James Bamford & The Spy Factory on NOVA

On PBS tonight, NOVA is presenting “The Spy Factory,” based on James Bamford’s excellent book, The Shadow Factory.

PBS says the NOVA program:

chronicles the NSA’s role in eavesdropping both before and after 9/11. Drawing on dozens of interviews with agency insiders and probing publicly available sources as well as transcripts of terrorist trials and an FBI chronology of the terrorists’ movements, NOVA assembles a detailed picture of events leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

The program sheds light on the vital data known inside the NSA but only partly relayed to other agencies. The trove of information the NSA had access to in advance included Osama bin Laden’s now-disconnected direct satellite phone, which the NSA tapped starting in 1996. Exclusive footage shows the three-story house in Yemen that served as Al Qaeda’s communications and logistics headquarters. The NSA was listening in on phone communications to and from the house for years prior to the 9/11 attack.

Three times the size of the CIA and far more secret, the NSA is comprised of top linguists, mathematicians, and technologists trained to decipher all kinds of communications—epitomizing the hidden world of high-tech, 21st-century surveillance. To show how this eavesdropping operates, NOVA follows the trail of just one typical e-mail sent from Asia to the U.S. Streaming as pulses of light into a fiber-optic cable, it travels across the Pacific Ocean, coming ashore in California, and finally reaching an AT&T facility in San Francisco, where the cable is split and the data sent to a secret NSA monitoring room on the floor below. This enables the NSA to intercept not only most Asian e-mail messages but also the entire U.S. internal Internet traffic.

Thus, since 9/11, the agency has turned its giant ear inward to monitor the communications of ordinary Americans, many of whom are on the government’s secret watch list, now more than half-a-million names long.

But how effective is this monumental monitoring effort in countering security threats? The NSA is faced with an enormous and ever-expanding archive of phone calls and e-mail messages. Many experts in data mining and analysis are skeptical about the value of collecting so much information without the ability to understand it, as it may lead to critical clues being lost in the static.

Among those interviewed on “The Spy Factory” are former NSA, CIA, and FBI analysts and officials, many speaking publicly for the first time. Among these is Mark Rossini, the senior FBI agent in the CIA’s Osama bin Laden tracking unit. For the first time, Rossini tells how intelligence agency turf wars prevented him from notifying his FBI superiors that Al Qaeda terrorists were heading for the U.S. with valid visas in early 2000.

Surprisingly, the 9/11 Commission never looked closely into the NSA’s role in the broad intelligence breakdown behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. If they had, they would have understood the full extent to which the agency had major pieces of the puzzle but never put them together or disclosed their entire body of knowledge to the CIA and FBI. Traditionally, the NSA didn’t share its raw data with those other agencies, an institutionalized reluctance that played a critical role in the failure to stop the 9/11 plotters.

In what Bamford calls “one of the largest ironies in the history of American intelligence,” he notes that weeks before the attacks, the terrorists were staying in a hotel near NSA headquarters in Maryland, almost within sight of the office of then-NSA Director Michael Hayden. Hayden, who was later appointed director of the CIA by President Bush, was never held accountable for his agency’s failure, and after 9/11 he spearheaded the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping activities in the name of making the nation safe from terrorists.

Addressing the question, Are we any safer now than we were before?, Bamford says, “We should have been safe the way it was. NSA had all the information that it needed to stop the 9/11 hijackers. It had laws that allowed it to track the hijackers.” Bamford adds that those same laws also protected the privacy of ordinary Americans in ways that have since vanished.

The show will be repeated throughout the week on most PBS stations. Check your local listings. The show will also be available on the PBS website later this month.

Chinese PM Served Up Some Sole, Too

The bottom of your shoe, not the fish. The fantastic trend of protesters showing their disdain for dictators and other official criminals by tossing a shoe (or two) at them continues in Britain, as an as-yet unidentified “European” man hurls his footwear at Chinese PM Wen Jiabao.

I recognize the advances China has made in freeing its economy and improving its treatment of its citizens, but a show of dissent is always welcome. If you agree, become a Facebook fan of the latest shoe-thrower!

Obama: Agent of Change? Well, Agent of Somethin’

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says — and he should know — there is no difference between the policy of “absolute support” for Israel between Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Obama’s own spokesman Robert Gibbs affirmed that, as under Bush, “all options remain on the table” with regard to Iran.

A recent executive order from the new president allows the CIA to continue to operate its “safe houses” — possibly a torture loophole.

Even President Obama’s massive stimulus plan continues the print-and-spend insanity preferred by the former administration.

And depending on whom you ask, Obama might want to ramp up military activity in Afghanistan — one area where Bush’s policy wasn’t quite forceful enough for the new president.

Don’t forget Obama’s new Homeland Security appointment of a “cybercrimes expert” as general counsel. You know, instead of abolishing Bush’s gargantuan Homeland Security bureaucracy altogether.

So aside from closing Guantánamo Bay in an extremely literal sense — after all, many of the detainees will remain such — what “change” have we witnessed thus far?

Did Mugabe Finally Croak?

This might just be the Miami in me (Castro is dead…now!nnnnow!nnnnnnnow!), but Zimbabwe suddenly nixing price controls and allowing foreign currency to be exchanged freely, with mea culpa from the finance minister and no comment from the 85-year-old dictator himself, makes me think he is either finally deposed or dropped dead. This will help a lot of common Zimbabweans, and erode the state’s grip on the economy. But maybe, as a friend pointed out, though this seems to be against Mugabe’s interests, “they don’t call them acts of desperation for nothing.”

But really, I hope he’s just dead.

Holy Sepulchre, Batman!

Likud Party leader and well-known soothsayer Binyamin Netanyahu has predicted that if Israel doesn’t have total control over Jerusalem then al-Qaeda will blow up the Holy Sepulchre, sparking “an escalation of religious conflict” we can’t even envision.

It seems to me that either the once and future Israeli Prime Minister or al-Qaeda is dramatically over-estimating the importance of the Holy Sepulchre to modern Christianity, its claims to being “Christianity’s holiest site” notwithstanding.

1,000 years ago (actually it’ll be 1,000 years ago to the day on October 18) the Fatimid caliph destroyed the previous Sepulchre, and that did indeed spark a series of Crusades (ok… so it look 70 years for the Crusades to get going, but news traveled more slowly in those days). Yet it seems to me that Christianity has matured somewhat since the depths of the dark ages, and as eager as some in the west remain for any excuse to start a major war, I’d like to think the bulk of Christendom really isn’t so hung up on some 11th century building in Jerusalem.

Is Obama a Terrorist?

If so, it’s not because he has associated with Bill Ayers.  He did, however, order a terrorist attack on Pakistan that resulted in the deaths of civilians. That is a hard statement because we have been conditioned to believe that governments don’t commit acts of terrorism, terrorists do. Well, we probably all learned in school that during the French Revolution, the government’s Committee of Public Safety carried out what was called the Reign of Terror. I know I did, but never thought about it until I was recently reading The War on Terror: How Should Christians Respond?, by Nick Megoran (IVP, 2008). Says Megoran: “Richard Falk, a professor of law at Princeton University, observes that the word terrorism first emerged as applied to the activities of the French revolutionary government, which used violence against civilian society to terrorize the population into acquiescing to the new government.” How could I have forgotten this? But even worse, how can so many Americans believe that a terrorist is anyone who detonates a bomb but doesn’t wear a U.S. Air Force uniform?