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: