Dana Priest: Top Secret America Is “Here to Stay”

A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post Priest is the author, along with William Arkin, of Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. Here she takes FRONTLINE through the rapid growth of Top Secret America, which began with an impulse to secrecy and a blank check from Congress in the days after 9/11, and which now employs nearly a million people at 1,900 private companies and 1,300 federal organizations. “These are gigantic edifices that are going to stay,” she says. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 18, 2011.

[What happens after 9/11?]

I think the first thing that happens is sheer panic. … The CIA, the FBI, they have a notion of who did this, but they don’t know much about the Al Qaeda organization. And Congress is completely stunned. They weren’t getting a lot of briefings on Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden hadn’t been mentioned in a National Intelligence Estimate [NIE] since 1997.

I just think that we have accepted what it is the government says we need to do without questioning how much money it costs, without questioning whether it’s effective or not. And in part we’ve done that because we’ve accepted the secrecy that surrounds it all.

The White House had actually become more concerned about terrorism under Clinton, and particularly about Osama bin Laden, but they had been keeping it more and more secret. As they got more and more worried, they were worried that information would leak out and somehow get overseas and end up foiling whatever intelligence they could manage to get at the time. So they shrunk the number of people with access to the most highly classified information on the threat. Counterintuitive, but that’s what happens after 9/11 as well.

So really, everyone was shocked. People thought there were sleeper cells in the United States, that there was another plot under way. It was sheer panic.

And the reaction?

The reaction in Congress, which becomes so important in our story, is they really wrote a blank check. … The money flowed out. And there weren’t very many constraints on it at all. There definitely wasn’t any sort of oversight of what was going on with the money, because, again, people were worried. …

And so George Bush, for example, gave the CIA a billion dollars right off the bat, because the CIA was in the best position, not the military, to go after bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan. And he gave them a billion dollars, and he also ordered the military to do whatever it took to support the CIA. …

They did the same thing with the NSA. Lots of money poured into the National Security Agency, which was the eavesdropper around the world. And they couldn’t grow fast enough. Not only were they asked to eavesdrop in many different places that they weren’t used to doing — not just capitals and not just leaders of countries, which is really what they were doing, mostly, prior to 9/11. They would want to know what a leader was saying or what an opposition group was saying. And they would report those conversations back.

They had to become more nimble and work at a lower level, because of course Osama bin Laden was not a leader, and the people who surrounded him did not live in palaces and didn’t visit embassies. So that agency grew very quickly as well.

And in order to grow quickly, because that’s what everyone was demanding, you couldn’t hire federal workers through this cumbersome federal-worker process. And not only that, but politically, people didn’t want to be seen as growing government. Members on the Hill, the Republican administration, nobody was in favor of growing the government.

So they actually made it much easier to hire outsiders, to hire contractors to work temporarily, than they did to hire federal workers. And that also remains a characteristic of what happens over the next 10 years, where any agency that wanted to grow quickly would go to the private sector, to corporations that saw an opportunity here to make a lot of money, to get into an area that no one was into yet, or very few players were into.

So you had this boom in the corporate intelligence world as well. Companies like CACI, big defense contractors, all of them — Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, you name them, L-3, just all the old-fashioned, industrial, “We’re building ships and submarines”-type corporations quickly moved into the intelligence and information space, because this war was not a war that required a lot of tanks, a lot of fighter jets. It required information. And information flows in a different way and is analyzed by machines rather than, again, destroyers [that] are going to fire missiles.

… Tell me about the impulse to secrecy, almost from the very beginning.

There was an impulse to secrecy from the beginning. I think initially it came from an unknown threat, the idea that they didn’t know who the enemy was; they didn’t know where the enemy was. So they wanted to just clamp down all information available.

I saw this over at the Pentagon. I’d covered that building for a decade, and people were fairly open about operations. It wasn’t easy, but you could get people to explain what the government was doing.

This changed overnight. There were directives that would go out from Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld that said, “This information shall not be shared,” and they didn’t. They didn’t share threat information with reporters certainly, or with the public.

So I think you began, right from the start, to set the basis for a secrecy that grows and grows and envelops more and more facets of this world, without anyone questioning, “Should this be secret or not?” …

On Sept. 17, just six days — not even a week — after 9/11, President Bush signs his first presidential finding directed at Al Qaeda. A presidential finding is something that Congress requires of the executive branch in order to carry out a covert operation by the CIA. …

The finding says — basically, it’s an open-ended finding that says: “Go after bin Laden and his terrorist network. Kill and capture them and their supporters.” And “their supporters” is a large category, becomes interpreted in a broad way to mean people who are financing Al Qaeda, affiliates who are located in different parts of the world.

That sets in motion the largest covert action program since the height of the Cold War. And many people inside the agency will say it’s even larger than that, because it’s a framework; it’s called Greystone. … Greystone is the umbrella for the covert action program that the CIA undertakes. It has hundreds of programs within it, everything from the targeting of bin Laden and his network, and all that takes people on the ground, under cover, the NSA wiretaps and surveillance, the locating assets that will help you out.

Pretty quickly it also includes, where do we keep captives who are going — we hope — to give us information? Who’s going to do the interrogations? What are the rules for interrogations? Where are we going to hold these people? …

Everyone was working on the fly, I think doing the best they can, panicked, with all the money they needed and few handcuffs, very few handcuffs. …

Our own secret army gets created on the military side, to match the secret CIA “army,” for lack of a better word.

