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Review: PBS's Frontline Presents 'United States Of Secrets'

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The history of the NSA's spying on ordinary Americans is given detailed and weighty treatment in a two-part series, United States of Secrets, produced by PBS's acclaimed documentary program Frontline. Part one-which aired this week (and is available for free at PBS.com and on the PBS app) and will be followed next Tuesday by part two-details the early history of the surveillance program, leading up to its exposure by Edward Snowden last year.

Before Snowden enters the picture, United States of Secrets looks at the NSA as an institution and explains its mission both pre- and post-September 11, 2001. 9/11 was truly a transformative moment for the agency, and the documentary does a tremendous job of showing how the NSA was affected by the terrorist attacks of that day. This is important, because in much of the coverage of Snowden and the surveillance program, it's easy to forget about the context that led our leaders to create this program and then continue to reauthorize it.

Many of the figures involved in NSA surveillance around 9/11 are interviewed and their regret from the way things were handled is clear. They believe that, had they been given more power to analyze clues about a potential terrorism plot, the attacks could have been prevented. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration eagerly handed over these powers to the NSA, intent on avoiding another terrorist attack.

Many of the architects of the surveillance program are interviewed for the documentary. They make it clear that they knew how legally questionable the program was, and so they ferociously protected the secret of its existence. The NSA managed to dissuade several potential whistleblowers from going public and even talked the New York Times out of publishing an expose after they'd been contacted by an NSA leaker.

What United States of Secrets does best is remind viewers of the atmosphere in the aftermath of 9/11. People were feeling paranoid and vulnerable, and the popular and political climate encouraged the surveillance state. This leads us to a tricky question: Has the surveillance state actually been a success, considering that we haven't had a major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11? Are our security agencies doing a good job of sussing out and preventing terrorist attacks, in other words? Indeed, the paradox here is that the more years pass since a catastrophe, the safer we feel, and the less demand there is for a surveillance state. Had these revelations come out in, say, 2003, the public outcry would surely not have been as loud. But the documentary points out that the NSA's surveillance was unable to prevent terrorist attacks on our allies, most notably in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005.

Clearly, there is a delicate balance to be had, and the figures involved in the NSA's program knew this and worked hard with their lawyers to tow the legal line. As we've mentioned in this space before, the legality of the surveillance program is debated, with one federal judge declaring it legal and another calling it illegal within two weeks of each other. But we can probably agree that it is against the spirit of the law; the Fourth Amendment provides protection from unlawful search and seizure, and the government has what is essentially is warrantless access to the email and phone records of any and all Americans. What's more, there is no viable system in place to keep the NSA in check. The FISA court that is charged with monitoring the program is, like the NSA, part of the Executive Branch, and essentially rubber-stamps everything the NSA sends its way... it's an affront to the idea of checks and balances.

The NSA has yet to provide an example of a terror plot that it has prevented because of its surveillance program. We're left with the unsettling fact that the government uses its tremendous authority because it can; the powerful don't like to relenquish power.

Glenn Greenwald-the journalist who helped Snowden blow the whistle on the NSA-explains in his new book No Place to Hide that some argue that only those who are up to no good should worry about the government spying. But these people miss the point, Greenwald says. "The true measure of a society's freedom," he says in the book, "is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists. We shouldn't have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance." He's absolutely right-if we mean it when we say we value free speech and peaceful dissent, then we should be weary of government intrusion in our private lives, because that can do nothing but encourage a free society.

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