Frontline documentary gets with NSA's spy 'Program'

Frontline documentary gets with NSA's spy 'Program'
NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden speaks to European officials via videoconference. (Frederick Florin / AFP/Getty Images)

It may have come to your attention, sometime in the last several years, that the government of the United States makes an expensive habit of spying on its citizens in ways that have often been illegal, quasi-legal or formerly illegal until the law was changed to make them legal.

Even before Edward Snowden made himself a wanted man and the enormity of the whole business became known, it was reported on at least in part; but it is the kind of news that — like global warming — can feel too huge to grasp, especially when Johnny is down with the flu and Sally has soccer practice and your editor would like to know when he'll get that review you promised him.


And so it is good to have "United States of Secrets," a new two-part Frontline documentary about "the Program," the National Security Administration's post-9/11 engine of wide-net intelligence gathering in which, as far as I understand it, every phone call or e-mail or texting that passes through an American pipeline is sifted for whatever it is the government thinks it needs to know.

The first part airing Tuesday covers the covert growth of the NSA — forbidden from warrantless domestic spying after its abuse by the Nixon administration — in the aftermath of the Twin Towers and over the course of two presidencies. Part two, which airs next week and is as-yet-unavailable for review, concerns the perhaps too-cozy relationship between the government and Silicon Valley.

Snowden first appears anonymously, sending an email to a Guardian columnist: "I've got some stuff you may be interested in." Later, after some two hours of context supplied by a phalanx of reporters and former NSA, Department of Justice and Bush administration officials, it is possible to picture his act as something more than one of egoism and his paranoia as not without justification.

He is not the first one to share inside information about the Program, or feel official wrath. Not surprisingly, there are no voices from within the current administration.

Dick Cheney, that old eminence grise, comes off again as a bully, the Scut Farkus of the picture, with aide David Addington his Grover Dill. But overall, "United States of Secrets" gives a nuanced report of the variety of voices that go into making any government.

There were conservative opponents to the Program, just as there were liberals, including the sitting president, who signed off on it. For that matter, it isn't really an attack on the Program so much as the story of the lies, the madness and the attacks that its creation occasioned.

With shots of government buildings and blurry figures and spy-flick computer images spelling the interviews — either first-person memories or colorful re-tellings by informed reporters — the documentary moves fast and stays compelling. (It is, in its way, action packed.) How long it will linger is up to your own busy consciousness to say. Anyway, here's that review I mentioned.


'Frontline: United States of Secrets'

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday; 10 p.m. next Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)