Right. The CIA, before 9/11, had a relatively small paramilitary force in their Special Activities Division. But after 9/11, first of all, the place to be was the Counterterrorism Center. A lot of money went there. People were redirected, detailed there from other places in the agency. And not so slowly, the agency becomes a paramilitary organization. …

So they, too, started to grow in the Special Activities Division. They hire back quickly former military Special Forces that can help them, that can make the organization bigger. And they go in with the JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] forces into Afghanistan right away.

And what changes, in terms of the rest of us who were consuming it as Americans on the news, is we don’t really know —

We have no idea. We have no idea what’s going on. I remember just thinking, how are they fighting this war? When you cover the military, that’s basically what you want to know. If it’s an air war, which was the last war, in Kosovo, what was the strategy? Go after tanks individually? Go after leadership targets? What is the strategy? And does it look like it’s going to get you where you want to be?

So that was the first question that I asked, and a lot of other people were asking: What is this war? And you couldn’t see it, and no one would talk to you about it. We didn’t really know about the teams going in for months and months.

So, what kind of war was it? … 

[The CIA] offered a game plan that involved going into countries that weren’t necessarily our enemies — first of all, the Philippines, parts of Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia. You’re not really going to go and kill people in those countries, although there were plenty of proposals to do that. There were even proposals to go into Germany and Italy and other European allies and just take people off the streets that you thought were involved with the network. And there were some attempts to do that. Most of them were found out and didn’t end up so well.

So they wanted to target, first of all, bin Laden and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, his number two, and to go and destroy the training camps. So they mapped that out as far as Afghanistan goes and got great help from the Northern Alliance, who the CIA in particular had kept in contact with, had funded up through 9/11. So they had people to help them figure out the topography and the organization of Al Qaeda and the geography of a very difficult area to operate. …

The other thing that happens is the way they are thinking about the enemy changes from what we had thought about the enemy before. … They viewed Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization, not an army. “Unlawful combatants” is what they called them. So they were illegally fighting this war, because they weren’t using the laws of war, because they weren’t using any sort of fairness in their combat. … They used asymmetric warfare, which is very hard for the U.S. to adjust to in the beginning. [It] involved suicide bombers, and it involved plots carried out by very small groups of Al Qaeda, adherence with incredible security and no way really to penetrate.

So, looking back on that period, that little window, the 42 days of Afghanistan, the beginnings of secret things we didn’t even know were happening, what were the clues about how things would change over the next nine-plus years? Was there a trend, an orientation, an idea that got started?

There are a few. The first one was I remember Cofer Black, the head of the [CIA] Counterterrorism Center, giving congressional testimony. Part of it was open. So members of Congress wanted to know: “What is this threat? What is Al Qaeda? And what are you doing about it?” So he could talk about what is Al Qaeda, and he could talk about the general threat, which is ongoing, serious; we’d better get our act together.

What he didn’t talk about, in any way, is what they were doing about it, except to say, “All you need to know is that there was a before 9/11 and an after 9/11, and after 9/11, the gloves come off.”

And I remember sitting in there. I mean, already we were frustrated that we couldn’t figure out what they were doing and whether they were making any progress — which is not just because I’m curious; it’s because no government institution works well without some pressure from the outside, whatever that is. Whether it’s Congress, whether it’s the media, whether it’s just political pressure from the public, everyone needs to be nudged to do the right thing, to do more good things and less of inefficient things. And here, none of that was going to happen, because it was all secret. …

We had already found out that the CIA had fired an armed Predator at a car driving in the desert in Yemen in order to kill a senior Al Qaeda leader, [Abu Ali] al-Harithi, who happened to be driving in the car with a U.S. citizen. And the CIA knew he was in the car with the U.S. citizen. And their whole goal was to kill him, to wipe him off the face of the earth.

And they did it with a weapon that we didn’t know they had, in a way that we had never seen anybody do anything like this before, so it just begged so many questions: Is this assassination? What rules are they operating under? What about that American citizen? Is that OK? Is he supposed to be tried in Yemen, [which is] not a country we’re at war [with]? Do they have permission from Yemen? Is this a covert action? Are they going to do more of this? Have they already done dozens?

So here you’re seeing a new tactic, that all around it requires a new way of thinking about the enemy, because you wouldn’t have been able to do this under the regular laws of war. …  So when they are developing that whole idea, they’re also developing a whole legal framework that allows them to do all of these things that, when we find out about them later, have real legal questions surrounding them.

So you know something’s up.

I know something. I know from the military people who were on the ground pretty quickly that not everybody was going into the military penal system. So where were they going? And what were they doing with them?

And a lot of my attention was focused on that, because it’s the hard questions that really make us who we are, not the easy ones. …

And what’s the question?

The question is, what are they doing with the prisoners? If the prisoners aren’t in military facilities, where are they? Are they in secret military facilities? Are they in CIA facilities?

And then, how are they getting information? We’re being told that information is so important, that intelligence is so important, that this is a little network that is decentralized and you can’t eavesdrop on them in the same way, so you have to get people to tell you things about them. How are they getting people to tell? Are they using the military rules for interrogations?

And then we’re starting to hear that no, things are really much harsher. After months of reporting and hearing a lot of tidbits about new rules, harsher tactics, interrogations not in military prisons, someone uses the term, “Well, these are called ‘stress and duress’ techniques.” And that sort of crystallizes — stress and duress techniques. That doesn’t sound like the military rules. …

And every time they capture a big fish, we want to know: “Where is he being kept? Who’s holding him?

Like who, KSM?

Yeah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah, who came before him. Is the FBI involved? Who’s in charge?

So you’ve got these questions in your head.

