The United States of Secrets-Part One: The Program

Last night I watched online the above two-hour Frontline program that was broadcast earlier this week on public television and it is well worth seeing. It tells the history of the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, focusing on the period from just before the events of 9/11 and leading up to soon after Barack Obama took office as president in 2008. The story of Edward Snowden and his leaks are used to bracket this story but is not the main focus. Part 2 deals with the role of the major internet companies and will be broadcast next week on public television stations and will also be on the internet.

Since I have been following the NSA story closely, there was little that was really new to me but the program told that story well and I was engrossed. It put it all together in a narrative form that will enable viewers to get a fuller understanding of Snowden’s actions and place it in context. Many of the names and stories of the professionals within the NSA such as Kirk Wiebe, Edward Binney, Thomas Tamm, and Thomas Drake, people who tried to bring the existence of the illegal programs to the attention of the proper authorities through the normal channels and when that failed to have any effect, told the media, were familiar to me. But there were some others such as senior Congressional staffer Diane Roark and NSA cryptologist Edward Plimsoll whose names were new. These people were by no means radicals. They were older, solid establishment types from across the political spectrum (Roark was a lifelong conservative Republican), professionals with a lifetime of government service, who were aghast at what they perceived was their own government acting outside the law.

The villains in the piece are the usual gang of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington (Cheney’s counsel), Alberto Gonzalez, Barack Obama, and Michael Hayden.

The images of Cheney and Addington are confirmed as ruthless people who will stop at nothing to get their own way. Alberto Gonzalez is a weak toady who can be made to sign anything certifying the practices as legal, first as White House Counsel and later as Attorney General when the former Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to certify the surveillance program and the top people at the justice department threated to resign en masse if the illegal activities continued.

Hayden comes across as glib and smug, a malevolent Elmer Fudd look-alike, a snake-oil salesman who had the skills to bamboozle members of Congress and the media with lies masquerading as truth. He was the head of the NSA at the time of the events of 9/11 and his mission in life now seems to be to deflect any blame for why they did not see it coming despite their massive spying system and suggesting that even greater expansion of the illegal activities since then is what is needed to prevent another attack. He is a truly odious piece of work.

Bush, Cheney, and Obama all use the cudgel of saying that anyone who opposes them or tries to curtail these programs will be responsible for the blood of everyone who is killed in a subsequent attack. This turns out to be a powerful threat to cow any opposition in Congress or the media.

The New York Times comes out deservedly poorly. When their own reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau received a leak in the fall of 2004 from Thomas Tamm about the existence of a massive surveillance program targeting Americans without warrants, something that people from Bush downwards had strenuously denied, and were planning to write the story, the White House called its then Executive Editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger to a meeting and told them not to publish. These two revealed themselves to be so obsequious to power that they spiked the story for 15 months, until well after Bush had been re-elected, which was likely what Bush and Cheney wanted all along. The paper published the story only after Risen threatened to publish a book about it.

While campaigning for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Obama talked strongly about the need for transparency in government, for government to act according to the law and the constitution, and the importance of providing protection for whistleblowers. But as soon as he got the nomination he reversed himself and voted in favor of the FISA Amendment that gave Congressional approval to all the illegal things that the Bush administration had been doing, thus providing it with a veneer of legality.

This was not the only evidence of hypocrisy and cravenness by Obama immediately after he got the nomination and even before he got elected. The other was his reversal on granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunication companies that colluded with the government in its illegal programs. And his third major reversal occurred right after he took office when he not only endorsed and expanded the spying programs, he created an even more oppressive secrecy regime, cracking down on whistleblowers and journalists, making a mockery of his boasts of transparency and fidelity to the constitution and showing himself to be a liar like the rest.

These are all the things that Snowden observed carefully as he began to be aware of the scope of the NSA’s illegal activities and that determined his subsequent actions. Like his whistleblower predecessors and much of the country, he had hoped that Obama’s bogus ‘hope and change’ campaign rhetoric was genuine and that things would change with his election but they all quickly became disillusioned. He realized that what he needed was incontrovertible documentary evidence of all the wrongdoing that was going on because the government would stonewall and brazenly deny everything while at the same time impugning the credibility and the motives and even the mental state of any leakers. Snowden also realized that trying to go through the proper channels like the others did would likely get him nowhere and that he had to go outside to the media. The third thing he realized was that the establishment media, especially the New York Times that used to be the preferred recipient of leaks, was hopelessly in the thrall of the government and he was adamant that they would not get his documents because they might just sit on them as they did with the Risen story. And finally, he realized that he had to be willing to sacrifice his life to do what he planned to do, that his identity could not be kept secret, and that he had to be prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison under very harsh conditions.

