PBS Frontline: 'Spying on the Home Front'

Rick Young
Wednesday, May 16, 2007 11:00 AM

Frontline producer Rick Young was online Wednesday, May 16 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "Spying on the Home Front," which details how the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program works and examines clashing views on whether the president has violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

" Spying on the Home Front" aired Tuesday, May 15, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.


Rick Young: This is Rick Young, I am the producer and director of the documentary. Hedrick Smith couldn't be here today, but I'm happy to respond to your questions.


Philadelphia: For all the talk and outrage over civil liberties, is there really any effective way that anyone outside the administration can monitor what the NSA is doing and how they are doing it?

Hedrick Smith: That's the right question to ask. And that's exactly why Congress set up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978, which established a secret FISA court and provides oversight and review of any domestic spying. And that's why there was such controversy when it became known that the president had bypassed the FISA court and removed the checks and balances that were established.


Pittsburgh: Mr. Smith, I've appreciated your excellent work in the past but have reservations on the timing of this piece given the secrecy and the obvious potential criminal actions of this administration and how little we really know about the extent of the intrusiveness of the program. Can you comment on where you believe some of your investigations might lead, the constitutionality of the program in light of recent testimony, and the atmosphere in Congress now that Republicans on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees no longer can suppress investigations?

Rick Young: We began working this program long before there was any change in Congress. While there clearly had been some good investigative reporting on the topic, we and Frontline felt that it was important to look more comprehensively at the post-9/11 shift to prevention and the dilemma we all now face in balancing security and privacy. You're absolutely right that we still know very little about what's really going on and hopefully the appropriate oversight committees in Congress will play a more active role. That doesn't mean the information is made public, it just means that all branches of government are doing what they're supposed to do. Thanks for the comment.


Washington: I am sick and tired of people saying we are taking away civil liberties. Can anyone name one civil liberty they have lost? None-- the answer is none. If someone is calling in from a terrorist-sponsor state, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc., and they are on a list ... no warrant should be needed to listen to what they are saying. or else valuable information would be lost. Don't forget, where many of these people come from what they call donating to "charity" we call financing terrorism. Never before in our history have we faced an enemy with such little respect for human lives -- they hide behind women, children and in schools and hospitals. In its current form there are no civil liberties lost. It makes good talking points for the left, but it's just not true.

Rick Young: You've raised a really important point here. Should Americans be concerned about losing civil liberties if they themselves don't experience any loss? I felt one of the strongest points of our show were the comments provided by former FBI and intelligence officials indicating their genuine concern about where the path of prevention leads us. These aren't flaming libs talking -- they're professionals with tons of experience on the inside, and they are worried about how we can maintain our privacy rights in the new world of prevention.


Washington: Hedrick, thanks for the program last night, what an eye-opener. Seems to me that all this data mining is no substitute for good on-the-ground covert intelligence. Data mining is going to create more false alarms (e.g., Las Vegas) than not. We should be focusing the majority of our efforts on collaborating and participating with foreign intel agencies -- this way the government doesn't need to know when or where I am, what I'm eating, where I'm sleeping, because it is none of the government's business!

Rick Young: You've tapped into a very active and interesting debate between what's called link analysis (the old fashioned follow-a-lead approach) and pattern analysis (a newer, data-driven approach to make sense out of all the data you collect). Many intel analysts and law enforcement folks believe that link analysis is really the tried-and-true method for breaking cases, e.g. the recent Ft. Dix bust in New Jersey. Others argue that we need to look more and more at broad data patterns as the only way to find the "unconnected" sleeper cell. This was the argument for Total Information Awareness, and that argument is alive and well within the intel community.


Gulf Shores, Ala.: What would prevent this administration or any administration with handpicked the judges on the FISA court from therefore getting the outcome they desire?

Rick Young: The FISA court is drawn from Federal judges in the D.C. circuit who volunteer (I believe) their involvement. There are now, I believe, a dozen that rotate through, working the FISA applications. It's all done inside the Justice Department in a small conference room. And they keep busy, something like 2,000 applications last year.

To the extent that any administration appoints Federal judges, there is some political input, but service on the FISA court really isn't what those decisions are about.


Patuxent River, Md.: Hello. I watched the piece last night and really enjoyed it. I was particularly interested in the part that focused on the Gonzales' use of the phrasing "this program." I am interested to know if you have more information on this. Have you researched this any further since the documentary was finalized? Possibly former Deputy Attorney General Comey can shed some light?

