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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

This week's Mailbag includes commentaries from viewers on a range of PBS offerings from NOVA's "The Spy Factory" to the Mark Twain Prize posthumously honoring comedian George Carlin — who remained bleeped on PBS even though he is no longer with us — to a Frontline documentary on Parkinson's Disease, plus some other things.

The letters are posted below. But first a few words about "The Spy Factory." This program aired on Tuesday evening, Feb. 3, and it attracted reviews in newspapers across the country from the New York Times and New York Daily News to the Orlando Sentinel and Deseret News. "The Spy Factory" refers to the super-secret U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) electronic intelligence gathering operation. It was written and co-produced by James Bamford, who has been writing about America's secret intelligence agencies, especially the NSA, for a quarter-century and is widely regarded as the leading journalistic authority on the subject.

The film is, among other things, one more look at the tragic and extraordinary failure by U.S. intelligence agencies to communicate and connect the dots prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The NSA knew extremely important things but never shared vital information with the CIA and FBI. The CIA knew things and didn't share with the FBI. Within the FBI, people who knew or suspected things were prevented from passing it along or weren't paid enough attention to. The subsequent investigation by the 9/11 Commission didn't shed much light on the NSA's role.

By now, this story has been reported, in varying degrees of detail; primarily in hundreds of newspaper articles and dozens of books in recent years. Among the best, in my view, was Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower." Some of the reviews of this new documentary point out various shortcomings. For example, we never know exactly why information was withheld and whether the process has been fixed. That's crucial, and maybe there is no way to find out for sure. The NSA doesn't talk much. Also, I would add, the tangled policy and legal web between intelligence and law enforcement, between domestic and foreign, could have been explored a bit more.

The film, however, is a big plus, in my view, because it does capture the extraordinary frustration among some of those in government who saw what was happening. So the power of this documentary, for me, is not in whatever additional depth it adds to a still incomplete picture of the NSA's role, but rather that this mind-boggling story — a story of extraordinarily successful intelligence gathering that failed to be pulled together because of internal bungling and excessive caution — was simply on public television and presented to a large audience in a compelling, authoritative fashion.

Going Too Far?

The letters, however, do not go to this point of procedural break-down. Most of them go to the issue of whether this documentary went too far in presenting secret or sensitive information that could be useful for would-be terrorists. That is always an issue with some consumers of news when reporting is done on sensitive subjects.

For example, a couple of viewers asked why it was necessary to pinpoint a San Francisco address where communications are shunted into NSA lines. At the beginning of the film, Bamford makes clear that he used documents available in the public record and a secret FBI chronology — crucial to understanding what was happening — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request for his research into this project. But there are some other things, such as the San Francisco address, that are not explained and understandably will make some viewers wonder and others angry. This is guaranteed to happen whenever this kind of reporting is placed before the public without adequate explanation and it seems to me that producers ought to know that and explain what they are doing and why as they go along. A response from NOVA follows the letters.

Endangering Security?

Today is February 3, 2009, and I watched the WETA/PBS investigation into the NSA [NOVA's "The Spy Factory"] which was an ironic tragedy and a definite threat to the security of our nation. The goal of the show was to highlight coverage of NSA not sharing information which resulted in 9-11 terrorist, and then this program aired enormously too much "classified" information. This was a very specific production and a detailed "how to destroy Americans" training manual for terrorists in disabling international communications. Shame on your producers and sponsors. I still am in shock that such recklessness was used to air this program on TV. In light of the airing, I am interested if this has ever been aired prior to tonight and I believe the damage is done, even if you are mandated to pull the show. Shame on WETA/PBS/ and NOVA Productions.

L.C., Fairfax, VA

I think you people are reckless and dangerous broadcasting the exact address of a communication and NSA hub in San Francisco. It endangers the lives of people who work there and it does affect national security. At what point does information go from investigatory to willing accomplice? traitor? stupid? You can pick whatever term you want. The litmus test is when the information doesn't further the story, prove the story, or add any other relevance to it.

Dana R., Boston, MA

Please tell me that what I am watching tonight on PBS/HD, which is being broadcast around the world for any terrorist organization whom wishes harm upon the United States, are not actual photos of sensitive locations and/or buildings that contain national security information. Your program tonight is misleading, I sincerely hope!!!

