Frontline: "Top Secret America"
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Frontline: "Top Secret America"

A-

Frontline

"Top Secret America"

Season 29, Episode 17
A-

Frontline

"Top Secret America"

Season 29, Episode 17

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If you've been paying attention to much media at all over the last decade, not much of “Top Secret America” will come as a surprise. Even devoted conservative media viewers and readers will have heard of many of the documentary's allegations, even if they came in the form of being rejected by that conservative media. But the documentary also makes it clear that that's fine. In less than an hour, it covers, with depth and detail in many cases, the growth of the national security apparatus after 9/11. It is a synthesis of existing information but a damn effective one nonetheless.

In addition to demonstrating the value of synthesis and providing context, tonight's Frontline also did a great job demonstrating the use of perspective over media “objectivity.” In order to delve into the government secrets, a reporter (or perhaps assigning editor) has to take a specific point of view and a point of view that is contrary to the government's. It's something like this: “Knowing about the government's secret operations is a public good. Therefore it should be examined.” Without a media willing to make that tiny but important leap into advocacy, we probably wouldn't know about many of the things described in the doc. And I don't know about you, gentle reader, but I would rather know about the growing secret government given form by 9/11 reactions than not know.

But what are the revelations provided by the investigative media? “Top Secret America” covers five basic points: the CIA's leadership in the initial war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and beyond, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the expansion of domestic security operations, the expansion of corporate contractors in the national security apparatus, and the consistency between the Bush administration and the Obama administration.

These are all fascinating subjects, and each could easily be worth an hour-long documentary on their own, if not a series of them, which makes “Top Secret America” have the necessary shallowness of any survey. It opens with an immediate emotional hook, playing audio from the television broadcasts on September 11, 2001, from which it moves into more interesting territory, the CIA's dramatic, speedy response to the terrorist attacks. According to the doc, a CIA administrator named Cofer Black was largely responsible for the CIA's response, an operation known as “Greystone.” From that point on, the CIA drove the War on Terror, as Donald Rumsfeld and the military struggled to gain prominence in the conflict.

At this point, the doc switches over to the lead-up to the Iraq War, and it starts to stumble a bit. It's not that it's necessarily wrong; it just takes an interesting psychological turn: that Rumsfeld drove the planning for the Iraq War as a way to get him and the Pentagon power over the War on Terror and out of the hands of the CIA. While this may be valid as far as it goes, the reasons for the Iraq War were, and still are, one of the most-examined political developments in recent history. The infamous Office of Special Plans and its direct pipeline to the Vice President is mentioned, but other things aren't: Judy Miller's echo chamber reporting for the New York Times, Cheney and Rumsfeld's consistent demands for a war with Iraq, the national mood at the time, the moralistic reasons used by the liberal hawks of the time, etc. There are so many ways to attack the Iraq build-up that it's understandable that Frontline couldn't manage them all in such a wide-ranging documentary, of course. It just seems odd that the biggest one they pick involves a single man looking to increase his bureaucratic power.

The switch to initial domestic reaction doesn't fare much better. It's a quick examination of the new powers given to the National Security Agency, and it's one that's so fast that the words “Patriot Act” aren't even mentioned. As unsatisfying as this section is, it does lead into the section on the expansion of corporate and government security organizations, the “Top Secret America” from which the documentary takes its name.

This is the part that may have the most new information, but the information involved is built around a lack of information. The reporters, with the Washington Post's Dana Priest (who published much of this in a series with the same name last year in the Post) given the most face time, show the massive number of buildings, corporations, and perhaps dollars involved in the massive governmental/corporate projects. Four hundred and eighty corporations are involved, over a million workers, and the budget? In the doc's single best image, it shows the budget for these operations: Every single item on the budget is redacted.

The final section on the continuation of Bush's policies under Obama is straightforward enough: Obama has continued and expanded on the national security state. Frontline's explanation of why is somewhat problematic; in a similar fashion to the Iraq War bit, it's given only a cursory explanation. Some of the talking heads from the Bush administration say, basically, that once Obama started seeing the dangers of terrorist threats, he understood the necessity of “Top Secret America”.

To its credit, Frontline does give some time to counter-examples afterward. Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorism expert who famously broke from “The War on Terror” orthodoxy, gets the chance to make pretty damn effective points about the efficacy of the national security state, and Frontline itself mentions that two of the most recent semi-successful plots, the underwear bomber and the Times Square bomber, were undone by their own mistakes and mindful citizens, where national security failed, not just spectacularly, but in a spell-checking incident, pathetically and ironically. And yet, such easy targeting has its own counter for defenders of national security: That the plots that you never heard about were as bad or maybe worse. Yet with the massive amount of secrecy involved, who can say for certain? That is the crux of the problem.

If there is a basic thesis to “Top Secret America”, it is this: In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush authorized intelligence agencies to do whatever necessary to prevent that from ever happening again. This has been the guiding force of government intelligence, domestic and foreign, ever since. The benefits and flaws of that decision are almost impossible to judge... and that, in itself, is a problem.

Stray Observations:

  • Cofer Black's sports metaphors are ridiculous, and, I think, indicative: “The gloves are off!” “It's a whole new ballgame!”
  • “I have never seen a presidential finding as far-reaching and aggressive in scope. It was simply extraordinary.” - John Rizzo, CIA general counsel
  • “It's just war. It's no different from... just... going to the store and buying some eggs.” - the CIA administrator describing how easy he found it to order the first drone assassination.
  • There is no faster way to make me angry than showing me the Condoleeza Rice “We don't want the smoking gun to come in the form of a mushroom cloud” clip. None.
  • “Shifting over to the offense” is a concept which pops up a few times in the documentary, unchallenged. Why not shift to defense? How is defending against terrorist attacks illogical?
  • “A whole world down there” is the way one of the secret security sites is described, with four floors above the ground, and ten floors under, including its own restaurants!
  • “If they understood the way things were done, there would be a major shake-up” says the man behind the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. In the words of Lana Kane: Nooooooooopppppppppppppeeeeeeeeee.
  • The rarely-used narrator comes into play when discussing Obama, saying he “reauthorized almost all of the dark side operations.”

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