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The Spy Factory

Program Overview


NOVA examines the role the National Security Agency (NSA) played in tracking Al Qaeda operatives prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The program:

  • explains how Soviet phone communications were intercepted during the Cold War.

  • notes that listening in on communications became more difficult when the targets were terrorists who used a variety of means to converse, including cell phones, satellite phones, public pay phones, and e-mail.

  • reveals that the NSA gained access to Osama bin Laden's direct satellite phone and began listening to his calls in 1996.

  • shows how satellite phone communications are tracked.

  • explains how the NSA determined the location of bin Laden's operation center in Yemen.

  • chronicles the movements of Al Qaeda operatives from when they first came to the United States in 2000 up until they executed their attacks.

  • explains how the NSA monitored those Al Qaeda operatives for a year and a half while they were training and planning for the 9-11 attacks.

  • considers why there was no interagency communication regarding the whereabouts of the terrorists.

  • reports on President George W. Bush's executive order, issued after the 2001 attacks, that cleared the way for eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without a warrant.

  • traces how an e-mail travels from Malaysia to California.

  • describes how a telecommunications worker discovered that the NSA was intercepting all international and domestic communications that his company was receiving.

  • explores advances in data-monitoring programs intended to help sort out suspicious communications among the huge amounts of data being generated.

  • considers the question of whether Americans are safer now than they were prior to the terrorist attacks.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after program is recorded off the air.

Teacher's Guide
The Spy Factory?
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