Rick Young: I was very interested in Deputy Attorney General Comey's testimony to say the least. I'd been in touch with him for some time trying to convince him to participate in our program, but to no avail. The late-night hospital meeting was known, but not the details. There's little doubt that he could add much to the questions raised by Gonzales' very careful testimony, though I don't think he'll do that in public.


Washington: I understand the impulse to keep sensitive surveillance operations out of public view, but it seems like the administration wants to dodge any oversight whatsoever. Do you find this to be true? If so, what do you think drives the desire to avoid oversight?

Rick Young: I think there is an inherent instinct among intel professionals to keep everything as secret as possible, and that's understandable. We kept hearing from them that they didn't want to do anything that might even possibly risk giving the enemy an advantage they don't have. Revealing what spying and intercept capabilities we have and are using clearly is not a good idea. One very senior former NSA official told me that the warrantless eavesdropping program was necessary precisely for those reasons. Any discussion, even with oversight committees in Congress, risked leaks. And therefore, he argues, we just need to "trust" that they're doing it the right way. Well, that's an argument we've had many times. And one thing we were trying to do with the program is remind people of the historical context of these arguments -- whether it be the founding fathers debates about Fourth Amendment rights or Church Committee investigations. This isn't new debate, but the natures of the security threat and the technological advances are.


Washington: Do you think the White House has ever given a truly believable explanation as to why they needed to skirt the FISA court?

Rick Young: I think we got a very believable explanation last night from former DOJ attorney John Yoo. He was candid and clear. They didn't believe FISA allowed them to do what they wanted to do. You'll see a very important counter to that on Frontline Web site from Mr. FISA himself, Mr. James Baker, the DOJ point man on FISA. He argues that FISA works and is extremely adaptable. He also acknowledges that the White House never even approached the FISA court about trying to make their program work inside FISA until 2006, well after the New York Times story. By the way, we confirmed this to be true. Go to the Web site to see his interview


New York: It is certainly a shame to see how once great programs like "Frontline" and "60 Minutes" have surrendered any pretense of journalistic integrity ... is there some reason you only interviewed former Clinton administration officials and liberal Democrats in this extremely biased program? Are you aware of the recent New York Times stockholder meeting where it was announced that data mining of information about private citizens would be used by the New York Times to boost subscriber sales? As a journalist, shouldn't you be as outraged at the New York Times as you appear to be toward the government charged with ensuring your safety?

Why was no mention of the Clinton administration's "Echelon" program, including the total, unprecedented lack of oversight of said program by Congress? Do you have even a basic understanding of Islamic terrorism and its stated goals and tactics, including masking its communications using civilian channels? Would you prefer to give al-Qaeda the benefit of the doubt and cease all government monitoring of foreign communications of any sort? If so, will you and your journalism colleagues take personal responsibility for the deaths of Americans brought about by broadcasting classified intelligence programs to the enemy?

Rick Young: We're well aware of Echelon and issues/controversies raised with that program -- we simply didn't have time to cover everything. I think John Yoo was very articulate about several of the points you've raised. The issue isn't whether our intel and law enforcement agencies spy -- that argument is a red herring. The issue is what kind of system of checks and balances is appropriate, and what the nature of privacy is today in the digital age. All important discussions that deserve public debate ... none of that is sources and methods.


Washington: In watching the program last night, I couldn't help but think about how the intelligence and investigative agencies of our government must have trouble processing so much of this "data" that is not in English. I've read quite a bit about the scarcity of government employees with proficiency in the languages necessary (in part because these same individuals sometimes have a harder time getting a security clearance). Did any of your research pertain to issue?

Rick Young: We didn't have time to get into this issue but you've raised a very important point. With all the reliance on technology, the most crucial asset remains human resources, or people. HumInt, or human intel, is still the front line of defense, and there's no question that the intel community is trying to find more foreign-language speaking individuals, particularly Arabic.


Bothell, Wash.: Thank you so much for taking our questions today. Will those of us who are concerned citizens without high-level contacts in government ever get a sense of what exactly was done to bring these eavesdropping programs "into compliance"? And will we ever know if the "many lives were saved" line holds water? How will we find out, and when?

