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2. NOVA Spy Factory – Yemen


In an excerpt from The Spy Factory (NOVA), NSA analysts track Bin Laden’s calls to a house in Sana’a, Yemen, tucked away in one of the poorest neighborhoods.

The film crew made the trek to Yemen to capture some fantastic original material, including the actual Bin Laden hideout. Though they got the shots, the vibe was tense at times, especially at the Bin Laden house, and their local fixed came unglued sensing they had been noticed, at which point they fled that part of town. While the risk was real, in other parts of Yemen the crew were greeted with incredible warmth and kindness, and got a first hand view of a way of life that is increasingly rare. Links to 8 other segments are below.

My Role -

I was the editor, colorist, visual effects supervisor, online editor, and also shot time-lapse and vfx elements for The Spy Factory. I worked very closely with the composer and effects team helping to craft the look, feel, and logic, including imagining the metaphors and visual poems we landed on to help one through a story – one that offered very little to film.

Spy Factory Summary -

The Spy Factory examines the ironic circumstances that unfolded in the years and days prior to the 911 attacks, with an emphasis on the technologies behind data collection, processing and interpretation used and what changes are being made to address the security failings. While US agencies were on the lookout for Al Qaeda, the 911 hijackers traveled freely in the US, often living and traveling using their own names, names that in many cases were on the terrorist watch lists of known Al Qaeda operatives – - their summit meeting the night before the attacks was held in Laurel MD, practically within eye-sight of the NSA director’s office. The salient point of the film is that despite the fact that though the NSA could not find the terrorists in the sea of global data they were scouring, the solution has been to pour vast sums of US tax payer dollars into an illegal program that now adds 300 million more people (Americans) to the already overwhelming data pool. At a huge expense, in civil liberties and dollars, this solution seems to compound the problem of finding a needle in a hay stack, rather than increasing the odds of success.

The Crew -

Directed by 11-time Emmy Award winning Scott Willis, and written by James Bamford, author of three books about the agency, including The Puzzle Palace (2001), Body of Secrets (2002), The Shadow Factory (2008), upon which this book is based. First aired on PBS in 2010.
The DP was Neil Barrett and the extensive graphics and animations were done by the talented Ekin Akalin, with support by Collin Willis and Hande Baris. Jonathan Mitchell (of Radio Lab) wrote the score. Assistant Editor extraordinaire was Magee Macllvaine. The film was nominated for an Emmy.

How To View -

The film can be viewed in its entirety on PBS.

I’ve chosen 9 short segments from the film which, if viewed sequentially, will give you the main story beats.

1. NOVA Spy Factory – Opening

2. NOVA Spy Factory – Yemen

3. NOVA Spy Factory – FBI

4. NOVA Spy Factory – FBI 2

5. NOVA Spy Factory – NSA’s Blind Spot

6. NOVA Spy Factory – Bush Wiretapping

7. NOVA Spy Factory – Illegal Wiretapping

8. NOVA Spy Factory – Illegal Wiretapping 2

9. NOVA Spy Factory -The End



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