And I’ve got tidbits of answers. … I just don’t know it enough to put it together in a story with enough sources. But I’m talking to people I’ve talked to forever, and they’re saying, “The FBI is pulling out,” or, “There’s a fight between the FBI and the CIA over tactics. There are some prisoners that are being harshly treated. They’re withholding the medicine from this person or that person in order to get them to talk. They’re not giving them food.”

So you’re putting that together with this group of CIA and JSOC people who are going in to do the dirty work, to capture or kill. So there are just more and more questions. … It’s like someone has cut up each puzzle piece, and I have to put together a puzzle piece first before you can put it on the puzzle board. …

It took us a long time to realize, probably years and years to realize how many different, semi-independent American forces were operating in Afghanistan. There was the Army Special Forces that were not clandestine, the “white” SFG [Special Forces Group]. There was the JSOC troops that are completely different, the Navy Seals, the Delta Force. They were working with the CIA at times, and sometimes not.

Then there was the CIA paramilitary operation. So you had at least three before you had any regular Army troops come in, and that was largely afterward in the nation-building end of things. It was really the Special Forces that did everything up until the aftermath.

And these aren’t the kind of forces where you can embed a reporter and go out with the units and file reports every day.

No, no, no. … There were two ways to cover it. One is to risk your life to go to Afghanistan without being embedded with the military, and you’re just traveling around. And a lot of people did that, and some of them got killed. A lot of brave reporters [went] there.

And the other way from here was getting people in the military and in the intelligence world and in the worlds that they touch to describe what the heck was happening. And there were enough individuals willing to do that because they were proud of what was happening, or they were worried about aspects of what was happening, or they were really frustrated they couldn’t find out more of what was happening, since so much was at stake.

And so you meet people not at work. You make calls from different places. You figure out the areas in Washington that are isolated but not isolated, that people are going to feel comfortable meeting. Lots of work at night. I felt like I was working twice as much because I’d go into the office during the day to see what I could do over the phones.

And then I’d have a second shift at night where really, I found out more things. People didn’t want to talk on the phone, and you had to be pretty resourceful in making them feel comfortable, in trying to say — and I totally believe this is what my goal was — was to tell the context of what they were doing, not just what they were doing, because once you started to realize what they were doing, it was pretty surprising. But it had a context. It was very interesting. And it was only fair to put it in, which is, they were panicked. They didn’t know what to do. They hadn’t done this before. People were demanding that they get on the ground now. And they did. And they did it with some measures that now we think are not so wise. …

What is the story of the black sites?

… In the investigation of the black sites, I found a worldwide system of about two dozen prisons throughout the world, run by the CIA, paid [for] by the CIA, organized by the CIA, but with cooperation from other countries. …

It’s weird to look back on it, because now you say: “Aha. Well, yeah, it’s this whole big complex thing. And there were prisons around the world,” and blah blah blah. But we didn’t know any of that. It’s really like just parting the curtain a little bit, and you see a little leg of something, or you see a little ankle. You don’t know what animal it is. You don’t know anything about it.

So in the beginning it starts with, again, this stress and duress idea, and this notion that there’s a physical space that is different from the military facilities.

And I happened to have been at the place in Bagram where it was located, and I didn’t know at the time that it was located there. But I was reporting for my book, and I was following a civil affairs team. And so, I was at Bagram base.

There was a place on Bagram that reminded me of the Special Forces compound that I had seen before in Kosovo, where it was just covered with black tarp so you couldn’t see anything from the outside. Even the regular Army troops could not know what was behind this.

And then there were a lot of antennas sticking up and a lot of camouflage over it and that sort of thing. So it was lots of communications equipment. And it turned out that that was also –behind that was another fence, and behind that another fence. And in there, there was a detention facility that JSOC and the CIA were using to bring their captives and to interrogate them.

So that was the first time when it sort of really gelled that there was a place that was separate from all other places that they were using to hold people with rules that were only their rules, because they wouldn’t need that place if they didn’t have different rules.

And then I kept poking around at that. And then this idea — well, how are they getting them there? — that led to the rendition flights.

The idea that there were CIA planes taking captives around the world came about because in Indonesia, some reporters got tipped off by an airport worker that there had been a plane that had landed and was stationed at the wrong side of the airport in the dark. And there were men in black who had gotten out to hustle in the captive, who was all wrapped up. That was reported in Indonesia, and that eventually made its way around the world.

There was a tail number that somebody had. … Once we got that one tail number, then we could dissect that plane and figure out from FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] records and other records and plane spotters, these hobbyists who go out on the end of runways with binoculars and just follow what planes take off and land, were able to put together a diagram of where that plane went.

At the same time, I’m working the sources to try to figure out what this plane is, how was it bought, when was it bought, what does it do. I have some luck in that regard, because people are worried about what this program is for lots of different reasons. Some are worried that it’s illegal. Some are worried that it’s unethical. Some are worried that the CIA is going to get blamed when it comes out.

Eventually, what I find out, in a way that’s printable, is that nobody had any plan, and so the agency got stuck with doing this. They wanted the military to help them out. The military lawyers eventually said: “No way. This is too unconventional for us.” So they take it up. And they have a whole contract Air Force that goes around and flies captives from one place to another.