Rick Young: I think that will depend on what Congress does. The Intelligence Committees were established in large measure after the Church Committee investigations of the mid-'70s. A big reason was the need to have someone looking over the shoulders of intel agencies and asking the right questions, but you can't ask the right questions if you don't know what's really going on. That's their job, to know what's really going on and then to make sure that the agencies abide by the law. I think the former Church Committee investigator put it well when he said that if the capabilities are there and the restraints aren't, the temptation is to do it. that's human nature.


Falls Church, Va.: The New York Times published the story on domestic spying in 2005, but they sat on this story for more than a year. You failed to mention in your program. Thanks

Rick Young: Yes, you're right. But go check out Frontline's series on the media that ran earlier this year. They did a very good job looking into that story. You'll find it on the Frontline Web site and you can watch the streaming video.


Portland, Ore.: I was surprised that the shortcomings of data mining were not discussed in more detail. It is well known that such techniques are well-suited to frequent events, such as credit card fraud detection, and useless against rare "black swan" events. There were hints of this aspect in the "no terrorists were found in Vegas" thread, but the implications of this reality should be emphasized. There is no evidence that these data mining tools can detect rare and unusual terrorist events, and every indication they pull innocent Americans into the drift net. (Remember the couple contacted for paying off their credit cards in full?) Why isn't the ineffectiveness of such programs highlighted?

Rick Young: You've nailed a hot debate going on right now within the intel community of analysts. See my prior response re: link analysis vs. pattern analysis. And go to our Web site, where you'll find a special TIA video and a video explaining the differences between these approaches. We couldn't get everything we wanted into the program, that's why we put up a rather extensive Web site.


Arlington, Va.: I'm a liberal who works for the Department of Defense. What is wrong with our government knowing information about the citizens for the purpose of protecting our country? I do remember the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, but I ask, why can't our government use data to protect our country without using it for either personal benefits or to threaten our citizens?

Rick Young: This is exactly the issue we need to discuss publicly. That was the point made by former FBI counterterrorism chief Mefford in our show last night. I don't think there's any question that the government is going to be getting into data in a big way. The real question is, how do we carve out the right privacy protections in the digital age? The privacy act really hasn't been updated since 1970's. Check our our Web site on the privacy act.


Philadelphia: But the problem is that the court only acts when the NSA comes to it with a request. It doesn't really oversee the NSA to monitor whether it is bringing the proper issues to it before acting. Is there anyone monitoring, even with spot-checks, the work of the NSA to see that it is complying with the law?

Rick Young: That has to be the Intel Committees in Congress. That's their job.


Vienna, Va.: Some of the early reaction suggests that the show failed to acknowledge that investigative tools such as grand jury subpoenas, which ask for financial records, bar banks and the like from disclosing their existence. That prohibition is very similar to the one affecting the National Security Letters discussed on the program. Also, some suggest that the show also left out the fact that searches can be conducted lawfully under the Fourth Amendment without a warrant under a wide range of circumstances. Comment?

Rick Young: Yes, no question that the courts have carved out areas of search without warrant. Terry stops come to mind. But that's all established within judicial decision-making with clearly established and publicly established arguments and rationales. In those cases, we know what to expect and more or less where the line is.

There are some interesting discussions out there about trying to apply this kind of reasoning to the national security/intel areas. Those discussions are needed. What is worrisome is when government makes these decisions and there is no clear understanding on where the lines are or how they were established. Thanks for the comment.


Washington: Some clarification, please. The understanding (at least my understanding) was that the administration was gathering phone records. But does this Narus system have the capacity to store the actual conversations of a large numbers of unsuspecting Americans? Is that what's going on? P.S. re: Gonzales's answers before congress, he's a slick one.

Rick Young: My understanding is that the Narus system doesn't actually store anything -- it simply has the ability to monitor all digital traffic, e-mail or telephonic, and to isolate specific communications within an unbelievable amount of traffic.


Rochester, N.Y.: Mr. Young, I can not thank you enough for making this piece. I work as a consultant creating database and information systems for my clients. One issue that I wanted to bring up that you had not mentioned is that if government is using commercial databases, how are they attesting to the validity of the data? I know for a fact that those databases are full of mistakes from the third parties that collect the data for these companies. The other question is, are we not becoming a "Big Brother" state?

Rick Young: Thanks for the feedback. You hit a really important point. Even some of the database companies are concerned about the quality of data they collect -- they've been burned by that. So no question that its not just a matter of how much data gets accessed, but also what kind of data. Wish we'd been able to get that point across. Thanks for bringing it up.