Thus began his plan to download the crucial documents and give them to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras whom he trusted to make good judgments about what to publish and what not to, but would not suppress any information that the public had a right to know. Poitras then recruited Barton Gellman who is not an employee of the Washington Post but had worked for them in the past on special projects.

And the rest, as they say, is history. And it is still unfolding.


  1. Dunc says

    former Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to certify the surveillance program

    That really says something, doesn’t it? After all it’s not like John freaking Ashcroft is some kind of dirty hippy, is it?

  2. colnago80 says

    Actually, the NSA and the CIA did pick up indications of the attack that became 9/11 and Bush Administration officials were warned about an impending attack by Richard Clarke but chose to ignore the warnings. It’s a little unfair to blame the lower level employees at those agencies for the incompetence of their superiors.

    An example of the incompetence of the lamestream media in this regard is the attention given to what happened in Benghazi and the alleged incompetence of Obama Administration official while glossing over the incompetence of Bush Administration officials relative to 9/11. Compared to 9/11, Benghazi was minor hiccup.

  3. leni says

    …he had hoped that Obama’s bogus ‘hope and change’ campaign rhetoric was genuine,,,

    Oh there was hope. And change. So technically not untrue.

    I just watched the episode tonight and there was a lot in there I didn’t know. I may have heard it at the time, but I have no recollection of that Ashcroft hospital room incident. I might have fist pumped a little bit for John Ashcroft and I just don’t even know what to do with that.

    As bad as it all was, I am strangely surprised and comforted by the fact that there really are some ok people in Washington. That really, really surprised me. And it also really surprised me how unlikely I would have thought they were before knowing even this tiny amount of detail. Diane Rourke? Never would have seen that coming. Never heard of her before today, but even if I had I never would have seen that coming. That gives me a little hope. Not much, but a little.

    And Hayden did come off like a toady. I remembered you said that, so I was watching for it and at first I didn’t see it. He was disarmingly baby-faced and easy-going, even charming. Later, the nose twitching thing was really bothering me. He’d complete an uncomfortable sentence or two, shift around in his chair and twitch his nose like a rat. It was just weird. And then he’d go right back to baby-faced grampa guy. It was disturbing. And given what he said about the NSA employees being “nothing but enthusiastic”, I’m just going to go ahead and assume that conversation with his wife never happened.

    The NSA cryptographer that helped develop Thinthread, Loomis. I worry for him. He seemed very fragile and very much like someone in dire need of social and therapeutic support. I hope he has that and comes through this ok. And the other whistelblowers, of course. He just seemed like he’d cracked. It was hard to watch.

  4. lanir says

    I watched this late. Just got done with it and ready to start the second episode.

    This definitely held some surprises for me. I think when the cryptography gentleman broke into tears and excused himself was where I first sat up and started paying attention. I was never comfortable with the things I heard and I never liked Bush to begin with, but this was my first real wake-up call that there was more to the conversation on the government side than the official lies. There could have been a legitimate public conversation around these matters.

    I try not to fall into the mistake of thinking people are just vile or evil or whatever label one chooses to slap on people who take a position one disagrees with strongly. I personally think that it is very beneficial to understand that even people who do very bad things are still largely normal people. They’re just normal people who tell convenient lies, sometimes to themselves, sometimes to anyone else who will listen, sometimes to both themselves and the rest of the world. Knowing how people can fall into that trap helps you avoid doing it yourself and maybe helps deal with people in your life who have, like any elderly relative who watches Fox News for example.

    Anyway, I thought Alberto Gonzalez appeared to be falling into the trap of thinking it’s all just a big intellectual exercise. Like it were all just one big debate and one could ignore the consequences. Ironically a very similar argument is often used by conservatives towards liberals: they’re out of touch with reality. To me, Michael Hayden seemed like the sort of genially argumentative person one occasionally finds spouting any sort of random errant nonsense whether it’s racism, pro or con positions on government and government power, climate skepticism, flouride, etc, etc. The position they’re taking is just as batshit crazy as it is when shouted stridently but they put a smile on their face and talk nicely so you don’t notice how extreme their position really is. To some degree he appears similar to people I’ve met who actively like debating and take extra pleasure in arguing the wrong side of things in a way that makes it seem right. So again, I think he’s very much out of touch with reality on this.

    The reality is that some of these things are like an updated 21st century version of Orwell’s famous novel 1984. They lack the power to influence the language specifically, that’s an older idea that was quickly becoming impractical even as the novel was published in 1949. But influencing all the ways one hears about a topic? That’s doable and produces results that are just as useful, and the very openness of communications that keeps language control from being possible yields an incredible bounty of intelligence that Orwell couldn’t have dreamed of over 60 years ago.

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