Methodical and comprehensive, “Frontline’s” documentary “The United States of Secrets” offers a blow-by-blow account of the Bush administration’s embrace of potentially illegal spying/eavesdropping techniques, President Obama’s decision to continue them (despite campaign promises to the contrary) and, most compellingly, those who sought to blow the whistle on government overreach, culminating with Edward Snowden’s unprecedented dump of classified documents. If the two-part project breaks little new ground, it’s an utterly thorough primer on what transpired that almost plays like a John Le Carre thriller, with remarkably candid interviews from participants on all sides.
As producer Michael Kirk makes clear, the White House — and Vice President Dick Cheney in particular — felt that all tools must be available to prevent a replay of the Sept. 11 attacks. That meant stretching the parameters of what was permissible, justifying the techniques via what former Dept. of Justice official Jack Goldsmith describes as “inadequate legal reasoning and flawed legal opinions.”
Goldsmith is just one of those who pushed back against the Bush administration and Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington, as did, it should be noted, lifetime National Security Agency functionaries and several Republicans, such as congressional intelligence committee staffer Diane Roark, who felt what came to be known as the Program violated U.S. law.
While it’s a well-documented incident, the drama of those exchanges peaked with the astonishing showdown in the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, where — with current FBI head James Comey and Goldsmith looking on — a stricken Ashcroft composed himself long enough to announce he would not sign off on warrantless wiretapping.
“United States of Secrets” also details the role played by the Fourth Estate, as frustrated officials reluctantly began going to the press, feeling they had no other recourse to beat back constitutional intrusions. Yet the New York Times, after nailing down the story, ultimately balked at running it, at the urging of the Bush administration, a rather disheartening departure for those with a “Three Days of the Condor”-informed view of the Times’ role in such affairs.
Notably, Snowden, whose initial overtures to reporters provoked little more than skepticism, closely monitored the experiences of others before his own massive leak, which former National Security Council adviser Richard Clarke calls a “stupendous intelligence breach” of unparalleled proportion.
Foremost, “Secrets” captures how the intelligence failures that allowed Sept. 11 to happen led to a desire to throw out the existing playbook, with the cautionary addendum that times of great fear are not conducive to establishing policy. And with so many key participants speaking on the record — including Bush’s NSA director Michael Hayden and former Attorney Gen. Alberto Gonzales — “Frontline” has provided a handy road map for how a mix of conditions led from there to here.
While “Frontline” docs aren’t always necessarily big-time ratings draws, this is another entry under that prestigious banner that certainly doesn’t deserve to stay secret.