We Were Warned

The Senate is all aglow over the CIA's hacking their computers. But 42 years ago, Hollywood warned about an overarching national security state, and nobody listened. In 1972 a movie issued alerts with striking prescience but minimal public response, and remains little known. What makes the Groundstar Conspiracy notable is its depiction and discussion of what evolved after 9/11/2001; although created decades earlier, it predicted the post al Qaeda environment, asking how far we should go to preserve our security, how much freedom we have to give up to remain secure.

The plot involves an explosion at a critical government program, the Groundstar Project, sparingly described as something vaguely to do with high tech, top secret projects like a "miniaturized fuel system". Only one man, John Welles (Michael Sarrazin) escapes, fleeing to the home of Nicole Devon (Christine Belford). But who set the explosion, and who is the traitor

Enter George Peppard as Tuxan, an uber security operative, to find out. Peppard ably presents him as Dick Cheney (decades before most of us knew who that was), willing to take any measure to defend the country. When we first see him he is exercising total, extraordinary authority, telling both the civilian and the military heads of Groundstar they cannot enter the site anymore, upon penalty of being shot. They are no longer in charge of anything; he is all-powerful.

And Tuxan will do anything to protect the nation. When reprimanded by Devon for invading her life and videotaping private moments, he observes that, "Murders are planned in privacy. Sabotage, revolutions, they all begin in privacy." To prevent these, "I'd put my own family, anyone, in the spotlight, naked, to protect this country." Crying, she asks, "And who decides when it's necessary?" Without a pause, Tuxan bluntly answers, "I do." To get information, he waterboards Welles. In defense of the nation, his power is absolute, with no legislative or judicial interference. At one point after he pulls a gun on a suspect, Tuxan explains, "I'm the only trial you'll ever get."

Wiretapping is just a small part of his machinations, predicting the excesses of the NSA. Tuxan crows, "If I had my way there'd be a bug in every bedroom in this country." When a top official demands, "I want that tap taken off my telephone," Tuxan throws a coin on his desk and barks, "There's a dime. Use a phone booth." At one point he replies to an inquiry, "Yes gentlemen, I tape my own phone too."

What makes Groundstar Conspiracy so striking was its ability to foretell the pros and cons of the modern security state. There are serious threats to this nation, both then (Russia and China are cited) and now (terrorism). But how far do we go to challenge these dangers? Welles tells Tuxan, "Your enemies don't scare me, not the way you do. You and your kind of power." Even more telling is Welles' question about the role of the citizen in our democracy, how, "Nothing scares me more than the willingness to let you do..." such things. To which Tuxan replies, "I could care less."

In 1972 a small film raised questions about issues of security and privacy we still confront. It did not answer them back then, and we did not respond either. We need to do better now.