The Frontline documentary, United States of Secrets, Pt. 1 is one of the most important television programs of the last decade. It is a tale of how Dick Cheney and his lawyer David Addington, remade the surveillance policies of America in the wake of 9/11, without regard to the Fourth Amendment or other inconvenient truths of the Constitution. What is most astonishing is how clueless George Bush was to what was going on in his government. “The Program”, which the NSA ran, was authored in Cheney’s office and when 13 senior officials of the Justice Department (including the Assistant Attorney General and the Director of the FBI) threatened to quit if the program was reauthorized, Bush was totally blindsided, completely unaware that anyone in his administration objected to warrantless surveillance.
We all know the story of Edward Snowden, but what the Frontline film does is show the stories of countless insiders at the NSA who knew the program was unconstitutional and fought from the inside to get it changed long before Snowden gave the documents to the press. Many of them like House Intelligence committee staffer Diane Roark risked their careers to try to stop it. And many of them hoped when Barack Obama became President that the program would be terminated. But it was not to be. Obama talked transparency on the campaign trail in 2008, but once he became President, he not only maintained The Program, but also pursued the insiders what had tried to alert the press with relentless ferocity.
One of the Dept. of Justice officials, Jack Goldsmith describes Addington’s authorization which Bush signed as filled with “inadequate legal reasoning and flawed legal opinions.” When he and James Comey blocked the re-authorization by the Attorney General, Cheney simply ignored it and got Bush’s counsel Alberto Gonzales to sign the re-authorization. Gonzalez and NSA Director Michael Hayden are both remarkably candid on camera in saying that they wanted to do whatever the President wanted and that Bush’s powers as a war time President topped the constitutional problems presented by the Fourth Amendment.
What is equally remarkable is that Frontline takes on the new York Times, whose Executive Editor Bill Keller turns out to be completely cowed by his meetings with Bush and Hayden. For those of us who grew up on “All The President’s Men” and the image of the courageous editor who is not afraid of the White House, the Times willingness to kill a story by James Risen before the 2004 election, that would have revealed “The Program”, is a true profile in cowardice. Next Tuesday, Frontline turns the lens on Silicon Valley and the role Google and Facebook played in the government’s panoptican of surveillance. That should be must see TV.