"I have started to feel like when I have stuff to explain or report, I want it to be on TV," Rachel Maddow said.
She was speaking to The Huffington Post about her new documentary, "Day of Destruction, Decade of War," which she made with her NBC colleague Richard Engel. Judging from the special, Maddow clearly thought that she had quite a bit of stuff to explain and report.
The three-part documentary, which airs Thursday and Friday nights on MSNBC, is uncommonly long for cable television. It functions as a sort of primer on the expansion of the national security state following 9/11: the explosive growth of the intelligence community, the use of private entities to carry out covert operations and core spying functions, the network of secret (and not-so-secret) military and CIA prisons around the world, the intrusion into everyday American life, the use of torture on detainees and the continued warfare in the Middle East, to name just a few.
"We both felt like there was explanatory work to be done," Maddow said, in a bit of an understatement. "We are structurally different than we were." That, she said, is really the special's overarching thesis: that the country has changed.
Like many, Maddow had followed all of these events closely over the years. Unlike many, she also had cable news time and money to give her take on how the U.S. has responded to 9/11. So she and Engel set about doing just that.
"There are certain things about the way that the country's changed," she said. "Super-empowered local law enforcement, the business of national security, the privatization of so many core military functions, the way that the fear of terrorism...has become a lucrative business, the way that it has become almost an unquestioned goal that counterterrorism and law enforcement should be co-mingled."
All of those things are addressed in the documentary, along with several other strands, including a timely segment on the New York Police Department's huge counterterrorism operations that have recently attracted so much controversy. Maddow said that she and Engel spent most of the last year working on the special -- so much so that it became, essentially, a second job. It was "fun," she said, to figure out which aspects of the documentary each would tackle.
"It was, 'I know this guy who I can get interviewed,'" she said.
Ultimately, Maddow wound up filming segments on subjects including nuclear terrorism, prisons and torture, government contracting waste and the PATRIOT Act.
She said that her only regret about the documentary is that officials from the Bush administration largely refused to talk to her or Engel. (There are also no officials from the Obama administration, which has continued many Bush-era policies, in the special.)
"The George W. Bush administration was such an important part of this story," Maddow said. She emphasized, though, that she is happy that the special focuses on people who "lived" the issues she discusses. One of these is Malcolm Nance, a former senior Navy official whose still-potent anger at the American torture regime Maddow called "incredibly moving."
One thing that stands out in the documentary is Engel's complete openness about his views. In the past few months, NBC's chief foreign correspondent has proven rather surprisingly willing to share his thoughts about what he sees as the failure of the "war on terror." Engel has gone on both "Meet the Press" and (a little incongruously) "The Tonight Show" and said flatly that he regards American foreign policy as dangerous and misguided, and that the U.S. needs to withdraw from Afghanistan.
In the special, Engel gets even more of a chance to air his views in ways that could prove irresistible for media watchers eager to issue cries of bias. To give just one example, he says that the massive security apparatus that has been built up post-9/11 is dangerous, because political demagoguery makes it "hard to take it away."
In response, Maddow mounted a simple defense of Engel, saying he is speaking from experience, not from any political corner. "Whatever Richard says in the documentary, he has earned the right to make that observation," she said.
Maddow touched on a similar idea when asked to share her personal 9/11 story. Though she has made a documentary about how 9/11 changed the country, Maddow declined to say how it had changed her -- or even what she experienced that day, since she was not living in New York at the time.
"It feels so petty," she said. Instead, Maddow wanted to talk about the notion of popular democracy.
"I am very interested in how connected our political debates in this country are to what our country actually does," she said. "Whenever this country does its own thing regardless of what people want or it does it not caring what people want, it worries me. It shakes me a little bit. We should never feel like our destiny is out of our own hands. I don't want us to feel like the country moves in a way that the people don't decide."
The first part of "Day of Destruction, Decade of War" airs on Thurs., Sept. 1 at 9 PM ET. The second and third parts air on Fri., Sept. 2 from 9-11 PM.