Readers of a certain age may recall the prominent New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc. I started reading him every day when I subscribed to the Times in college and saw him speak about one of his 15 books — The Secret Alliance: The Extraordinary Story of the Rescue of the Jews Since World War II — in St. Paul in the fall of 1991. An elderly woman in the audience stood at the conclusion of his talk on the book and said, “Mr. Szulc, I know your book is true because I lived the story.” Szulc smiled; I thought to myself how great it must be to have written a book that elicits such a testimonial. It was a memorable moment. (Szulc died ten years later, in May 2001.)
Szulc’s son Anthony is a film editor. Anthony edited tonight’s Frontline intallment titled Spying on the Home Front. The show explores the question whether the Bush administration’s domestic war on terrorism jeopardizes our civil liberties. It’s a subject we’ve written a lot about, usually in the context of our concern over the MSM’s misguided and occasionally illegal subversion of the “Bush administration’s domestic war on terrorism.” See, for example, John’s “Leaking at all costs” and my “Is the New York Times a law unto itself?” In the immediate aftermath of the New York Times’s exposure of the NSA terrorist eavesdropping program in December 2005, John’s “On the legality of the legality of the NSA intercept program” provided one of the best analyses of the issues.
Is Frontline up to the task of fairly exploring these difficult issues? Anthony Szulc has kindly written us regarding tonight’s show:
Blackjack, the bump and grind, terror alerts, a mysterious listening chamber deep in the heart of ATT’s San Francisco phone & internet center, total surveillance in your taxi, the world’s biggest spy agency sucking up calls by the millions, al-Qaeda and Aunt Sally sharing the same communications network, two happy, unsuspecting Las Vegas newlyweds serenaded by Elvis and monitored by the FBI, the clashing interests of security and privacy in post-9-11 America — these are some of the ingredients we combined to create tonight’s Frontline, Spying On the Home Front.
Viewers of the program will hopefully find welcome relief here from the Bread and Circus that often passes for political news on television. Since our working premise is that the audience we serve is intelligent and with it, the show abjures the sensational, develops calmly, presents the issues seriously and plays to the many delicious ironies in the domestic surveillance controversy. Under the what-a-piece-of-work-is-man heading, viewers will want to pay special attention to the amusing phenomenon of interviewees who tell us that they are not at liberty to divulge the very information they are divulging. This strikes me as curiously post-modern and it happens repeatedly.
Many of the characters who appear in the film are great and unforgettable — the droll, tongue-in-cheek Las Vegas casino executive, the Total Information maverick who blesses Hedrick Smith, the show’s correspondent; the law professor who leads us gently between the lines of Alberto Gonzales’ Senate Testimony about the NSA’s foreign-to-domestic intercept program, the black leather jacketed Sheriff who tells you he might never be in the position to be able to talk about the things he’s talking about.
And of course there is the show’s central theme: in the new, post-9.11 paradigm of prevention where law enforcement and counter-terror agencies are tasked with “disrupting a scenario before it actually all comes together,” as John Ashcroft succinctly explains, this means that the surveillance net has to be cast more broadly. You can’t focus on just one person. But this also means holding data about ordinary people unconnected to the threat. We hear privacy advocates cry foul while national security advocates see it as legal, proper…and inevitable in a fully digitized world where the terror threat is all too real.
Whoever is right, there is a great and inescapable irony in all of this: in order to hunt them, they now watch us.
Thanks to Anthony for his take on the show. I hope to be back with my own comments after the show airs tonight.