Boston: Is it a completely academic (or partisan for that matter) exercise to think about how a Democratic administration would have reacted to 9/11 as it relates to these security versus privacy issues? Was it a tragic "perfect storm" to have Cheney in a strong position of power after 9/11 driving his "unitary executive" theory? Is it fair to ask whether you think another terrorist attack was averted in the years after 9/11 because of the Bush administration's tactics, even if they were illegal under existing statutes?

Rick Young: The administration claims these programs have been critical to stopping attacks on our country. I have no information to suggest otherwise. I would hope so, that's why the programs are there. But again, I think Larry Mefford made a key point -- the former FBI counterterror chief -- that he can give us as much security as we want, just tell him how many rights we want to give up.


Elkhart, Ind.: How can ordinary citizens testify before Congress about the psychological impact of domestic spying? What is the process to best make my voice heard?

Rick Young: I think that's a question you should take to your congressman. There are obviously a number of advocacy groups that work on these issues -- the ACLU is just one. Check around, particularly in the area of electronic privacy.


Falls Church, Va.:"Domestic Surveillance" is kind of a loaded term, isn't it? Isn't the program limited to domestic calls to certain international numbers? Certainly the surveillance is partly domestic, but that title leaves the impression that wholly domestic calls are subject to surveillance, which I understand not to be the case.

Rick Young: As we explained in the program, the one program that the president has acknowledged publicly is said to be "one foot in and one foot out" so that only one end is domestic. But the story in San Francisco establishes an NSA operation inside, at least, AT&T -- and that involves monitoring all Internet traffic coming through that critical switch. In today's telecom/digital environment, domestic and international are all mixed together. You can't separate. And therein lies both the technical challenges to the intel community and the policy challenges of getting the privacy protections right.


Princeton, N.J.: Surely you must be joking in your answer to Philadelphia. Do you think congressional staff can even get into the secure parts of NSA?

Rick Young: I'm not joking. The staff on those committees have security clearances. The committees have processes for getting briefings and information -- Group of Eight is one example. That's their job, we all pay them to do their job and I think they should. If federal agencies aren't responsive to congressional requests, there are processes for handling that too. Don't let Congress off so easy. Our constitutional framers wouldn't.


Washington: For the record, the Chief Justice of the U.S. chooses the members of the FISA court and the FISA court of review. Anyway, to what extent is there a need for Congress to replace the current executive order-based classification system with a legislative framework that guarantees that Congress has access to any and all classified material?

Rick Young: Thanks for the clarification. Though the judges do work at the pleasure of Chief Roberts, I thought they did "volunteer" for duty, because it is an extra load.

Re: The classification system, you've raised a whole other kettle of fish. This needs serious investigation, along with the entire FOIA process. And this isn't just response of frustrated journalist -- the entire system of classification and public release seems to me in desperate need of overhaul. Sorry to keep pointing to Congress, but they do need to look at this.


Plant City, Fla.: I would like to see this video again. Can I see it online at a Web site that you know of? Thanks!

Rick Young: Absolutely. The entire show can be watched via streaming video on the Web site. You'll also find tons of extra information on all these topics on the Web site. I invite you to spend some time there and let us know what you think on the discussion board.


Portland, Ore.: In statistics the "base rate fallacy" explains why rare events cannot be reliably detected without significant false alarms. We saw just how pervasive the false alarms from NSA data mining were when in a New York Times report detailing thousands of tips produced by the system, and found to be false by FBI investigation. These data mining programs for terrorism are both ineffective and exceptionally expensive. Why is this massive waste of time, money, and liberty not more publicized?

Rick Young: The false alarms issue is really important to this debate. Please see prior responses re: the link analysis vs. pattern-based analysis debate and please visit the Web site for more video and interviews. The TIA debate gets well into these issues and the experience of its deputy director, Bob Popp, is very interesting. He also has concerns about rate of false alarms via pattern-based analysis. Also look for the report done by Jeff Jonas and Jim Harper on this. I don't have the site handy, but Harper is with Cato Institute and you'll find the work there. Very interesting stuff.


Washington: What is the status of legislation that the White House is pushing to immunize the communications companies from private lawsuits resulting from their sharing voice and e-mail data with NSA under the president's surveillance program?

Rick Young: Good question. I should know, but I was focused on finishing the show and don't know exactly where it stands. Last I knew they were working that in the House, but it had been held up. Whether it passed or not, I'm just not sure.

