TV Review: Frontline’s ‘The United States of Secrets’

Frontline The United States of Secrets

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.

TV Review: Frontline's 'The United States of Secrets'

(Documentary; PBS, Tues. May 13-20, 9 p.m.)


Produced by Frontline with the Kirk Documentary Group and Rain Media.


Executive producer, David Fanning; deputy executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath; producers, Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore, Mike Wiser (Part One), Martin Smith, co-producers Linda Hirsch, Ben Gold (Part Two); director, Kirk; writers, Kirk, Wiser, Smith; editorial consultant, Barton Gellman. 3 HOURS

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  1. William Bolton says:

    Richard Clarke dropped the ball on 9/11 as he had warning in 1994 and 1997 of intent to hijack airliners for crashing into the world trade center towers. All the terrorists involved in the attacks were allowed into the USA by a Presidential order made by Bill Clinton to allow 2.5 million immigrants to enter the USA without FBI checks that would have caught all those terrorists since they were on the watch lists. I have personal knowledge of these facts and hold Clarke, Clinton and the rest of our corrupt government responsible for not doing their job. Clinton, Kennedy (Teddy) and Kerry were the people responsible for ending the worldwide informant network that had been built up since WWII, saying it would save 250 million dollars. Not having it has cost FAR more. Clinton fired the best intelligence agents the USA had and Bush did not bring them back, so both had shared responsibility there. Obama is using the unconstitutional program to identify, not terrorists, but American citizens for the islamics to target. He after all has put many islamics into power at homeland security and the NSA and anyone that thinks they are truthful and owe the USA is a fool as their life is islam and they are all as truthful as Obama is on this issue of transparency.

  2. Jeremy Young says:

    A few things this documentary framed well:

    Firstly, it’s not Eric Snowden that is the criminal, it’s our government that is acting criminally. Regardless of the justification, which is weak at best, the highest ranking officials of government are subverting the supreme law of our land.

    Secondly, Until there are real consequences for breaking the law, the NSA will continue to do whatever it wants. A special court was set up, just for the NSA (FISA Court), and when the Judge of that Court says the NSA has ignored them and lied to them, there should be some real consequences. To this day no one has been held to account except the people that tried to do the right thing and abide by the Constitution. For that, our then Vice President, Richard Cheney used his position as VP to bring down innocent individuals (FBI agents nonetheless) for coming forth with what they believed to be un-Constitutional edicts. These FBI agents were treated like enemies of state when they were, in fact, the only voices of legality in a sea of sycophant yes-men.

    And last, the Obama administration and the Bush administration have continuously given assurances to the American people that American citizens are not being targeted. All the evidence, though hidden as best they could, says otherwise. They are spying on ordinary Americans and they continue to lie about it to this day. Obama has done nothing to affect the transparency of our government. If anything, he has carried on in the same vein as his predecessor.

  3. Amazing! Enlightening! Powerhouse documentary. Very disappointed that Pres. Obama’s reneged on his promise of transparency. Most alarming was how our gov’t treated loyal, hardworking insiders who tried to do the right thing.

  4. T. Jefferson says:

    Frontline has always been about interesting relevant stories impeccably told. This was no exception, outstanding documentary. The saddest part of this story was that the New York Times permitted itself to be bullied into silence. This partly explains why there is little coverage of these egregious actions by any mainstream new outlet. The American people should be outraged by what our government is doing and the blatant disregard for our constitutional rights.

  5. Outstanding! If you love the politics behind the headlines, watch this. I, also, kept notes,attempting to follow the good guys vs. the bad guys, with VP Cheney leading the pack.

  6. KarenM says:

    Frontline always does a great job but this was… magnificent! I took notes, the entire 2 hours,
    as fast as I could. Still, I want to see it again because my eye could only be on the screen half the time, and they always do a beautiful visual job, too. Just like being there. It sounded like a somewhat dull subject and here in my world, we’ve known about this subject for 8 years or so. But, this was different, more – than I expected. I had no idea a bunch of insiders protested and got into such serious financial, legal and emotional difficulty over trying to be decent, and do the right thing. I want everyone to see it. For those unused to material heavier than American Idol and such, they need to develop their brain with this. It’s a little like freshman semester at a good college, a challenge, more for some that others. I found it enjoyable. This puts the many news bits into a coherent whole and focuses on the entire story over several years. Now, I can judge our president’s decisions on this matter more intelligently. I have a new appreciation for Snowden now. I was so pleased to see several women in positions of subject matter expertise and influence, more than I expected, even today. Let’s not forget the reports and their essential role, too, with thanks.

  7. chapscolo says:

    Best documentary I’ve witnessed explaining the absolute collapse of American’s privacy rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and purposefully engineered by those at the highest level of government. Interviews with the major political players sans Bush, Cheney and Obama are so compelling you can almost feel them sweat through the camera. And well they should. Americans for generations to come will watch this documentary in horror and as the worst case scenario of a government “run amok”. This documentary should be played free at every local theater across America, but mostly those who clearly and intentionally violated the U.S. Constitution and rule of law should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

  8. Gottfried Brieger says:

    “Lying to the country and Congress in the name of patriotism needs only repetition to be effective”

    George W. Bush

  9. Pete Grills says:

    When does Part 2 air?

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