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The Spy Factory is an essay docu written and produced by author James Bamford, a sharp critic of America's intelligence community. Audiences accustomed to cable TV conspiracy mongering will be intrigued by the docu's lack of scare tactics and its linear, no-nonsense approach to its subject. The show simply asks if the National Security Agency had enough information to reasonably predict the 9/11 attack, and what they've done since to make us more safe. After viewing the docu, I would think that its only detractors would be people who don't want those questions asked.
The show takes things slowly, and keeps its argument simple. At times it appears to be presenting a primer on the functions of Intelligence agencies. Unlike representations in movie and TV thrillers, the NSA does not put dashing agents into the field to fight America's enemies. Instead, they collect and analyze data to detect threats to the country, with the idea of heading off trouble before it can happen.
The NSA operates in great secrecy -- its employees joke that it stands for No Such Agency, or Never Say Anything. We're shown how the NSA detected and monitored the agents of AlQaeda back in the middle 1990s, and had a line on their activities as well as the locations of their headquarters in Afghanistan and a house in Yemen. The NSA tapped cell phone messages and other communications, building a complex dossier. They knew that Osama Bin Laden's cell phone was purchased for him in New York City, and had his personal phone number.
The show documents several years' worth of alarming events, including attacks on embassies in Africa and the USS Cole. The NSA knew about an AlQaeda summit meeting in Malaysia that put the 9/11 plan into action. The agency tracked the future 9/11 hijackers into the United States and watched them take flight training in various parts of the country.
The damning fact is that the NSA shared almost none of this intelligence with the CIA and the FBI, which when compared to what those agencies knew, could easily have stopped AlQaeda in advance of 9/11. FBI men working with the CIA were forbidden to report back to their agency. No official warning was given that the foreign agents were working within the U.S., which is supposed to be the FBI's turf -- even in June 2001, when a flurry of intercepted messages indicated a major attack was imminent. The show demonstrates that while the NSA twiddled their thumbs, the hijackers were living in a motel only two miles away, and buying box cutters at Target.
The Spy Factory makes a key distinction between gathering raw intelligence data and arranging it into a coherent pattern. Bamford explains that the NSA was tracking renegade fanatics with the obsolete methods used on the Russians. The fact remains that the NSA was asleep at the switch, willfully obstructing crucial inter-agency cooperation.
Seen testifying before congress, the head of the NSA claims (very unconvincingly) that his hands were tied by the rules of the Foriegn Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The evidence of incompetence, or worse, is damning.
The second half of The Spy Factory documents how President Bush's secret edicts used the need to reform the Intelligence system to bypass FISA (and the U.S. Constitution). In particular, the show concentrates on a secret tap put on an AT&T fiber optic switching center in San Franciso, that fed huge volumes of domestic email and voice communications (not just foreign) into the NSA's computerized monitoring system -- wiretapping on a vast scale. Bamford argues that NSA already had what it needed to stop foreign terror attacks. The AT&T tap overrides half a century's worth of civil protections against Big Brother-type spying on citizens.
The question of whether we're now safer is not answered. NSA representatives say yes, citing no further successful terror attacks. Bamford asserts that we should have been safe before 9/11, and that the 9/11 Commission didn't thoroughly investigate the failures of intelligence-sharing.
The real change since 9/11 is that no American can now expect a reasonable level of privacy in any of his phone or on-line communications.
Much of the show's running time is devoted to computer animation that helps explain how satellite phones are monitored, and how an email or phone call placed in Southeast Asia physically comes into the United States. As this is a NOVA show, there is no political discussion of the facts presented -- it's James Bamford's analysis of events all the way. The ex- NSA and FBI agents that appear in interviews express doubts and misgivings about the activities of the agencies, while NSA personnel talk in generalities about the difficulty of "doing something helpful" with all the raw data they collect. According to the show, because this review has words like "AlQaeda" and "attack", a computer somewhere will be checking it out and perhaps collating it against my emails, or perhaps my phone conversations. I hope they like to listen to conversations about what's for dinner tonight.
PBS Home Video's DVD of The Spy Factory is a crisp encoding of a carefully assembled show. Interesting graphic treatments throughout hold our attention without detracting from the flow of information. But be prepared to pause briefly now and then to vent your personal furor over gross (and expensive) incompetence that verges on treason. The main NSA man ends up making a self-serving PR statement saying that the billions spent by his agency are an investment to "help Americans feel safe again".
No subtitles are included but the show is Closed-Captioned. An alternate audio track has video descriptions for the sight-impaired. A DVD-Rom extra includes additional Teaching Materials.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Spy Factory rates:
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.