And I made trips overseas. I talked to foreign intelligence people. I talked to former and current intelligence officials, trying to put together what this entire program looked like and where it began and what the status of it was and eventually discovered that there were about a dozen secret prisons. I was able to find the locations of several of them in Eastern Europe. …

… You find yourself deciding to cover the roots, the root structure. What was that? What happened there? What is the impulse? …

The first impulse comes when I start to realize how JSOC is so important. And that’s an organization that’s even more secret than the CIA, … which I found amazing, because they really don’t have the mission that is more secret than the CIA, but somehow they’ve managed to keep themselves more secret. …

They have a military structure around them that is big, Special Operations Command. It’s a big command. It’s a growing command. I’ve been to their operations center now, and it’s three stories tall, video walls on video walls, looking everywhere in the world. It’s gigantic.

[They have] contractors that are developing technologies for them, and that is replicated. So I’m having many little experiences like that — “Have you heard about the Army’s intelligence command out at Fort Mead?,” an organization that, after covering the military for 10 years, I hadn’t heard about. It’s gigantic. And its job is to work intelligence and counterintelligence for the Army. …

Does it come to you as a sort of all-encompassing “Oh my God”?

As the reference, I have the Eisenhower speech, the “military-industrial complex,” because it’s exactly what’s happening, except it’s not industrial; it’s intelligence. And because it’s intelligence, it’s all secret. So all those great defense appropriations hearings that we could go to and write about the Seawolf submarine, and did we need another two of them at several billion dollars a pop, we can’t do any of that, because it’s all classified. So this world is growing up behind the black wall that you can’t get at. …

[What was behind the creation of the Department of Homeland Security?]

That’s a good question. To look at the creation of DHS, you have to know how badly the FBI was doing at the time. It really didn’t have its act together vis-à-vis counterterrorism, and the terrorism unit was pretty small.

I remember talking to Mike Rolince, who was an FBI official until recently. He worked counterterrorism for most of his career. He came down from Boston in ’98, after the embassy bombings, to work Al Qaeda, and sat in a Marriott Hotel conference room, where John O’Neill from the World Trade Center and New York division was talking about Al Qaeda and mentioned UBL, the leader of Al Qaeda.

And Rolince, even though he had already spent years working terrorism, had never heard of UBL and had to ask, “What’s UBL?” And his point was that their attitude was, “If you’re not on the case, you have no need to know.” So he had worked Hezbollah; he had worked Hamas; he had worked other terrorist organizations. But he didn’t know, in 1998, who UBL was, who Osama bin Laden was.

So the FBI was pretty darn dysfunctional when it comes to terrorism, except for very small pockets of it who knew a lot about it, but who got shunted aside in all this war effort overseas, in part because they wouldn’t play ball on the interrogations.

So I think the other thing that happens is, President Bush and Congress want to show the American people that they’re going to do things differently, that they’re taking this more seriously.

They want to show that this is a new world, and so they create a new agency for the new world. And it’s Defense of the Homeland, just so that everybody knows what our priority is. It’s not well constructed. …

How giant is it?

DHS becomes 250,000 people working there. Half of them are contractors still today, because they can’t hire enough people, because people don’t know what they’re doing. People in government to this day don’t want to work there, and to this day don’t actually know what value added they give. …

Does anybody know what it’s designed to do?

The most concrete thing it does do is that it takes an inventory of the critical infrastructure in the country and then figures out ways to protect it. And it also has been involved with border security in every possible way — things that come across the border: people, cargo, vehicles. Those are the two most concrete things that it does.

It’s literally created overnight, 17, 18 agencies all thrown together.

Reorganized. And the heads of the intelligence community are just sitting there, watching that, saying: “This isn’t the right time to reorganize things. We’re fighting a war here. We’re running as fast as we can. Our people are working 24/7. Why are you doing this?”

But it becomes also, from what I can tell — it’s like a candy store, a funnel of money. It becomes maybe the fire hose from which everybody says, “Spend, spend, spend.” They’ve [spent] around somewhere in excess of $300 billion in the last nine years.

Yeah. What they’ve done — and the reason why they are popular in the states — is that they have subsidized state spending on security, broadly and vaguely defined. So if you are willing to set up a fusion center, which is a new thing to bring all the police department, sheriff department, law enforcement information together that may or may not have to do with terrorism, if you want to set up a fusion center, you can get money from DHS.

And you can get it to actually support crime fighting, because DHS now realizes that there’s not a full-time job to be done in every state on terrorism. So it doesn’t actually mind if you use all of its money to actually fight crime. And the states who were desperate to get more money to do that will play along, because they need it. … It’s morphed into really crime fighting, even though they don’t have a crime-fighting mandate. …

They’re building a new building that is almost as big as the Pentagon. And it’s in a place that no one ever goes, geographically, so people won’t be able to see how big it is, really, unless you work there.

And still, the agencies that fight terrorism do not include DHS in their main group. They include them out of courtesy. They include them because they do have money to help the states.

They don’t collect any intelligence. They analyze other people’s intelligence. They have struggled to put out bulletins that are worth anything, that are precise enough that they don’t waste people’s time. …

Anytime you talk about DHS with anybody, the word “dysfunctional” is in the conversation. And yet it’s not going away. This building, which is just under construction, is years away from being finished. And then you’ll have a permanent building. You know, that’s why these buildings are so symbolic, because they symbolize the permanency of this world that’s grown up all around us. …

So you guys go looking for “Top Secret America,” and you piece together what you found. What did you piece together, and what did you find?

I have to say we started not actually knowing how we would do this, because obviously we can’t get into these buildings and into the workplaces. So we wanted to make it visual anyway, and we wanted to be able to figure out what was the scale.

