the right thing to do," even if someone else might not see it that way.

Indeed, when the law looked as if it might get in the way of the Program, White House lawyers did what they were told to do, which was to find ways to justify what had been done or what might be done in the name of national security. Much like the much-reported end runs concerning enhanced interrogation (sagas of memos also involving Alberto Gonzales), the arguments made in support of collecting megadata take on an urgency when lined up against possible future terrorist plots. At least one version of this argument becomes excruciating, when Edward Loomis, an NSA engineer for 43 years, appears to still be so distressed over 9/11 that he tears up: "Three thousand lives were lost," he says, "It's a weight I have trouble bearing."

Later in the film, you discover other sources of Loomis' upset. When he and other NSA employees -- Wiebe, Drake, and William Binney -- found that a 1990s program called ThinThread would allow data collection and also encrypt information to protect individuals' rights, they told the White House that this would do the job in 2001. This group was surprised when the NSA went ahead with the Trailblazer Project, which omitted privacy protections.

Repeatedly, Loomis and others tried, with help from House Intelligence Committee staffer Diane Roark, to push back on the Program, reporting the Department of Defense Inspector general office, for example, or in Roark's case, reporting on the Program's colossal waste of money. Each was rebuked and shut down. Loomis, Wiebe, and Binney resigned in order not to participate in the illegal collection of data in a "dragnet fashion," this was not the end of their troubles with the administration. In 2007, they were targeted by the FBI, under authority of an investigation by Gonzales (then AG) regarding leaks to the press.

When at last the White House was compelled to speak on the subject, Hayden says he wondered what might happen. "We call it the Big Pause," he recalls, "when stuff like this goes public, what's the big guy gonna do? Is he gonna man up and support you or is he gonna get reflective?" His answer came in the forma liar and a spy might appreciate: Bush admitted and defended the Program, and dissembled, insisting it was lawful, that it only pursued "known suspects or conspirators."

This "support" came along with retributions against the whistleblowers, who knew at least some of what was coming ("You go to the press, you're gonna get hammered, observes Wiebe). But if they might have guessed Cheney would come after them, these self-described patriots hoped against hope that Obama would change course. He has not, despite his campaign promises of more "transparency." (As former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke puts it, when you're president, "You don't want to give up any tools that you inherit.") Frontline makes clear enough who spoke to reporters, without the reporters needing to disclose sources: Roark and Drake, for examples, are upfront about their decisions to contact the press. The focus here is the official retribution enacted against them, retribution that informed Snowden's route to exposing the NSA's activities, according to Gellman: "He decided it had to be documents, and it had to be a lot of documents."

Snowden's lesson learned has had cascading effects, none of them resolved at this moment. While more people are now aware of what the NSA has done, efforts to limit the damage and perpetuate the Program persist. The stories told by interview subjects in United States of Secrets may make the Program public, as Hayden anticipated, but the storytelling continues, in press conferences, in official reports and congressional testimonies. If the exposure is "controversial," it is also contained.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.