“Top Secret America” Burning Up The Tubes

Dana Priest and William Arkin at WaPo:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation’s other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret 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 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet 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 U.S. 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.

These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.

They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation’s security.

“There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that – not just for the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense – is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up

Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman at Danger Room at Wired:

Figuring out exactly who’s cashing in on the post-9/11 boom in secret programs just got a whole lot easier.

U.S. spy agencies, the State Department and the White House had a collective panic attack Friday over a new Washington Post exposé on the intelligence-industrial complex. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin let it drop Monday morning.

It includes a searchable database cataloging what an estimated 854,000 employees and legions of contractors are apparently up to. Users can now to see just how much money these government agencies are spending and where those top secret contractors are located.

Check out the Post’s nine-page list of agencies and contractors involved in air and satellite observations, for instance. No wonder it scares the crap out of official Washington: It’s bound to provoke all sorts of questions — both from taxpayers wondering where their money goes and from U.S. adversaries looking to penetrate America’s spy complex.

But this piece is about much more than dollars. It’s about what used to be called the Garrison State — the impact on society of a praetorian class of war-focused elites. Priest and Arkin call it “Top Secret America,” and it’s so big and grown so fast, that it’s replicated the problem of disconnection within the intelligence agencies that facilitated America’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack.

With too many analysts and too many capabilities documenting too much, with too few filters in place to sort out the useful stuff or discover hidden connections, the information overload has become its own information blackout. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe,” a retired Army three-star general who recently assessed the system tells the reporters.

Julian Sanchez at Cato:

Intel-watchers have been waiting with bated breath for the launch of the Washington Post’s investigative series “Top Secret America,” the first installment of which appeared today, along with a searchable database showing the network of contractors doing top-secret work for the intelligence community. Despite the inevitable breathless warnings that the Post’s reporting would somehow compromise national security, there’s nothing online as yet to justify such fears, as even the Weekly Standard notes: The information was vetted by intel officials before being posted, and a good portion of it was already in the public domain, if not necessarily collated in such a convenient form.  Indeed, writers like Tim Shorrock, author of the invaluable Spies for Hire, have been reporting on the explosion of intelligence contracting for some time now—and in some instances the information you’ll find in Shorrock’s own contractor database is more usefully detailed than what the Post provides. None of this, to be clear, should at all diminish the enormous achievement of Dana Priest and William Arkin here: The real threat of their damning exposé should be to the job security of intelligence officials and contractors.  They paint a portrait of a sprawling intelligence-industrial complex drowning in data they’re unable to effectively process, and choked by redundancy

Gabriel Schoenfeld at The Weekly Standard:

The first installment of the Washington Post blockbuster, “Top Secret America,” by Dana Priest and William Arkin, two years in the making, is finally out today. It paints a surprisingly unsurprising picture of duplication and triplication in the intelligence world.

The story had provoked alarm among officials, and in some conservative quarters, that vital secrets would be spilled. “Is Wash Post harming intelligence work?” asked the Washington Times on Friday.  For its part, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence even put out a preemptive memo:  “We will want to minimize damage caused by unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and classified information. “

[…]

Indeed, it is hard to spot anything particularly damaging in the story. Its massive database and accompanying map of top-secret facilities in the United States, available on the Web, have been compiled from open-source material.

Leaks of highly classified information can pose a serious threat to our security. But in foreign policy reporting, leaks are also the coin of the realm.  Some of them pose no danger at all. Indeed, they are a principal channel by which the public is informed, which is why the  subject is so contentious.  In this particular instance, there does not even appear to have been a leak.  There is nothing top secret about “Top Secret America” (at least in its first installment). In this respect it is a case of false—and very smart—advertising.

Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall:

Priest intends the article to be scary, and to a certain degree, it certainly is. It’s a searing reminder of how much a “big government” is out of the control even of those who purport to run it.   Although the tone of the piece seems to intend the criticism to be directed toward “Top Secret America” (i.e., the post 9/11 security complex) — any thinking person will realize what the nub of the problem is, and that’s this: Government grows — always, always, always — because that’s the nature of government unless citizens are fortunate enough to have leaders who actually care about restraining it.

Peter Huessy at Big Government:

The Washington Post has published massive amounts of secret intelligence material in the interests, they say, of improving US national security. The two authors, Dana Priest and William Arkin, complain about a national security enterprise that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11. The reveal in detail the firms working for the US intelligence community including their location, contracts, and work subjects, whether border security, cyber-security or counter proliferation.

There are two common explanations for the story. First, it is juicy story. It has lots of secret information. And for two reporters, pursuing a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, well isn’t this what reporters do? The second explanation: their view is that the national security establishment represented by the $75 billion intelligence community and its network of firms, organizations and contractors is not serving the American people, that it is bloated, redundant and need of serious downsizing. But all, mind you, to make our security better.

