Commentary

US Spying Spawns a Dystopian Epidemic

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in The Asia Times on August 4, 2010.

Considering revelations in recent years ranging from renditions, the overseas Central Intelligence Agency prison system, torture during interrogations and National Security Agency wiretapping, aka “warrantless surveillance”, it is difficult to claim, a-la Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca, that anyone is “shocked, shocked” to find the United States intelligence system so cumbersome that oversight is virtually impossible.

According to a Washington Post report last month, in a three-part series titled “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William Arkin, following a two-year investigation, “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping citizens safe.”

The fact that the Post described a bureaucracy resembling the Oceanian province of Airstrip One in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four — a world of perpetual war and pervasive government surveillance that allows the party to manipulate and control the public — is just icing on the cake for those who relish irony.

That there is an alternative “Top Secret America” spread around the country is less worrisome than the fact that nobody is really sure of its scope or activities. In that sense it resembles Brazil, the 1985 film directed by Terry Gilliam, almost as much as it does Oceania. The ending of the first article in the Post series therefore seems particularly apt:

Meanwhile, five miles [eight kilometers] southeast of the White House, the Department of Homeland Security has broken ground for its new headquarters, to be shared with the Coast Guard. Soon, on the grounds of the former St Elizabeths mental hospital in Anacostia, a US$3.4 billion showcase of security will rise from the crumbling brick wards. The new headquarters will be the largest government complex built since the Pentagon.

In fact, the existence of a Top Secret America is just another aspect of what afflicts American culture and its political system. It is the security counterpart of what academic Janine Wedel detailed in her 2009 book Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market. This described various US political operators converging into a single network who have risen to power on an unprecedented confluence of four transformational 20th and 21st century developments: government outsourcing and deregulation, the end of the Cold War, the growth of information technologies, and “the embrace of ‘truthiness’.”

What Priest and Arkin well know but never explicitly wrote was that after 9/11 the George W Bush administration set into motion counter-surveillance allegedly to prevent terrorists attacking America. Subsequently, US government counter-surveillance networks have become huge, supported by thousands of government employees and private contractors, many duplicating work. There are now tens of thousands of US government counter-surveillance agents, employees and private contractors monitoring US citizens’ private records and communications with no US Congress or public oversight.

Put another way, the real problem is that the companies listed in the series are almost exclusively set up for the sole purpose of conducting work that belongs inside regulated and monitored government agencies.

The Post series is important insofar as it confers the official imprimatur of elite journalistic recognition that the counter-terrorism complex it details — including uncoordinated and sometimes little known entities of the military, intelligence community, homeland security, and even civil government — is growing faster than America’s obesity epidemic.

But in many respects it is only codifying what has been observed and recorded by many other reporters, academics and scholars in recent years by journalists like Greg Miller (formerly of the Los Angeles Times), Tim Shorrock who wrote the book Spies For Hire and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times. (It was Shorrock who in 2007 wrote a major series in Salon disclosing that 70% of the US intelligence budget is spent on private-sector contractors). In other words, it is an example of news not being news until is published by the Washington Post.

This is not to diminish the importance of what the Post did. The website it set up is a comprehensive source of information for those who may have wondered who was doing what but did not know where to look. Truthfully, there is far more information in the online site than in the print articles. The online presentation includes a link analysis application, which allows you to look at government agencies and look at functions and see how many contractors work for them at the top-secret level and at how many locations and to look at some of the featured companies discussed in the article series and look at who they work for and some of their locations.

There’s also a mapping application that allows people to delve into the presence of “Top Secret America” in their own community. And then there is a profile of each of those 3,000-plus entities, where you can look in more detail at their revenue, the size of the companies, and what it is that they do in this field. Much of this reflects the influence of Arkin, who has worked on the subject of government secrecy and national security affairs for more than 30 years and is well known for ferreting out difficult to find data. Nobody else has put together in one place online a searchable database allowing one to explore the connections among the thousands of government organizations and private contractors. For example, one can find out that the private security firm Xe Services, formerly Blackwater, which has been much in the news in recent years for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan, does two of 23 types of top-secret work for the government.

It is also reassuring that the Post had the financial resources to support a two-year-long investigative project, although given its status, that is not altogether surprising. Still, although not without its limitations, it is by far the most detailed, comprehensive online data visualization on this subject put together to date. Earlier efforts such as “Who’s Who in Intelligence Contractors”, a collaboration between Sharrock and CorpWatch, was far less comprehensive.

But the Post series was not nearly as harsh as it could have been. The series opened with an overview, followed by a focus on the large number of contractors supporting the intelligence enterprise, and a third part looking at a specific community (the Fort Meade/BWI Airport area in Maryland) that has expanded in part due to Intelligence Community (IC) growth. The Washington Post is expected to work with Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline to add a television program which will run in October.

But the Post left out links between individual contractors and specific agencies, although it still cited contractors and their locations.