So we decided that we could count them. Just like the secret prisons, everything had to live somewhere. And the planes, they have to have tail numbers; well, buildings have to have a place to be and records that go into getting them electricity and lighting. So [there was] a lot of data searching. …

We started to try to find all the government agencies that do secret work. And within a couple weeks, we decided there are just too many, so we’ll up the ante to top secret, which is really going into an elite level. And even then, after 2.5 years, we found nearly a million people, 860,000 people have top secret clearance in this country. That’s about 2.5 times the size of the District of Columbia itself.

And another 1,900 private companies also work at the top secret level. And there are another 1,100 federal government organizations that do work at the top secret level. And if you were to put all those on a map, you would have 17,000 locations, because a lot of the companies and a lot of the agencies have multiple buildings.

So that’s a rather gigantic world.

That’s in cities all over America.

It is. Those 17,000 dots, those are spread out throughout the entire country, but they’re clustered in certain areas. The capital of Top Secret America is located around the National Security Agency, which is about 35 miles north of Washington, D.C. …

Eventually we discovered that this was something that happened everywhere. You’d get an agency, and then clustered around that, you would have subagencies and private contractors that would feed its needs. So you’ve got kind of a microclimate everywhere.

And really, by the time we were done, and we could put the dots on the map, you had an alternative geography of the United States, a secret geography that is so important, that guides how this country keeps itself safe, and yet it is not revealed to the public, even though it may be next to your back door.

Some of these buildings are behind high walls and berms. You can’t even see them from the road, even though they’re five, six, seven stories tall.

Some of them are in rural areas. I visited one CIA training facility in Virginia that is next to a nice English-cottage-looking house and around the corner from some tract homes. And unbeknownst to them, on top of a mountain, there’s a giant training facility. Or Crystal City, Va., which is an underground location that was built for the Pentagon, their overflow, in the 1970s, and that has become another hub of Top Secret America.

We were really impressed by how many buildings this was. And while buildings are not going to tell you everything, they became for us a way to symbolize how big Top Secret America had become. …

So we see the buildings. We know 860,000 people plus a lot of contractors work in these buildings. What’s going on in there? What’s actually happening?

Well, that’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s top secret, but in general, … it’s about information, intelligence, and the way that you pass that around the world, literally around the world, within seconds.

So a lot of those buildings are either involved in the technology that it requires to move a piece of information from Afghanistan over to the NSA and back, or to a million other places it needs to go, analyzing information. A lot of it is IT, information technology, that the government needs in order to communicate with one another, to analyze the 1.2 billion pieces of intercept information that the NSA gets every day, to grind through that information, to mine it for what sort of tips that it might have.

And a lot of it also goes into creating presentations for policy leaders. I have been shocked at how many places I’ve gone to — and this is true especially for the federal fusion centers that bring together information from all over the world and fuse it together in one place, and there are 33 of those alone in the Washington area — a lot of what that is, it’s like the newest version of the PowerPoint slide, because they have this information, they fuse it together, they put it on a chart, they present it to the head of the organization, but that’s it. I mean, nobody there is making a decision about what to do. No one there is planning an operation. It’s a lot of just informing policy-makers.

Information for its own sake.

Information for its own sake, right. And then there’s so much data being collected, there’s so much intelligence being gobbled up from voice and videos and imagery of every sort, that there’s nowhere to store it.

So the government is continually opening new data warehouses where it is storing server after server, aisle after aisle of servers, where it will store all this information. In fact, the newest one is in Utah; $1.7 billion is going to be spent on that one just to store the government’s newest overflow of information.

And it’s all top secret. We don’t know anything about most of it, supposedly.

We were able to categorize the types of activity that each of these agencies do. Do they do counterterror finance, looking for the money flow? Do they do counterintelligence, trying to find spies? Do they do targeting, putting together target packages for someone out in the field to try to kill or capture a terrorist? Do they do protection of forces, which is a huge thing, protection of U.S. forces overseas?

What we found in the years immediately after 9/11 was that the existing agencies grew enormously. They doubled in size, many of them, and that new organizations were created as well, big ones.

In 2002, there were 34 new organizations working at the top secret level, created to look at counterterrorism; in ’03, 39; in ’04, 30; in ’05, 34. It goes on and on and on. Every year, more than two dozen, sometimes three dozen entirely new federal organizations dedicated to counterterrorism [were] being created after 9/11.

And the reason for that was that there was the money available. There was no one in charge who could say, “Well, we’re doing that five times already.” And duplication of effort, useless duplication of effort, is one of the major problems we found in our investigation. …

So they appointed the Director of National Intelligence to be in charge of everything. That person has the responsibility to be in charge, but doesn’t have the authority to do anything about it. So he can’t actually tell those three organizations to go away.

Do you want to know about the 50,000 intelligence reports that are produced each year?

Yes, that’s a good one. Who can read 50,000 reports?

Intelligence analysis is really the crux of everything, because you might see a group of people on the ground, but unless your analysts can help you figure out who they are and match them up with something else they know, you might not know that it’s actually Al Qaeda. So intelligence analysis is key to everything.

However, just like everything else, the government went overboard in allowing so many people to do analysis, many of them without much experience. Every year the analytic community in the 16 intelligence agencies produce about 50,000 different reports, and the DNI said: “This is crazy. Nobody is reading all of these. Let’s look at which ones we can get rid of, and let’s bring together all the best reporting every day.”

So what they did is they created yet another report called Intelligence Today — it’s sort of like a newspaper — culling together what’s supposed to be the best of all of them. And I talked to some people about that, and their response was sort of rolling their eyes — “This is another report” — because what happens is the policy-makers get flooded with this. They open their e-mail, their inbox, and they see this, and there’s no way that they can absorb it all. So what tends to happen is they throw up their hands, they get their agency’s intel briefer, and they say, “Well, you tell me what’s important.” And that person does what, by nature, they will do, which is to look inside their own agency and say, “Well, what is important?”

