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Nova’s ‘Spy Factory’ analyzes NSA

PBS’ “Nova” tackles questions it can’t answer in “The Spy Factory.”

Usually, that means failure. But not this time.

The documentary, airing tonight (7 p.m., KSPS-7 in Spokane; 8 p.m. KUID-12 in Moscow and KCDT-26 in Coeur d’Alene), is still valuable for analyzing the mysterious National Security Agency.

The program, which assembles maps, graphics and newsreels with flair and sets them to haunting mood music, asks why the NSA didn’t share intelligence that might have averted the 2001 terrorist attacks.

It also ponders whether the agency, a hidden city between Washington and Baltimore where 35,000 work, has improved even as its power to spy on Americans grew under the Bush administration.

Not surprisingly, no one with NSA talked to “Nova.” The substantial documentary is based on James Bamford’s book “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.”

Speakers explain how the agency awkwardly moved from focusing on the Soviets to al-Qaida. Bamford notes that before the 9/11 attacks, the agency never told the FBI that terrorist calls were coming from the United States; in a terrible irony, some 9/11 terrorists were in Laurel, Md., near the NSA.

Why didn’t the NSA share its intelligence?

“NSA has not answered that question, and the 9/11 Commission never bothered to look into it,” Bamford said. “I would like to get the answer sometime, as well as a lot of people in Washington and around the country would like to get that answered.”

Has the agency improved?

“There’s been a lot of money thrown at NSA,” he said. “It’s been built up enormously in terms of technology and people. But whether they’ve corrected these problems or not, it’s hard to say.”

Former CIA analyst Michael Scheurer, who is featured in the program, said he didn’t think the country was any safer.

“Our borders remain open,” Scheurer said. “Al-Qaida – according to Gen. (Michael) Hayden, who I think has done a very good job at CIA – is more powerful, or at least as powerful as it was on 9/11.” (Hayden was NSA director before becoming CIA chief.)

Added Scheurer: “We still behave as if it’s not a serious threat.”

The eye-opening “Spy Factory” suggests that approach needs to change, pronto.