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U.S. Intelligence Apparatus Ballooned After 9/11, Series Finds

July 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Washington Post spent two years investigating the infrastructure of the government intelligence community in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Margaret Warner speaks with reporter Dana Priest on what was uncovered in the research for the "Top Secret America" series.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the new world of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government embarked on a massive expansion of its intelligence operations. Today, The Washington Post began a three-part look at the infrastructure that resulted, calling it “Top Secret America.”

Its overall conclusion? The system is so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive, that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, or how many programs exist within it. The Post spent two years trying to find out. It uncovered an intelligence-national security enterprise of 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies, spending more than $75 billion a year, with a work force in which an estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.

Yet, this apparatus was unable to anticipate or head off the Fort Hood murders or the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing. In response to the Post series, the acting director of the National Intelligence Office issued a statement today saying his office is working constantly to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies.

For more, we turn to the series’ co-author, Washington Post national intelligence reporter Dana Priest. She and national security reporter William Arkin worked for two years on the project.

And, Dana, welcome.

This is quite a body of work. What prompted you to embark on this study? And were you surprised at what you found?

DANA PRIEST, The Washington Post: Well, I have covered national security for a decade or more.

And, after 9/11, you could see, you could feel the growth of something around you. You listened to officials, and they had complaints and concerns about how much money was being spent. It was all sort of understandable in the beginning. And it continued to grow at great — at a great, rapid rate.

And, so, a couple of years ago, Bill, my co-author, Bill Arkin and I, who — we have been talking about this for years and years — said, well, how would you go about trying to show this?

And we got together and decided that one of the ways we would do it, since it is at the top-secret level, and we can’t get inside of the government, we can’t get inside those programs, is to start by just counting them, to find them, and then count them and put them on a map, sort of create an alternative geography of the United States.

We did mapping like you would do on a — almost like a genome project. And, once we did that, which took, you know, a year-and-a-half to assemble, while we were doing it, we were also trying to talk with officials inside the government and figure out what kind of patterns and problems emerged.

And that is where the issue of its size became such an issue. It’s not just that it grew. It’s that it’s grown, and the growth has overwhelmed some of the progress that has been made in intelligence-sharing in other areas.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, are — are you saying it that, then — I mean, this already was a huge apparatus before this, was it not? Are you saying it really is — the dysfunctionality you found is really a result of the 9/11 — post-9/11 proliferation?

DANA PRIEST: Well, yes, I don’t think it was that sort of large, unwieldy apparatus before 9/11. It was more disconnected than it was afterwards, because, after all, we created the director of national intelligence to get all of this under control and to help coordinate all these different agencies.

To some extent, that has happened. He’s — the various directors have managed to get people to share information in a better way and a more effective way. But, at the same time, this growth was occurring. And you had a proliferation of agencies and a number of people working on things. And the focus, the direction that was given to those agencies and many suborganizations that went about doing their own thing was lacking.

And every time there was a problem, the question was not, how can we do this better? It was, let’s do more of it. Let’s bring in more people. Let’s bring in more resources. And that, as Secretary Bob Gates and Director of the CIA Leon Panetta told us on the record, is not always the answer to every problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you came up with some eye-popping figures. One jumped out at me, that this whole enterprise produces some 50,000 intelligence reports every year. And you said many of them are routinely ignored.

DANA PRIEST: Well, and the reason for that is that many of them deal with exactly the same subject.

You know, doing the easiest thing is what happens a lot, if you don’t push people to do the hardest work. That happens in many different ways. And the Fort Hood shooter is a good example of that. The Army’s largest counterintelligence organization, which is supposed to be looking inside the Army for spies or potential jihadists, is just 25 miles up the road from Walter Reed, where Major Hasan, the suspect in that case, began to speak very oddly about Islam and warning the Army that they should let people out who were religious.

But that organization wasn’t, in fact, looking hard within its own ranks, because that’s very hard to do. Instead, they were doing something that the FBI and Homeland Security was already doing, which was to look at other terrorist affiliations within the United States.

So, all agencies, many agencies, had sort of a mission creep. And many of them ended up doing the easiest things, rather than the most difficult things.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as you know, today reacted by saying, look, we have unsung successes absolutely every day.

Yet, you found a general in the Pentagon who was involved in tracking all this who said, it’s so complex, he said, that we can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.

Is there really a debate within the community about whether this is making us more safe?

DANA PRIEST: Well, absolutely.

I think — I think that, on the surface, everybody thinks that, you know, we’re much more prepared for a simultaneous attack by airliners. You know, that would be very unusual and very surprising if that ever happened again.

But given the resources that we have put on this, the question is, are we getting what we think we’re getting out of it? And what these officials are saying is, they just can’t tell, because it’s gotten so big, and not any — nobody or not enough people have the reach and the visibility over the entire thing to be able to judge that, and certainly not the director of national intelligence, who is supposed to be doing this.

That’s a position that is never given the authority that I think most Americans think that it was given. And it’s turned out, through a succession of directors, not to really be able to do the sort of directing and focusing that people intended it to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is anyone — is there any serious effort under way to revamp this?

Or — let me turn it around. Do you think that the people you — involved at the highest levels of this community were surprised by what they read in your report, or do they know it, and it’s just so big and unwieldy that there’s no way to get a handle on it?

DANA PRIEST: I think it’s the latter.

I think that people do know this problem. In fact, there is an on-the-record State Department briefing that says, well, we knew this was an issue. Well — well, they know it’s an issue. They know — they can feel it, but I am pretty certain that they don’t have all the parameters of the problem, because that was another one of our surprising findings, that — of the lack of information about other agencies within the intelligence world, that people would ask us, well, what did you find over there?

We found that more than two dozen agencies are looking at the same issue of, for instance, counterterror financing, looking at the money flow from terrorist organizations. And they don’t even know all — everyone else that is involved in it. So, how you can coordinate, if you can’t even get a — you don’t even know everybody to invite to the table?

So, this lack of information is — is one of the things that’s impeding any kind of change.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, and you went to see the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and you described him sitting at his desk with all these, you know, I don’t know drives and so on, and all these information flows with Internet networks that can’t even talk to each other.

DANA PRIEST: Right. And this is five years after that office was stood up.

Yes, he sits in front of a bank of computer monitors and a stack of hard drives at his feet. And he has to go through — over one after another during the day, because they can’t fuse the intelligence together. And he said, “Well, I can get all my e-mail now on the same computer.”

And that was progress to him.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Dana Priest of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

DANA PRIEST: Thanks for having me.