Inside the NSA the Day After 9/11

May 12, 2014

The mood was somber at NSA headquarters on Sept. 12, 2001. Nearly 3,000 Americans were dead in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Analysts at Fort Meade were shell-shocked. What had they done to miss the warning signs?

“We all felt like a great wrong had been done and that we are all — somewhat — if not all culpable,” J. Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA senior analyst, recalled to FRONTLINE.

It didn’t have to be that way, thought some within the agency. True, it was illegal for the NSA to use surveillance capabilities domestically. But before the attacks, several of the hijackers were living in the U.S. What if there was a tool that could have allowed analysts to monitor their Internet traffic while also preserving the privacy rights of Americans? Could the attacks have been prevented?

That’s how Ed Loomis felt. Prior to 9/11, the former cryptologist lobbied his superiors to adopt just such a program. Wary of breaking the agency’s No. 1 rule — you don’t spy on the homeland — NSA leaders rebuffed him.

Nearly 13 years later, Loomis remains haunted by the attack.

“I do believe it could have been prevented with revisions to the way we were permitted to operate,” Loomis said in the below excerpt from tomorrow night’s FRONTLINE investigation, United States of Secrets. “They wouldn’t do it.”

On the morning of Sept. 12, however, a brand new reality was forming at the NSA. No longer would surveillance be limited to foreign targets. Instead, the agency would begin monitoring virtually all communications data flowing through the U.S. — without a warrant and without the privacy protections that insiders like Loomis once fought for. The gloves were off.

In United States of Secrets, FRONTLINE tells the dramatic inside story of how the U.S. government came to spy on millions of ordinary Americans — and the extraordinary lengths taken to keep the effort hidden. From 9/11 to the Edward Snowden revelations, the two-part investigation is the definitive history of the government’s controversial surveillance program.

United States of Secrets (Part One) premieres on-air and online tomorrow night, starting at 9 p.m. EST (check local listings). Part two premieres May 20.

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