Virginia Beach, VA

Retired Navy 1995 — What is going on there? I just turned the channel to Nova/KHET story about undermining the CIA tracking Bin Laden, etc. I came across a lot of stuff in my career that was quite interesting about our enemies but it was all classified secret. Why in the world would you find putting info out in such a public way as to how we track Bin Laden a good thing? Loose Lips really did sink ships in one War — nothing has changed — Helllooooooooo — as someone who has always looked to PBS as a relief from the steady drum beats of negativity, well I am Very Disappointed.

Mark C. Clarke, Mililani, HI
Retired USN

Re the NOVA show re NSA written by James Bamford: I thought NOVA was about SCIENCE. Isn't this episode of NOVA more about technology, and in particular, technology and politics? As such, isn't it more appropriate for a program like FRONTLINE?

H. Karten, Sandy, UT

I was shocked by the recent episode of NOVA — Spy Factory. First, there was and is a clear reason for NSA not to have communicated with domestic security organizations since it was against the law at the time. This was not disclosed on the program. Second, and more shocking, when did NOVA become a political show? The guise of the technology used to promulgate a political agenda does PBS a disservice and exposes a lack of journalistic ethics. Please retain the scientific theme for NOVA.

Walter Ludt, Dodge City, KS

Here's NOVA's Response

"The Spy Factory is an exploration of the inner-workings of the National Security Agency (NSA), its technological capabilities, limitations, and procedures. Neither the producers nor NOVA sought any access to classified information, nor did the program reveal any classified information. The program is based on meticulous research of publicly available documents and records by James Bamford, author of the best-selling book The Shadow Factory and a foremost expert on the NSA.

"In order to shed light on the NSA, Bamford had numerous conversations with contacts from the Intelligence Community who provided insights about declassified government documents. Other non-governmental sources backed up details that can be found in publicly available court records regarding the AT&T facility in San Francisco where NSA monitored communications of U.S. citizens . . .

"NOVA considered the NSA an appropriate subject for the series because not only does NSA employ the largest collection of scientists, mathematicians, and researchers in the country and probably the world, it also utilizes highly technical means to intercept worldwide electronic communications. The film explores the nature of modern fiber optic communications, how they are collected, and the challenges they present for signals intelligence. Far from imposing political views, the program provides crucial information for viewers as they assess for themselves the effectiveness of our nation's high technology intelligence-gathering efforts."

Some People Are Being Hired

I watch the NewsHour frequently and have appeared on your program occasionally. I believe that you try hard to present a balanced approach. But like most or even all others you report the number of jobs lost but never the number of new hires. This is highly misleading. It may be difficult to get the new hires because they are not announced, but you should make some mention of the fact that the numbers reported are one-sided. There is enough, indeed too much, said to frighten the public into massive spending and bailouts.

Allan Meltzer, Pittsburgh, PA

George Would Not Be Amused

Re: Mark Twain Humor Award for George Carlin: There was a disclaimer (actually two) at the beginning of the program about possible offensive language. OK. But then, the program was censored with BLEEPS. Show the program. Don't show the program. Air the program at midnight. But, I am appalled by and ashamed of the censorship of PBS. What were they thinking? Isn't PBS who represents itself as a beacon of free speech and open minds? What hypocrisy. Shame on you.

Cheryl L., Albany, NY

I viewed with dismay the broadcast of Carlin's posthumous receiving of the Twain Award. How dispiriting it was to hear the ceaseless beeping of even innocuous "shits" in telling the story of a man whose career was dedicated to the freeing of tongues and puncturing of hypocrisy. Broadcasting documentaries about the history of our principles does not equate with defending them. We are told that we, the people who see themselves as the defenders of Freedom, cannot abide the pronouncing of "bad" words? Just as we are deemed too ... ...? to see the bodies of our beloved children returned in honor to the homeland they died to protect. A response is not necessary you may forward it to the FCC if that's your exculpatory rationale and tell them to go f--- themselves when you do.

Tony Bila, San Francisco, CA

I just watched the super presentation on PBS honoring George Carlin and the Mark Twain Award he earned. However, I was extremely dismayed and disappointed in Bill Maher's opening dialog, in particular, the demeaning and un-necessary slams on President Bush and Gov. Palin. I stuck with the program and found his to be the only out of place comments made, and for that I am grateful.

I listen to NPR and watch PBS and am constantly reminded of how left-wing slanted it is, and the Maher comments tonight just proves it again. Too bad, as most of your programming is first class . . . too bad you cannot keep from showing how your company really feels about our great country. In these tough times, I hope they cut out your government funding and you have to go it alone.

