Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Wherein a NY Times critic's review of a PBS Nova special on the NSA annoys me. Beyond the general snarky tone and lack of substance, there are statements like this:

The Soviet Union doesn’t even exist anymore, so it’s not really surprising that the government didn’t anticipate that the convicted C.I.A. mole Harold Nicholson would stand accused of continuing to sell secrets to the Russians from jail by using his son as a go-between.

Wait, what? Is it too obvious to point out that even though Russia is no longer Soviet, they might still want to spy on us? The Israelis spy on us for crying out loud. I mean, I'm not sure if this is sarcasm or if the critic Alessandra Stanley really is sympathizing with the CIA for not imagining that a non-friendly power might want to spy on us.


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.

Okay, now anyone who's ever seen a "Frontline" special knows that this is pretty much the format of every show they do, so that a Nova special might take the same tone regarding an agency that has for years now been spying on Americans (something that is in facts spooky and ominous) really should not be that surprising or remarkable.

Then there's this:

Mr. Bamford, who is interviewed in the film seated at a computer next to a crackling fireplace, makes the case that the government’s decision after 9/11 to extend the agency’s surveillance to American citizens without a court warrant violates a citizen’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Emphasis mine. There's really no other purpose for bringing that detail up except to ridicule the show.

And lastly:

It turns out that the only way to catch huge masses of digital data is to tap into the cables directly — the film says that the agency has a secret office in the same building where it can examine all messages, domestic and foreign. (Those, according to the narrator, include “cries and laughter, hopes and dreams, e-mails, faxes, bank statements, hotel reservations, love poems and death notices.”)

Another detail added, I presume, to highlight the over-the-top nature of the show. Well, okay, but I don't see what's so bad about that. Though I haven't seen the show I have a feeling that, in isolation, that line hardly seems that ridiculous.

Alright, so it's a review and critics are free to be wrong in their review, but what troubles me is more the fact that Stanley seems dismissive of the idea (or importance of the fact) that the NSA is spying on Americans. I could be wrong, but that's the distinct impression I get. And I'm not at all interested in her dismissiveness, since at this point we've safely established the idea that an intelligence agency spying on Americans is kind of a big deal.

Anyway I'm not the only one to question Stanley's politics (or her accuracy.) Fortunately this is my first, and hopefully last, experience with her.

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