Orwellian threats caused the New York Times to spike a story on NSA spying way back in 2004

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Marco Werman: It was about a year ago that Edward Snowden started to pull back the curtain on the National Security Agency's far reaching surveillance efforts. But the former NSA contractor wasn't the only one concerned about what the agency was doing. That's one of the things we'll learn tomorrow when PBS airs "United States of Secrets." It's the latest episode from our partners at Frontline. The program describes what was known within the NSA simply as "The Program." Producer and director Michael Kirk says it was a product of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the NSA decided to dramatically ramp up its electronic surveillance. Michael Kirk: They created "The Program." Essentially what it was was spying on telephones, internet connections, metadata from our emails. Almost everything over the next couple of years was scooped up clandestinely without warrants, without anonymizing - a new word they created - expressly designed to find all the needles in the haystack by capturing all the needles all over the world all the time. Werman: This is what Edward Snowden told us a year ago. When the program began though, there were some old school NSA insiders who, according to your report, were pretty sensitive to the limits imposed on surveillance by the Constitution. It wasn't just at the NSA. Tell us about Thomas Tamm at the Department of Justice. Kirk: Thom Tamm was a lawyer who came from a very good pedigree. His uncle and his father were very well-known FBI agents. It is Thom Tamm of that lineage who finds himself working on the edges of the FISA court. Tamm starts to notice things coming across that he doesn't see probably cause associated with it and he starts to say to himself "How are they getting this information?" He asks around to his colleagues, many of whom say "I don't want to talk about this," and he says "Why?" and they say "I think something is illegal is going on because there is a law, the FISA law, which says it's a felony to spy on Americans." Suddenly the man sitting at the FISA court who's authorizing warrants sees this and says "There's something not very kosher here. I don't exactly know what's going on" and begins to worry a lot about it. Werman: And then there's the shocking tale of the New York Times' James Risen, whose story about the program became a hot potato for his editors in New York. Bill Keller, the Times' editor, was actually called on the carpet not once but twice by the White House. What happened? Kirk: They're out gathering string on this and they begin to work on a story that they were hearing bits and pieces of anyway. Thom Tamm says he was the source to them. When they take it to their editors, the editors say "Okay, well we've got to run this by the government and get their take on it because they're about to reveal the program." The government does a lot of "Orwellian," the way the Times describes it, meetings and they basically make three arguments: it is three completely legal, it is a vulnerable secret that if you reveal it, hundreds of thousands of Americans may die in the next attack, and the third legs of the stool was "It is working. You wouldn't believe the threats we're stopping." So if you're Bill Keller and you're asked to the White House where they tell you these three things, it's constitutional, it's working and if you reveal it people are going to die, you think real hard about whether to run that story and it's also an election year, 2004. Keller spikes the story. The reporters are outraged. Werman: I'll say. After the Snowden revelations, Obama seems to have been on the ropes a bit, promising he'll stop the vacuuming up of everyone's emails via telecoms and ISPs and search engines. Has he been willing to push back the program? Kirk: Not in any way. He, like all presidents, like all politicians, can't really afford the political cost of the potential of another 9/11. So what does he do? He takes the Office, he's briefed, he's told it's effective, he gets read into secret parts of it that we don't know about. In fact, he says "This is a sanitized way to handle this and they tell me that it's working and they tell me that it's this and that" and as a politician, I don't want that on my record if the blood - it's what the Bush Administration used to say - if the blood of a hundred thousand people is going to be blamed on somebody, I don't want it to be blamed on me and my presidency. I want to do everything that seems to be available, especially if the experts are telling me it works and they were and they continued to say that. Werman: Let me ask you about that brief answer. Does the NSA have the goods on these foiled plots? Kirk: These guys are very good at spinning and talking about it all the way back into the Bush Administration. You would think that they're so good at making the arguments in many other ways that they would've found a way to declassify one important one, since we all know the broad outlines of what the spying program entails anyway. Let's declassify one or two and let's talk about them so that we know that it actually works. That's really where the argument has come down to now and it's part of what Snowden's revelations have spawned, is a real hunger or thirst on behalf of Congress at others to say "Let's see where the rubber meets the road here. What has actually happened as a result of these programs?" Werman: Michael Kirk, producer and director of "United States of Secrets," which airs on our WGBH sister program, Frontline, tomorrow at 9 on most PBS stations. Thanks so much. Kirk: You're welcome Marco, thank you.