Mike Carnevale, Lake Havasu City, AZ

We just watched the wonderful tribute to George Carlin on my local station (WNED, Buffalo). We cannot think of a more deserving recipient of a prize named for Mark Twain. But we were outraged by the hypocritical decision of PBS to bleep out the so-called dirty words in the broadcast. If Carlin's humour taught us anything, it is that honesty and integrity are enduring human values, shared by people of all nations. Until tonight, we thought PBS shared those values. Apparently not.

At first, we assumed that these absurd and unnecessary bleeps were satirical, or a kind of political protest, but as the show continued, it became clear that this was not the case. We cannot imagine anyone who chose to watch a show about George Carlin being offended by any of the bleeps. On the contrary, we expect that millions were offended by the bleeps themselves. It is a shame that you have dishonoured a great comedian in this way.

Michael & Cathy Erdle, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

USC, Among Others, on Parkinson's

While Dave Iverson's story was poignant and touching, a misleading notion was referenced continuously throughout the presentation. It was implied that no one is doing sound exercise work in Parkinson's disease with the exception of Dr. Shulman and Dr. Zigmond. The fact of the matter is that many researchers are doing excellent work in Parkinson's disease and exercise and have been for a number of years. Our group at the University of Southern California is the first to publish the results of very intensive exercise in individuals in Parkinson's disease. Importantly, we demonstrated a beneficial change in the brain of the subjects undergoing high intensity exercise using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. We have now been demonstrating important, potentially disease modifying changes in the brain using PET imaging. Overall the exercise work in Parkinson's disease is important work that a number of investigators around the world are doing — there is plenty of work for everyone — the more questions that are being asked the more likely important discoveries will be made. It is important that Frontline acknowledge that excellent work in Parkinson's disease and exercise is being done at universities around the country.

Beth Fisher, Los Angeles, CA

Having been diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 39, I watched Mr. Iverson with great interest. I have gone through the difficult Deep Brain Stimulation procedure twice. It has been very successful, so much so, that I have run in 15Ks and a half marathon. Exercise is an amazing tool. I have met extraordinary people as a result of my advocacy for PD funding, however I've made life changing decisions that might not have come up without this challenge. I wish Mr. Iverson the very best. "Keep a positive outlook!"

E. Mandelbaum, Tampa, FL

More on Gen. Forrest

I do take exception to your rebuttal to Mr. Fowler's, of MS letter to you regarding Nathan Bedford Forrest. The idea that you link Nathan Bedford Forrest to the KKK is odd on several accounts. The items in the auction were related to service during the war. Nothing about the auction had anything to do with General Forrest's post war activities. In your column you referred to General Forrest's skill as a tactician and leader as demonic. Why? On what history do you, could you use that word? Forrest was always outnumbered and always led his attacks, heroic, yes, demonic, no. Fort Pillow is a canard that is always tossed into the mix regarding Forrest. If the garrison at Fort Pillow surrendered and continued to fire at Forrest's troops, Forrest had the authority under the rules of engagement at the time to execute the perpetrators. At the trial after the war, Union officers testified that the order to surrender was never given, they were prepared to fight to the last man. You know full well that Forrest was acquitted of all wrong doing in the Fort Pillow affair, if you know your history. Forrest was cleared, period. Why did you not include that in the facts of your response?

I know that you and PBS like to link Forrest to the KKK, and infer that he was a racist. This is of course contrary to all accounts of Forrest's activities regarding slaves and after the war his treatment of former slaves.

Mike Balog, Glendale, CA

No I Can't

Is there anything you can do to remove the commercials from the oil and gas industries that preach in the voice of an unctuous announcer that "it's not a liberal or conservative issue" and "we need to use all our fuels" and "you'd be surprised where we get most of our energy — North America". Almost as irritating is the National Mining Association ad that tells how wonderful they are. Tell that to the people who have been poisoned with mercury, lead, asbestos and a dozen other toxic substances. I am so tired of the same people who have brought us the Exxon Valdez oil spill (and then fought reparations for 20 years) and fought environmentalism tooth and nail for a century trying to make their public persona all "warm and fuzzy". They don't belong on PBS. I would prefer than my PBS station shut down from midnight to 6:00 a.m. than to accept their ads. These are the same people who would cheerfully see PBS go not-so-gently into the night. Don't deal with them; they will corrupt you; they already have. I have noticed a subtle but noticeable shift toward less controversy and investigation. We need you to be a clear-eyed commentator, not a go-along-to-get-along entertainment machine.

Lydia Lewis, St. Louis, MO