You can tell a lot about what's really going on by just reading the legislation that's being pushed around. This is one example.


Houston: To the earlier poster, it is very possible to lose a right without being directly affected. We have all lost rights recently, even if we don't know it 'cause we're not personally affected. Of course, how do you know you're not affected? How do you know a secret wiretap warrant isn't out there with your name on it? You don't.

Rick Young: I think this is an important point. Any time you go through security at an airport, you are well aware of some infringement that we've all come to accept. That's clearly a trade-off that we -- certainly I -- want to make, but it's also an "infringement" that we know and accept. The problem with spying on the home front is that you will have no idea whether the government has tapped into your communications or data or what it has done with that data, and no idea how it might affect you, possibly with a job application or otherwise, many years down the road. If bad or wrong data is obtained, there's little opportunity to correct that -- look at enormous problems with No-Fly lists, and we're just talking about getting on planes there.


Baltimore: Mr. Smith, I wish to congratulate you on another outstanding documentary. I was unaware of the Narus switch at AT&T and wonder if your investigation turned up any evidence to suggest that similar Narus equipment also operates at other communication providers in the U.S.? Thank you.

Rick Young: What we know from the AT&T case out in San Francisco is that the Narus system and other components in the secret room were installed at approximately 15-20 other AT&T sites around the country -- this based on expert affidavit of Scott Marcus, formerly of the  FCC. Mark Klein also told us about a call he had to someone inside AT&T while he worked there indicating that there were numerous similar sites at other AT&T facilities. Why would NSA put these only at AT&T? I think it's fair to assume that other carriers have been approached as well.


1978: FISA was created before the Internet and cell phones and is woefully inadequate for the real-time surveillance that's needed to protect the U.S. against terrorists. You don't have to be a member of this administration to know that there haven't been any other large-scale attacks on U.S. soil since the 9/11 acts.

Rick Young: Please go to Frontline Web site. I'm not just trying to sell the site. There is a fascinating interview with Mr. James Baker, who knows more about the FISA process than anyone in the country. He works with it everyday. He explains why FISA works! I will tell you that I personally had conversations with others that know and work with FISA and argue very convincingly that the process is very adaptable and the court is very flexible in its consideration of technological change. As one attorney intimately involved in the FISA process told me, the people that say it doesn't work and complain about it are the people that have never been inside the FISA court.


"We didn't have time" for balance: That's pretty much the standard PBS/NPR rationale for bias, isn't it? You make a big point about how you take the time to cover all aspects of a story outside the limitations of sound bites, but then you run out of time to interview people who disagree with your position.

Rick Young: There are plenty of issues we "didn't have time" for. Balance isn't an issue. I disagree completely with your premise (you've chosen to attribute a statement to me that I never made). I think all sides were presented with very articulate spokesmen. If you have a specific complaint I welcome that, but generalized misrepresentation isn't worth much.


Pattern Analysis, Minn.: Bogus excuse with zero content. I'll believe in pattern analysis as soon as someone can predict accurately which movies I'll like before I watch them. In the meantime, let's call it what it is: illegal data mining that will (100 percent certainty) lead to abuses of power. Witness FBI National Security Letters.

Rick Young: You may have reason to be skeptical about pattern analysis, many professionals are. But I've got news for you: They already can predict what movies you'll like. Marketers know which ones you already rent. And that's why you get so much "directed" junk mail. The ability to mine vast amounts of data to predict behavior isn't new. Marketers have proven its usefulness, or they wouldn't do it. The problem is that the acceptable rate of false positives for marketers is a whole lot higher than what we can abide for law enforcement.


Naples, Fla.: How can we, as ordinary citizens curtail this type of activity in the future? Are we going to have to push for a constitutional amendment to limit presidential powers in war-time? Very scary, very enlightening reporting. Thanks for a job well done and for bringing this kind of information to the American public.

Rick Young: Thanks for kind comments. The constitutional question of presidential power is ageless. It'll be with us forever because the Supreme Court is very careful in maintaining an unspecified level of balance. That's our system. But the question may well be taken to the Court in some future FISA related case.


Rick Young: Thanks for all the comments and feedback. Sorry I didn't get to all the posts. I need to be able to type faster in the future. Please visit the Web site and please let us know what you think of the show and the information there. Thank you for watching and for commenting.


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