So it sort of defeats the whole purpose of setting up these systems that can share all this information if what you’re sharing is so vast, and a lot of it is exactly the same as everything else. There’s few golden nuggets in there. People just turn off.

There’s always been a thirst for information. … But in the years since 9/11, it quadrupled to some level of, what, insanity? What is it now? Is it just out of control?

It is out of control. The amount of information that comes into the U.S. government writ large every day is out of control. They can’t stay stop because there might be something valuable in there, but they’re not going to find what it is because there’s so much to go through.

And because so many people have been allowed to bring in new information and to analyze it, it’s diffused. It’s supposed to all come together in the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC], located next to the DNI’s operation in McLean, [Va].

But if you remember back to the case of the Nigerian who attempted to hijack the airliner on Christmas Day, the “Christmas Day bomber,” [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab], the lesson of that story was, even though they had analysts looking at all the information coming in for real, live, potential threats, the information on that person was buried in the 5,000 other pieces of information that the Counterterrorism Center gets every day that is considered to be worth looking at. They haven’t figured out a way to filter it to the point where they’re only getting the unique information. It’s still coming in the flood. And prioritizing is still a problem.

So in that case, all the pieces were there, but not only was it [that] the pieces were at the bottom of the haystack, but, as the DNI said in the aftermath of that, nobody was in charge of running down the leads to the end. …

[How did there come to be a Director of National Intelligence?]

The 9/11 Commission actually suggested that the country have a director of intelligence to make sure that all the different agencies would share their dots, and who could be in charge of the agencies in order to make sure that they weren’t overlapping, that they were playing well together, that they were getting efficiencies out of the system.

So that was a good idea on paper. But once it hit the sausage-making, law-making apparatus known as Congress, it pretty much fell apart, because the committees that have the jurisdiction over intelligence and the military, which has the largest intelligence components, they were not going to give up any of their power. … And then the agencies didn’t want to do that either, because they didn’t want to lose power.

So you had just the quintessential response from Washington, which is, “Well, I’m not going to give up my power.” And so you had a DNI nonetheless put in place who had little power. …

And the moral of that story is what?

The moral of the story is big is not always better. And in Washington, you can’t reorganize the entire government all at once in the middle of a crisis. And you can’t do that for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is nobody’s going to give up their political power in order for that to occur. …

But the other thing is, things did need to change. Those intelligence agencies did need to share. First, they needed to get more dots. So that’s a lot of what the effort is, is building technology, creating sources and that sort of thing to actually figure out what’s going on in the world. But then they needed to analyze that and share it with one another so that they could cross-reference what they had with what other people had, and see if 2 and 2 equaled 4 and you got somebody that you wanted to get.

So that was a good idea. It’s just that it didn’t work in practice because these other agencies were so strong, and they resisted it. And then Congress resisted it because they didn’t want to give up their power bases.

And yet, as we hear the tale from you, in classic Top Secret America fashion, it doesn’t go away because it didn’t work. …

It started out 11 people in the Old Executive Office Building. It grew to a couple hundred. Eventually it moved over to the big Defense Intelligence Agency office. It had two whole floors of this massive building, but that still wasn’t big enough. So they moved to some of the priciest real estate in the Washington area. And now they are gigantic — 500,000 square feet, five Wal-Marts stacked on top of each other. And if you ask most people in the intelligence world, they don’t know exactly what they do still. So yeah, the lesson there is bigger is not always better, I think.

And if you also try to say, “Well, what does work?,” that’s where you’ll find the opposite to be true. What seems to work? The organizations that actually find terrorists are the FBI in the United States, the 5,000 people, not a lot compared to Top Secret America, but the 5,000 FBI agents focused on counterterrorism, with the help from others; the CIA, relatively small organization; JSOC and the CIA go and capture and kill. Those all are very small organizations who, within them, they share. Within those groups, they share within themselves. But it’s not this big, giant behemoth that it works out [of].

Speaking of behemoths, let’s go back to DHS for a minute. … They like the idea of fusion centers. What’s a fusion center, and how many of them did they fund and send out there? Maybe you don’t need to know the exact number, but I know every state at least has one. …

What DHS wants to do is to turn all of the local and state law enforcement personnel into the tipsters for the FBI, into the front-line foot soldiers looking for possible terrorists, suspicious activity. And they are funding now those people to be aware of things that they weren’t aware of before, and to send their information, their tips, their Suspicious Activity Reports [SARs], they call them, into a state fusion center. …

There’s at least one fusion center in every state. In some there are three. And I’ve been to eight or nine of them, and they’re all pretty much the same. They get this information in. Their analysts look at it. Their analysts pass it over to the FBI, to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which has the lead on terrorism, and they keep it also in their database. And then they send out reports to their local law enforcement about this information.

The problem is, most of the information is so vague that you can’t really make anything of it, or how they define suspicious is suspicious; it’s very vague. Someone walks by a federal building a number of times; someone takes a picture of a bridge. I saw a Suspicious Activity Report of a Middle Eastern-looking man who took a cell phone camera and took a picture of a boat, a ferry that was parked nearby. Got back in his car, came back out of the car, took another picture of it. Got back near his car, was joined by his family and a friend. They got on the ferry; they took off.

And that still was a suspicious activity. So now this guy’s description, because he went into a car, his license plate number — because they have this license plate number, they now can go into many different databases, criminal and also noncriminal databases that they can get a lot of information on this person who had taken a picture of the ferry.

