This American Life episode #229
Initially aired January 10, 2003

Definitely one of the greatest This American Life episodes ever: stories of the United States government pulling fast ones on the people in the name of the war against terror. Constitutional violations, spin doctoring and judicial misconduct abound. A particularly strange feature of this episode is its total reliance on investigative journalism; there are no personal stories or fictions here, proving that Ira Glass and his team can tackle anything.

Program note: there are two different versions of this episode; the stories in the real audio version available at are in a different order from those in the version. The actual programming is identical. This listing follows the version.

Ira talks about government secrets and interviews John Podesta, Bill Clinton's chief of staff. They then compare our current president's interpretation of the freedom of information act to Clinton's. Clinton's administration declassified over 800,000,000 documents; Bush's administration has passed legislation allowing former presidents to keep more of their documentation secret. (3 minutes)

Act One: Until the End of the War
Jack Hitt tells the story of Jose Padilla, the man accused of plotting to explode a radioactive dirty bomb somewhere in the United States. Padilla was arrested, jailed and given a lawyer. But then the government pulled a fast one - they transferred him from a civilian jail to a military brig, refused to charge him with anything (blatantly violating the writ of habeas corpus), and claimed he was being held as an enemy combatant and was therefore not entitled to a lawyer. Fortunately no one actually bothered to tell his lawyer that. What follows is a story so bizarre that I'm fighting the urge to give it all away. Suffice it to say that Hitt (a contributing editor to Harper's magazine as well as This American Life) is a fabulous storyteller who leaves you wondering why the hell we let this happen. (17 minutes)

Act Two: Secret Trials and Secret Deportations
After September 11, 2001 the government saw fit to round up any and all Arab immigrants in violation of their visas or those of an even slightly susicious background. Many of them were deported, some without the knowledge of their families. David Kestenbaum (with the help of the ACLU) did his best to get the government to tell him who these people were and got nowhere. Surprisingly enough, the Pakistani embassy was more than helpful. Kestenbaum flew to Pakistan to find some of those who had been deported. It turns out they weren't treated all that badly, which begs the question: why did the government find it necessary to lie about it? This story has a more conservative feel to it, adding a bit of perspective to the hour. (18 minutes)

Act Three: Secret Wiretaps from a Secret Court
The FISA Court (FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) only has one job: to authorize wiretaps on suspected spies and agents including agents of terrorism. The court is secret, comprised of conservative judges in an anonymous federal building in Washington, D.C. In all 24 years of its existence, the court had never turned down a wiretap request. But all that changed last year when the court published an opinion turning down a request because it believed John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act had gone too far. The logic goes like this: if a panel of conservative judges in a court created by Nixon that is implicitly designed to mess around with federal wiretapping laws says that parts of the government are overstepping their authority, things must be really, really screwed up. Blue Chevigny reports. (15 minutes)

Specifics (running time, episode number, etc.) taken from
The analysis/synopsis is mine.

Back to the This American Life Episode Guide, 2003

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