When NSA contractor Edward Snowden downloaded tens of thousands of top-secret documents from a highly secure government network, it led to the largest leak of classified information in history — and sparked a fierce debate over privacy, technology and democracy in the post-9/11 world.
Now, in United States of Secrets, FRONTLINE goes behind the headlines to reveal the dramatic inside story of how the U.S. government came to monitor and collect the communications of millions of people around the world—including ordinary Americans—and the lengths they went to trying to hide the massive surveillance program from the public.
“This is as close to the complete picture as anyone has yet put together — and it’s bigger and more pervasive than we thought,” says veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk (League of Denial, Bush’s War).
In part one, a two-hour film premiering Tuesday, May 13 at a special time (9 p.m.), Kirk goes inside Washington and the National Security Agency, piecing together the secret history of the unprecedented surveillance program that began in the wake of September 11 and continues today – even after the revelations of its existence by Edward Snowden.
Then, in part two, premiering Tuesday, May 20 at 10 p.m., veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Martin Smith (The Untouchables, To Catch a Trader) continues the story, exploring the secret relationship between Silicon Valley and the National Security Agency, and investigating how the government and tech companies have worked together to gather and warehouse your data.
“Through in-depth interviews with more than 60 whistleblowers, elected officials, journalists, intelligence insiders and cabinet officials, we have woven together the secret narrative that reveals the scale and scope of the government’s spying program,” says Kirk. “We’ve gone deep inside the story, from what really happened at the NSA and the White House in the days after 9/11, through the Bush and Obama administrations, directly into the stunning revelations from Edward Snowden.”
With extraordinary access to key participants, the series exposes what came to be known as the “The Program”: a massive domestic surveillance dragnet designed to disrupt terrorist attacks before they occurred by collecting the communications of American citizens. From the start, “The Program” sparked outrage inside the NSA and Justice Department, and has since been attacked as unconstitutional and illegal.
Insiders like congressional intelligence committee staffer Diane Roark took their concerns directly to leaders in Washington and NSA Director Michael Hayden: “I said it was unethical, immoral, politically stupid, illegal and unconstitutional, and should stop — and when this comes out, all hell is going to break loose,” Roark tells FRONTLINE.
As FRONTLINE reports, for Roark and others who objected and spoke out, the consequences were devastating both personally and professionally. Many found themselves under criminal investigation: their security clearances revoked, their homes raided by armed federal agents, and their lives destroyed.
In part two of the series, producer Martin Smith investigates the ways Silicon Valley has played a role in the NSA’s dragnet, and blurred the boundaries of privacy for us all.
“As big technology companies encouraged users to share more and more information about their lives, they created a trove of data that could be useful not simply to advertisers—but also to the government,” Smith says. “Privacy advocates have been worried about this since the early days of the Internet, and the Snowden revelations about the scope of government spying brought their fears into high relief.”
How did big tech companies react when the government asked them to turn over data on millions of ordinary American citizens? And what do companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo! really know about you?
“If the FBI came to your door and demanded photos of your wedding, the names and daily habits of your children, the restaurants you frequent, who you’ve called and texted for the past month, and where you’ll be staying on your upcoming vacation, you’d call your lawyer,” Smith says. “But that’s exactly the sort of information we’re all sharing by living our lives digitally — and the government has taken notice in a big way.”
Part political thriller and part spy novel, United States of Secrets series is the definitive history of domestic surveillance in a post-9/11 world, from the investigative team behind FRONTLINE’s award-winning Money, Power & Wall Street. With new revelations about government spying coming out almost daily, the series will be gripping viewing for those who want to understand the context of the Snowden affair—and what it means for all Americans.