And the FBI has set up the eGuardian database. The DHS has set up a similar database, where all these suspicious activities are supposed to be reported and live, just there so that investigators can decide whether there is a nexus to terrorism. And if there’s not, they put it out. If there is, then they can start a full investigation.

But the vast majority of this information they can’t figure out one way or the other. So it just stays there, waiting for another piece of information to come in that will reveal something — either, well, that same car was spotted over, taking a picture of a bridge somewhere else, or something that will exonerate the person who took the picture. …

Are cops on the beat really the first and best line of defense? …

DHS will say that there aren’t enough FBI agents, so we have to have eyes everywhere. And the FBI, if you actually get them to speak honestly, which no one will do on the record, they’re happy to have the tips. They haven’t gotten too much out of it yet. … The vast majority of terrorism plots that have been real, those have been through traditional investigations by the FBI.

So the law enforcement have not yielded a lot of great information yet, but what they have done is they’ve created a lot of enthusiasm among police officers who would like to join the national effort to stop the next 9/11. And so, as you can imagine, these people are very gung-ho. They want to know: “Well, OK, you’ve asked me to do this. What’s terrorism?” DHS hasn’t come through with very much training. The FBI doesn’t have time to do much training.

So they have gone out, a lot of these departments now, and hired their own terrorism experts. While some of them may be fine and good, there are a growing number who are misleading departments into believing this very radical view of Islam, and that most Muslims are actually radicals, most Muslims would like to engage in jihad. And they’re really fomenting a very anti-Muslim view of the world. And they’re doing it with law enforcement officers who aren’t getting a different point of view, necessarily.

I asked DHS about this, and they said, “Well, you know, we can’t be responsible for certifying every trainer.” But their lack of involvement — now, they’ve sort of unleashed this force but aren’t being involved in how to educate it.

And we see not only these lecturers who have this point of view, but we also see, time and again, different states going off the rail. In the hunt for terrorists, they are monitoring lawful, peaceful demonstrators, everyone from the Tea Party to anti-war demonstrators to environmental groups, animal rights groups. Time and again we’ve heard stories in more than a dozen states now where local police have surveilled, collected information on, analyzed the workings of people who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism, and whose right to do what they’re doing is protected. …

[How did we get to the Terrorist Surveillance Program?]

I think it goes back to the moments after 9/11. The leaders of the country thought there was going to be another attack. … I think the initial thought was one of panic, was one of “We have to change things [where] the law is telling us we can’t go; we have to go past that now.”

The people inside government, the leaders inside government, I think they were very willing to do that. They were doing it in secrecy, so there was no pushback on it. Congress was not pushing back. And the members of Congress that knew about it you could count almost on one hand.

So the oversight was fairly lax at that time. Nobody was in a mood to say: “Well, wait a minute. Are you infringing on privacy?” Privacy versus another 9/11 — there was no real question about what was going to win over that.

What I think happens then, though, is that the panic subsides, but there’s never a moment where the government says: “This is what we think is the problem now. We’ve really learned a lot. We think there are X number of Al Qaeda here. Aside from that, there are other people that we need to be worried about.” Instead it’s just been a steady, if diminished, drumbeat of vague but scary plots and intelligence that has arrived. And we have to do something about it. …

So the things we’ve talked about just in the last little while, …  a lot of things created, but what are they doing? Nobody’s talking about turning them off, right?

No one’s talking about turning them off. And if you really think about what a building is, and the symbol for me of looking at the buildings is that these are permanent; they’re here to stay. It’s not like they’ve got mobile trailers that they’re up in, and then when the floods recede they’re going to take them away. These are gigantic edifices that are going to stay here. So it will be very difficult for anybody politically to rein that in. And this is something I hear all the time. …

We know there’s a lot of waste, billions and billions of dollars of waste. …

Are we safer?

I’ve asked many people in the government that, and a lot of the more thoughtful ones say, “I don’t think we can tell.” I don’t think we can tell, because we can’t see throughout the entire enterprise. We don’t know what’s working. We know some of what’s working. We know there’s a lot of waste, but there’s no one looking at it systemically.

Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates said he wanted to look at his world and go through it and see what was working, what wasn’t working. He empowered a group to look at just the most secret programs called the Special Access Programs [SAPs]. And even in that, which is a much more limited group, they found so many layers of secrecy that nobody knew everything that was being done in that world. The secretary of defense was the only person that could learn everything that was going on, but of course he has many other jobs, so he’s not going to do that. …

Like many reporters, I’ve pushed the government to explain why all this is worth it; just show me the cases that are coming out of it. And I have yet to get a response. I mean, then I’ll push in officially and I’ll say to sources: ”OK, what is this really getting us? And where are the success stories that you can’t talk about?” And I haven’t really gotten much of an answer. So my antenna goes up on that. …

[Talk about the day of Obama's inauguration.] What is in place? What did we see? What was happening to protect him?

What we saw is different than what was happening. What we saw was a pretty flawless ceremony, transfer of power peacefully.

What was happening behind the scenes was phenomenal. It was an unprecedented virtual security vault or cocoon of hundreds of law enforcement, military, state and local police, Secret Service, every federal agency. Fifty-four federal and state agencies were involved in protecting the president and the crowds that came.

