Good thing I ran across today’s New York Times article about “The Spy Factory” — a PBS Nova documentary that examines the methods and failures of the US intelligence agencies in the age of international terrorism. Or else I wouldn’t know what to do with myself at 8PM EST this evening.
The Times didn’t much care for the doc, but I’m still psyched to watch it.
The film, written and co-produced by James Bamford, the author of a number of books about the intelligence establishment, including “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret N.S.A. From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America,” buries interesting insights in an old and hackneyed documentary format, with ominous voice-over narration and spooky sound effects.
At times the tone is so lurid and foreboding that the film seems like a “Dateline” exposé of sexual predators.
Hey, I love Chris Hansen! In fact, I think he’d be perfect to narrate this kind of thing. Alas, they went with the writer.
I’m just hoping to get an insde look at how the NSA collects “signals intelligence,” or SIGINT to spooks. This includes the full electromagnetic spectrum and digital communications — possibly even this blog post. Let’s see if they’re paying attention: terror, sleeper cell, makin’ bombs, growin’ mah beard, hijack, Dane Cook!
The NSA’s computers are no doubt incredibly powerful, and can crunch a mind-numbing amount of data. But SIGINT is not yet a mature science. The goal is to establish a kind of “metadata braille” through links and hidden connections. Unfortunately, the process is difficult to automate, incredibly time-consuming and not always accurate. And if we’re talking about domestic communications, it’s also illegal. (Just don’t tell Mr. Hope and Change, who supported retroactive immunity for telecoms that eavesdropped on American citizens.)
“The Spy Factory” also touches on the lack of shared information between the US intelligence services before 9/11. For years, the agencies have struggled with what they call “The Wall.” Yet nobody ever seemed to be in a position to do anything about it — if they tried, they were told to STFU and GTFBTW. (This excellent New Yorker article from 2006 has the backstory of what can only be termed an Epic Intelligence Fail.)
Surely “The Spy Factory” only scratches the surface of the ongoing clusterfuck that is American intelligence. I’m sure we’ll have plenty more to say about it later. . .