Still, the IC was concerned enough that a memorandum was sent out in early July by Art House, director of communications for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to public affairs officers in the IC. He wrote:

We anticipate the following themes:

  • The intelligence enterprise has undergone exponential growth and has become unmanageable with overlapping authorities and a heavily outsourced contractor workforce.
  • The IC and the DoD have wasted significant time and resources, especially in the areas of counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence.
  • The intelligence enterprise has taken its eyes off its post-9/11 mission and is spending its energy on competitive and redundant programs.

In plain English, Hall sees the search for the truth as a plot to portray it unfavorably. One can hardly find a better illustration of the problem with excessive contracting: when reporters avail themselves of constitutionally protected rights to act as a watchdog on our government and its contractors, the government itself assumes that it must be an attack.

This was, however, disingenuous on Hall’s part. As Arkin noted in a subsequent radio interview, “They were well aware of what we were doing, and we formally briefed them about this earlier this year. So for them to come out at the eleventh hour and somehow say that they are alarmed by what we’re going to put out, to me, seems to be classic cover-your-ass.”

But, ignoring for the moment that all bureaucracies wish to influence public opinion that they are indispensable, and deserving of even more public funding, Hall is actually correct, at least on the first point. It is factually inarguable that the US IC has grown by orders of magnitude.

Consider that last September then Director of National Intelligence Dennis C Blair disclosed that the United States spent $75 billion in the previous year to finance worldwide intelligence operations that employ 200,000 people. Note that even that figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counter-terrorism programs.

In contrast, the Bush administration said in 2007 that the cost of national intelligence activities in fiscal 2007 was $43.5 billion. For fiscal 2008, the figure was put at $47.5 billion. In both years, figures for the military intelligence side remained classified.

According to a US Congressional Research Service report released last month, then Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stated on October 15, 1997, that the aggregate amount appropriated for intelligence and intelligence-related activities for FY1997 was $26.6 billion. In March 1998, Tenet announced that the FY1998 figure was $26.7 billion.

Some of the Post’s findings were eye catching, others less so. The first part noted that:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counter-terrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly one and a half times as many people as live in Washington, DC, hold top-secret (TS) security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 US Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet (1.6 million square meters) of space.
  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 US cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
  • Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

The first three findings are graphic illustrations of a system that is suffering from too much input, rather like algae blooms which grow so rapidly that they consume all the oxygen in the water and end up killing a pond. A good example is the Post’s detailing of newly created organizations:

With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking

Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counter-terrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.

In regard to clearances one could note that at the height of the Cold War that number was far less and security breaches were far less. The drive to literally upgrade all clearances to TS has in fact created a ticking security time bomb that no one has ever thought through.

Similarly, the central problem, which the Washington Post doesn’t address, is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates and sympathizers are a tiny and manageable problem. Yet the apparatus that has been created is designed to meet nothing less than an existential threat.

Even at the height of the Cold War there was nothing like the post-9/11 Godzilla now in existence.

Interestingly, the Post said in the first part that its “online database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records. The investigation focused on top-secret work because the amount classified at the secret level is too large to accurately track”.

For those familiar with the US classification system this says volumes about its utter dysfunctional nature, in that it allows for huge amounts of information to be improperly classified, as the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy has detailed for many years.

What the Post’s database also indicates is that useful intelligence can also be gathered through unclassified open source intelligence (OSINT) that does not require people with clearances. Although this ideas has gained backing the last couple of decades it is, at least when you get beyond lip service rhetoric, still very much the poor orphan within the IC.

The finding about redundancy is useful but not surprising. Anyone who read the 2004 final 9/11 Commission report found the same conclusion. As for publishing huge numbers of intelligence reports that are routinely ignored — that has been going on for as long as there has been an intelligence community.

The second part of the series deals with the use of private contractors in intelligence work. This is hardly news. In fact it is the IC counterpart of the Pentagon and State Department which uses firms like DynCorp, MPRI, or Blackwater, now called Xe Services LLC. Those same companies also work for the IC, according to the Post database.

The Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. Ironically, the Post offers a more precise count of contractors in Top Secret America than the Pentagon can do with its own contractor work force. The article notes:

The government doesn’t know how many are on the federal payroll. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said he wants to reduce the number of defense contractors by about 13%, to pre-9/11 levels, but he’s having a hard time even getting a basic head count.

“This is a terrible confession,” he said. “I can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” referring to the department’s civilian leadership.

While much of the information in this article is useful there is little here that hasn’t already been reported in the various specialized trade press. As Tim Shorrock wrote in an Atlantic Magazine blog:

Well, after three days of blanket coverage, it’s safe to say the Post was right: it was indeed impossible for its team to get its arms around this story or explain the political significance of the secret world it uncovered.

The Post never delved into the troubling matter of what it means to have private, for-profit corporations and their executives operating at the highest levels of national security and sharing the government’s most sensitive secrets. And much of the series was old news — fancied up with snazzy graphics and amusing photo spreads — that could have been told years ago if the paper had been up to the job of covering the massive growth of national security capitalism since 2001.

But the Post should have stopped after Part One and given it a rest. Looking beyond the numbers and the choice quotes from Bob Gates, [CIA Director] Leon Panetta and other high-ranking officials, the series is filled with the most pedestrian of reporting and reveals very little that is actually new about the privatized part of our national security state.