There may be a third explanation. It may be they think little if any of this intelligence work is necessary. Nearly a decade ago, on October 12, 2002, William Arkin, the co-author of the article, spoke at the Naval War College. One key part of his talk is nearly identical to the thesis of the Post article.  He said: “More than 30 billion of our tax dollars each year go towards government generated intelligence information. We had, and have, a CIA and an intelligence community that has a fantastic history of failure, that is mostly blind to what is going on in the world, that seems to know nothing and at the same time is so bombarded and overwhelmed with stimuli from its millions of receptors it can hardly sense what is happening.”

Arkin goes on in his 2002 speech to blame America for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  He says our military prowess forced our adversaries to use attacks against our vulnerable infrastructure, such as airplanes or trains because they could not successfully fight our military. And he says our support for Gulf autocracies and stationing troops there gave cause for the attacks of 9/11. The implied solution is very simple: stop supporting harsh regimes, withdraw our forces from the Gulf and terrorism disappears.

This underlying view of what we are supposedly facing permeates the Post story as well. They describe what they think this vast intelligence enterprise is trying to do: “defeating transnational violent extremists,” “fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda,” and find “clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.”

I have one small quibble, however, which is with the “redundancy and waste” argument about multiple agencies doing the same work.  This is a standard argument in favor of rationalization, and it’s not always wrong.  It should be noted, however, that some redundancy is actually a good thing, particularly on an issue like counter-terrorism.

Say a single bureaucracy is tasked with intelligence gathering about threat X.  Let’s say this bureaucracy represents the best of the best of the best — the A-Team.  The A-Team does it’s job and catches 95% of the emergent threats from X.  That’s still 5% that is missed.

Now say you have another independent bureaucracy with a similar remit.  This agency is staffed by different people with their own set of blind spots.  Let’s even stipulate that we’re talking about the B-team here, and they’ll only catch 80% of the emergent threats from X.

If thesr two bureaucracies are working independently — and this is an important if — then the odds that a threat would go unobserved by both bureaucracies is .05*.2 = .01 = 1%.  So, by adding another bureaucracy, even a less competent one, the chances of an undetected threat getting through are cut from 5% to 1%.  That ain’t nothing.

Glenn Greenwald:

What’s most noteworthy about all of this is that the objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this — National Security — is not only unfulfilled by “Top Secret America,” but actively subverted by it.  During the FISA debate of 2008 — when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA’s authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight — it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe.  Thus, anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most:  Staying Safe.

But as I wrote many times back then — often by interviewing and otherwise citing House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, who has been making this point repeatedly — the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, 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.  NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as “the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack.”  As Kinne put it:

By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it’s almost like they’re making the haystack bigger and it’s harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody.  You’re actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.

The Government did not fail to detect the 9/11 attacks because it was unable to collect information relating to the plot.  It did collect exactly that, but because it surveilled so much information, it was incapable of recognizing what it possessed (“connecting the dots”).  Despite that, we have since then continuously expanded the Government’s surveillance powers.  Virtually every time the political class reveals some Scary New Event, it demands and obtains greater spying authorities (and, of course, more and more money).  And each time that happens, its ability to detect actually relevant threats diminishes.  As Priest and Arkin write:

The NSA sorts a fraction of those [1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of daily collected communications] into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

The article details how ample information regarding alleged Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab was collected but simply went unrecognized.  As a result, our vaunted Surveillance State failed to stop the former attack and it was only an alert airplane passenger who thwarted the latter.  So it isn’t that we keep sacrificing our privacy to an always-growing National Security State in exchange for greater security.  The opposite is true:  we keep sacrificing our privacy to the always-growing National Security State in exchange for less security.

Matthew Yglesias:

Beyond this, my main reaction is to think Glenn Greenwald draws too sharp a dichotomy between the view that Priest and Arkin are detailing a story of too much waste and inefficiency and the view that Priest and Arkin are detailing a story of “an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State.” The point, as I see it, is that the one necessarily leads to the other. A surveillance state that sucks in everything creates an unmanageable flow of information. Pervasive secrecy makes coordination impossible. The scope and covert nature of the enterprise destroys accountability. In fact, it’s so unaccountable that even the people to whom it’s supposed to be accountable have no idea what’s going on:

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

You can’t possibly run an effective organization along these lines, and the idea that pouring even more hazily defined powers to surveil and torture people is going to improve things is daft. The potential for abuses in this system is tremendous, and the odds of overlooking whatever it is that’s important are overwhelming. Meanwhile, though it’s hardly the key point I note that for all the vast sums of resources poured into the national security state since 9/11, the US government’s foreign language capabilities remain absurdly limited. But it seems to me that just being able to talk to people (and read the newspaper, watch the news, etc.) in their native tongue would produce much more in the way of useful information than all the wiretapping in the world.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads

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1 Comment

Filed under GWOT, Homeland Security, Mainstream

One response to ““Top Secret America” Burning Up The Tubes

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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