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Spying report reveals little that's new

John Negroponte, former US national intelligence director, in the "Frontline" special about domestic spying. (BROOKS KRAFT/CORBIS)

"Spying on the Home Front" is one of those irritating " Frontline " programs that revisits an old story for no particular reason. There is no new peg, no startling development to report. And yet by the end, it has provided just enough fresh material to have warranted a look. Maybe. (It's also over before "The Shield" comes on.)

The New York Times broke a huge story in 2005 that, after 9/11, the National Security Agency had been eavesdropping without warrants on domestic telephone calls and e-mails into and out of the United States.

The practice breached the traditional role of the NSA as a foreign surveillance arm of government, not a domestic one. It also ran roughshod over the policy of gaining court approval before conducting domestic surveillance. It was immediately recognized as a major shift in governmental strategy and, by many, a grave threat to individual privacy.

(John Yoo, the former Justice Department official behind the warrantless wiretaps legal case, presents his usual spiel here defending it.)

Since 2005, great attention has been paid to domestic spying. So what new is there to say about it in 2007? Not much. What we have here is largely a rehash of an old story. Why, then, watch "Spying on the Home Front" at all?

Two reasons. First is Hedrick Smith, whose Hedrick Smith Productions co produced the show with " Frontline. " The man is a great reporter who is quietly relentless in his pursuit of the story. He asks all the right questions and all the right follow-ups.

Second are the stories he tells. Smith details two case histories, one in Las Vegas and another in San Francisco, that bring the message home. Forget familiar clips of Senate hearings and Bush press conferences, both of which are in the program, it is these two cases, and only these cases, that will keep you awake.

The show opens with the first one -- a vague warning from the FBI that Las Vegas may be an Al Qaeda target around New Year's 2004. Based on that, the FBI demanded records from all hotels, airlines, rental car agencies, casinos , and other businesses on every person who visited Las Vegas in the weeks approaching New Year's Eve. We're talking 250,000 people.

No terrorist link was uncovered, and it was later discovered the original intelligence warning was wrong. The FBI claims the records have been destroyed. That said, says former CIA senior attorney Suzanne Spaulding, "It is inevitable that totally innocent Americans are going to be affected by these programs. " Great.

The second story is tighter and scarier. An AT&T technician in San Francisco named Mark Klein noticed in 2002 that NSA technicians were building a secret room attached to his office and then installing monster computer capability that, Klein realized, could only be used for spying. The NSA was eavesdropping on AT&T calls.

Klein took his concerns to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the nonprofit that defends privacy and free speech on the Internet. It sued AT&T to stop the NSA intrusion. The case is still before the courts.

These cases are illuminating , but they confirm what we already know or intuit: Domestic spying is out of control. The show breaks no new ground. The threat to our privacy is real, but "Spying on the Home Front" has the feel of what Yogi Berra used to call deja vu all over again.

Sam Allis can be reached at:


Spying on the Home Front

Part of the PBS "Frontline" series

On: Channel 2

Time: Tomorrow, 9-10 p.m.