Review: PBS America’s ‘United States Of Secrets’

The Frontline documentary United States Of Secrets offers a full and comprehensive account of both how and why Edward Snowden leaked a wealth of documents to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras detailing the NSA’s voluminous electronic surveillance operations; as well as the history of the programs themselves.

Though it gets there in a slightly round about way, the documentary’s true value is in revealing the full history of the numerous surveillance operations, known collectively as “The Program.” To do this, United States of Secrets interviews countless key players including journalists, insiders and cabinet officials including Bush’s Counter-Terrorism Czar Richard Clarke, former White House Chief Of Staff Andy Card and General Michael V. Hayden, who served under Bush as NSA Director, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence and CIA Director.

What is recounted across the first two-hours is how, in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration chose, based on “flawed legal opinions”, to essentially throw out the rule book on domestic surveillance to prevent the next attack. Also revealed is the push back from elements within the government – on both side of the political aisle – who believed the NSA’s programs were unconstitutional. Also revealed is that the Obama administration not only kept but “expanded these programs”, despite rhetoric during the 2008 presidential campaign promising the opposite.

The most famous push back, which had been well documented prior to this documentary, was undoubtedly when FBI Director Mueller, a hospital confined Attorney General John Ashcroft and Deputy Attorney General/Acting Attorney General James Comey (the current FBI Director) threatened to resign in a showdown over the reauthorisation of “The Program.”  Other such push backs included a core group within NSA resigning in an attempt to convince the powers that be of the illegality of what they were doing. When that failed this group and, independently, DOJ lawyer Thomas Tamm, looked to the press.

Over the course of the second hour, the how and why of leaks to the “fourth estate” began in 2004 is revealed. It is a fascinating story of how those inside government, with no way to redress their constitutional concerns regarding a program which nobody would confirm existed, went to the press. The New York Times does not come off untarnished in this, as details of the paper sitting on a story relating to the program for more than a year is recounted (only for one of their reporters to force the paper to run the story). The administration, in an attempt to stop the leaks, had DOJ and the FBI aggressively pursue the leakers, with some very draconian tactics.

The final part of United States of Secrets finally strings together the how and why of Snowden’s decision to leak (this is briefly touched upon in the opening of part one). Through what Glenn Greenwald considered Snowden’s paranoia, he initially ignored the would-be-leaker. When he and Laura Poitras finally met with Snowden, the two finally realised they had “the biggest story since the Pentagon Papers”. That said, most of hour three is devoted to NSA’s connection to Silicon Valley and just how much data private companies such as Google collect and pass on to the authorities.

United States of Secrets is an effective addition to Frontline’s long line of high quality documentaries. While it provide little new information, the documentary gives a valuable full account of “The Program” and Snowden’s leaks. It also offers greater context to previously documented events, such as the threatened resignations of key DOJ executives in 2004. While it plays out like a Robert Ludlum or John Le Carre novel, the documentary is undoubtedly Frontline’s most important piece of work in recent years.

United States of Secrets premieres on PBS America on Tuesday June 17th at 10:15pm.