‘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.

“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.

RATING 7 / 10