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'United States of Secrets' review: What Edward Snowden wrought

Learn how the U.S. government came to monitor

Learn how the U.S. government came to monitor the communications of millions of Americans in "Frontline: United States of Secrets." Credit: Frontline

THE SHOW "Frontline": "The United States of Secrets"

WHEN | WHERE Part one Tuesday night at 9; Part two, next Tuesday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This is billed as TV's most exhaustive investigation into "The Program," the National Security Agency's vast data collection operation. It launched in the hours after Sept. 11, 2001, and would ultimately lead to Edward Snowden's release of millions of classified documents, essentially the largest intelligence breach in U.S. history. Part one mostly explores the history of "The Program," from the Bush administration through the Obama administration -- which has largely adopted it.

MY SAY "United States of Secrets" has a cool title, an appropriately ominous soundtrack, a rich cast of characters and a powerful culprit who essentially remains at large: The U.S. government. In true "Frontline" fashion, everyone -- short of a pair of presidents -- is spoken to for this, while the thread of a long, complex story is pulled tightly and efficiently.

But how exactly is "metadata" mined, stored, manipulated? How (exactly) were two presidents convinced that the vast, essentially illegal accrual of trillions of phone calls and emails might yield actionable antiterrorism information? Most of all, how can it directly affect you?

Next week's installment promises answers. It may also determine whether Snowden endangered national security or simply pulled the veil off the biggest (possibly) illegal gopher operation in history. That installment was not made available for review, so I'm left with essentially half an impression -- but it is a favorable one.

"Frontline" and producers Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser allow the key protagonists to walk you through a labyrinth of decisions going back to 2001 without once imposing a sense of outrage about why the collection of data on Americans without a warrant is a violation of their rights under the Constitution. The story instead offers a bleakly cautionary coda when the homes of NSA officials are raided by the FBI, and the evidence against another is doctored by the government.

The government has been known to abuse its power. Imagine a government with virtually unlimited amounts of data on YOU? That's the frightening and unsaid message here.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent, exhaustive.


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