They used the most exquisite technology, from the drones and the surveillance aircraft that flew overhead to the scuba diving teams that trolled across the coastline, with Coast Guard cutters. You had sharpshooters out, not just on the buildings in Washington, but on the I-95 going north and south, looking through high-powered binoculars for any strange traffic, trucks, anything like that. You had the license plate scanners, all up and down the Eastern Seaboard really, on alert. The records were coming in from those and being analyzed for any unusual activity. You even had these, they’re called pucks, which are sensors that are in the street. And if something came over it that was too heavy, they would alert whatever. They would alert something.

There were dozens of command posts set up to monitor the FBI agents, law enforcement who were out among the crowd. There were thousands of cameras throughout the city, traffic cameras that were paired with surveillance cameras. And you had real-time video feed of every major intersection, everything around, along the parade route, all of the crowd.

You had an invisible communications system set up in case of an emergency so that the national security apparatus could still communicate while everybody was trying to use their cell phones. So they brought in new equipment for that.

One of my favorite ones is even the particles of dust floating through the city were captured and analyzed at split-second intervals by Navy plume-assessment teams and the Department of Homeland Security’s pathogen detectors, mounted all over the city.

Pathogen detectors?

Yeah, they were looking for bio-agents, biological agents, germ agents. They were analyzing the amount of things like fertilizer that were being bought all throughout this area, in the largest sense of this area.

They were looking at the sales of pharmaceuticals. One idea was that someone may have released a biological agent that would create illness around the time of the inauguration, and that that would be detected early by an increase in [the purchase of] a certain amount of pharmaceuticals.

There were storage facilities that they kept an eye out on, and they talked to owners to see if anybody unusual were renting places. It just went on and on and on. The streams of intelligence were just huge during that day.

And of course, a week before, they had gotten a reasonable tip that there was a plot on the part of a Somalian immigrant to disrupt the inauguration, and they took that seriously, and FBI agents fanned out throughout the country to interview people.

This Somali gambit, whatever it was, it was the real thing. I mean, it was the real thing in the sense that they thought it was real.

They acted as if it was real. So they thought that it could be real, and it turned out not to be. It turned out to be what they call a poison pen, which is a personal motive for ratting out somebody in order to get them in trouble.

When they thought it was real, what did they do?

People pooled their Somali Rolodexes. The FBI went throughout the country to Somali communities and people who know Somali communities, and they interviewed hundreds of people to find out if they knew anything about this.

There had been a group of young men from Minnesota who had gone to Somalia who had disappeared, according to their families, some weeks before that. So they already — and they knew that. They were already worried about that, about the Al Shabab [militant Islamist] organization. And there had been a teenager who had actually, I think he blew himself up in Somalia. He was a suicide bomber, and he was connected to Northern Virginia. They thought that there was some radicalization of local youth from there involved.

What did they think was going to happen?

I don’t know. I’m not sure they knew.

And did the president-elect know?

Yeah, the Bush administration national security team briefed the incoming national security team about that threat every day, I believe every day until the inauguration. And for a very brief moment, it was mentioned that perhaps they should consider canceling the inauguration, which was never taken seriously.

You could imagine, though, that it would get the attention of the newly elected president.

You could imagine that. By that time, he and the team were getting daily briefings, including terrorist briefings. So he would be kept up-to-date on what was happening around the world and domestically vis-à-vis terrorism.

… What does it tell us about Top Secret America on display? And what does it tell us about Americans and our willingness to take our shoes off at airports and do whatever we have to do to stop the threat?

I just think that we have accepted what it is the government says we need to do without questioning how much money it costs, without questioning whether it’s effective or not. And in part we’ve done that because we’ve accepted the secrecy that surrounds it all. …

I also think that we’ve accepted the vague version of what is terrorism that the government has given us. And by that I mean that we need to always be on high alert. We haven’t had, to date, a detailed, serious discussion about terrorism. I mean, we’ve had much greater, in-depth discussions about the drug war, which kills many more people and is very costly, and we know what hasn’t worked. But for some reason, this is still closed off. For some reason, we have accepted that this is still closed off. …

Maybe the economy will force a discussion about resources. Already we’ve seen some leaders talk about that. Gates has mentioned we’re not going to be able to keep spending the way we want to. But because everything is secret, it is difficult for the public, obviously, to weigh in on the value of certain things versus other things and really even ask: “What is it that works? What do you see that works and what doesn’t work?” …

[Has Top Secret America changed under the Obama administration?]

Barack Obama came in to office pledging the new era of transparency, and that clearly has not happened in national security. It is just as opaque as it always was.

And on top of that, you could argue that it’s worse, because this administration has gone after so-called leakers, the leak investigations, in a larger way than the Bush administration [did]. There’s an unprecedented number of indictments and investigations of subjects accused or thought to have released classified information to, usually, reporters. So they are actively trying to stop the flow of that information and using the courts to do that, which the Bush administration, although it criticized reporters, did not do.

In addition, the only things that Obama stopped was the secret sites … and the enhanced interrogation techniques. … So those were two things that were created as secrets; then they were outed; then they were debated. And many people rejected them, so it was pretty safe to disband them.

His administration did a review of all covert actions, and my reporting says that they kept just about everything that has been going on since 9/11. They have taken the previous administration’s drone war and run with it. They’ve increased the number of lethal drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan manyfold. They’ve adopted the targeted killings approach, both on the ground and from the air. The number of organizations working on terrorism has increased. The number of companies working on it has increased.

So as far as Top Secret America goes and the structure that’s now firmly in place to do all this, this administration has only furthered that. They’ve done nothing to roll it back. They’ve done very little to look inside of it, to say: “What is it that works? What doesn’t work? What do we really need? And in this time of economic hardship, what don’t we need?”

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