Worse, there is virtually nothing in the series about the deeper political questions raised by privatization, including the obvious issue of the revolving door. Unbelievably, Priest and Arkin don’t even mention that president Bush’s DNI [Director of National Intelligence], Mike McConnell, and President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, were both prominent contractors before taking their jobs. Why is that relevant? Well, McConnell came directly from Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the IC’s top contractors and an adviser to the NSA (and he’s back at Booz now). Brennan was an executive at The Analysis Corporation, which built a key terrorist database for the National Counterterrorism Center (which Brennan used to run).

There was not even a hint that Lt Gen [Lieutenant general] James Clapper (retired), who appeared before the Senate for his DNI confirmation hearing on the second day of the series, once had close ties to major contractors. Clapper once directed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. which has extensive contracts with a satellite firm contracted by the government; after leaving the NGA, he joined its board. Nor was there mention of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the largest association for NSA and CIA contractors, for which McConnell, Brennan, and Clapper have all served as chairman. That’s not part of the story? Could Clapper’s experience have influenced his strong defense of contractors during his testimony? Or would mentioning such ties hurt the Post’s access to the ODNI and the White House?

The Post series leave many questions unanswered. What is the split between military and intelligence contractors and subcontractors? How many intelligence contractors are working on actual intelligence activities and analysis, as opposed to just technical support? How many of the contractors doing formerly public sector jobs have actually been subjected to a dispassionate cost benefit analysis? And if they were what does it say? How badly has the proliferation of special access programs and other compartmentalized functions diminished Congressional oversight?

One way to judge the Post series is to see it as a poll on the American public’s preferences. Generally, it seems, they don’t want to be bothered by details. It is similar to the way they look at the military. The United States has a professionalized volunteer force. As long as there is not a draft and the budgetary demands don’t seem too onerous they don’t pay a lot of attention to it, even in wartime.

Similarly with regard to intelligence and counter-terrorism work Americans seem content to let the so-called experts handle it, even though it was common citizens who foiled the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, the Fort Dix plot, and others. If the US public knew it alone was responsible for the country’s security, 300 million pairs of motivated eyes could probably outperform the 854,000 experts with top-secret clearances discussed in the Washington Post story. Apparently the American people just want someone in government to say, ”There, there, not to worry. We’re hard at work keeping the bogeymen away.”

It is exactly this public apathy which strengthens Top Secret America. Recall that in 2008 when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA’s authority to spy, without judicial oversight, on the communications of Americans. It was constantly claimed that the government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to keep America safe.

But the more secret surveillance powers we that are vested in the government, the more unsafe we become. That’s because the public-private axis that is the surveillance state already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications — so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale — that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats. It is unable to “connect the dots” because it is drowning in oceans of data.

The bottom line question that the Post series poses is the same one people have been asking for years about the use of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan; namely, what is the appropriate dividing line between the public and private sector? William Arkin summarized it well in an interview on the Democracy Now radio program:

You know, one thing that we found in the evidence, Amy, is that people who are in business are in business. I’m not going to say that they’re not good Americans, any less than we are, but it seems to me that their fundamental mission is to make money for their businesses. And that is not the same as being a public servant. And as you can see from our articles, we have quotes from all of the principals involved, on the record — Secretary Gates; Leon Panetta, the CIA director; the director of Defense Intelligence and the former director of National Intelligence, Admiral Blair — essentially agreeing with us that this crazy, out-of-control system accreted after 9/11, and here, two years into the Obama administration, it is essentially in the same form that it was when the Bush administration left office. But there is something fundamentally wrong in America if you have people who are working in a for-profit environment caring for our national security and engaged in what we consider to be the inherent functions of government.

Will the Post series change anything? It seems unlikely. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon:

Any doubt about whether there’d be any meaningful (or even cosmetic) changes as a result of the Post expose (it was really more a compilation of already known facts) was quickly dispelled by the reaction of the political class: not just one of indifference, but outright contempt for the concerns raised by this story. On Tuesday — 24 hours after the first installment appeared — the Senate’s Homeland Security Intelligence Committee removed a provision from the Intelligence Authorization Act which would have provided some marginally greater oversight over the government’s secret intelligence programs, because Obama was threatening to veto any bill providing for such oversight.

Then, Obama’s nominee to be the next Director of National Intelligence, Retired Lieutenant general James Clapper, all but laughed at the Post’s work, dismissing it during his Senate confirmation hearing as “sensationalism,” praising the bureaucratic redundancies as “competitive analysis,” and insisting that the National Security and Surveillance State are perfectly “under control”. The Post’s Jeff Stein today documents how congressional Democrats can barely rouse themselves to the pretense that they intend to do anything to impose any restraints or accountability on Top Secret America. And it was revealed this week by McClatchy that our vaunted “withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq” will be accomplished only by assembling a privatized militia that will serve as the State Department’s ‘army in Iraq’ long after our actual army withdraws.”

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.