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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

What to make of ‘Top Secret America?’

Top Secret America,” the result of a two-year project by veteran national security reporter Dana Priest and William Arkin, is making waves for its eye-popping revelations. Among them: the intelligence community (IC) has grown “exponentially” since 9/11, with more than 850,000 people possessing top secret clearances and working on projects so numerous, and costing so much money, that no one really knows how big the IC is or what it really does. This vast enterprise produces nearly 50,000 intelligence reports every single year, a volume so overwhelming that most of them are never read.

So what’s the big deal?

Seeing it all in one place

While more than a few journalists have tracked the intelligence community over the years, most have focused only on contracting and outsourcing. For example, Tim Shorrock, whose 2008 book Spies for Hire recounts many of the problems with relatively unregulated intelligence contracting, has been following the issues surrounding the so-called “outsourcing” of the IC since 2005. He even assembled a searchable database of intelligence contractors, and routinely blogs about what they are up to. Jeremy Scahill, a reporter at the Nation, focuses on security contractors and documents their activities (Scahill wrote a damning article on Blackwater’s secret activities in Pakistan).

But Priest and Arkin expand their discussion to the IC as a whole — the story, they contend, isn’t just the possible misuse of contractors, but the growth of the national security state since 2001. And in this they are right — the IC has grown by leaps and bounds, and now produces a veritable avalanche of information. It’s far too much for any one person to read, and far too much even for a bureaucracy like the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the agency set up to coordinate intelligence activities, to manage. Intelligence agencies and their contractors now work on everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to global counter-drug operations, unconventional warfare like psychological operations, weapons and technology, and even operations in space.

Priest and Arkin have done the public a wonderful service by collecting all of this information in one place. For years, IC analysts have complained about their production quotas, the way finished products are handled and recycled, and how it all disappears into a vast complex no one really understands. It is one of the most serious problems facing the IC today, as it struggles to filter, understand, and process all that information.

The unsurprising top secrets

“Top Secret America,” however, suffers from a PR problem. Multiple agencies, and their contracting firms, sent out organization-wide emails on Friday or over the weekend, mentioning the publication of the article and warning employees not to talk to the press without authorization (full disclosure: I work for a DOD contractor, but they neither review nor censor what I say here). And while watching one’s mouth around the media is a good idea no matter who you work for, “Top Secret America” hasn’t revealed any bombshells … yet (there are two more installments).

Many pundits are going to draw attention to the database the Washington Post has gathered, detailing the companies involved in intelligence work and the government agencies they work for. But what’s remarkable about this database isn’t what it says, but rather what it doesn’t. Consider the entry for Hewlett Packard, one of America’s largest computer manufacturers. The Post tells us the company has an annual revenue of $115 billion, but it doesn’t tell us how much of that comes from supporting the IC, or anyone else for that matter. HP has 304,000 employees, but we don’t know how many work on government contracts (to say nothing of secret IC contracts). The Post tells us that HP is involved in some sort of “air and satellite operations” (this is a computer manufacturer, remember), but if you click on the link provided, all you get is a listing of the organizations and companies that do air and satellite operations.

You can see the same thing looking at government agencies. If I want to learn about what intelligence Africa Command, or AFRICOM, is up to, I won’t learn much from the Post’s entry. AFRICOM, I learn, only has one “work location” in Stuttgart, but that’s wrong: the Post missed the hiring frenzy for AFRICOM intel analysts to be based in Florida. I’d see AFRICOM is interested in “facilities and infrastructure,” “staffing and personnel” and “specialized military operations” (to name a few) — hardly surprising activities for a new command operating on a continent where the U.S. rarely had a stable presence.

Nor is it surprising to view the map feature and see, while the Air Force is strong in Colorado and the Navy is strong in California, the majority of the intelligence community is based in Washington, D.C. In fact, it is more surprising to see how much of the IC is not based in the D.C. area, rather than the overwhelming amount of IC work near D.C.

While the Post writes that using this database can help readers uncover the connections between different agencies and the companies they pay for work, it really does nothing of the sort. For example, Priest and Arkin complain that there is overlap because “51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.” But because they don’t discuss what each organization does, where it operates or what it tracks, we really have no idea if that represents “redundancy and waste,” as they put it. It probably does — what doesn’t, with the government? — but rather than supporting their case, they simply assert it.

Fun with contractors

“Top Secret America” will probably draw the most attention for its discussion of contractors. This in and of itself is not a bad thing — few could argue that the contracting system has struggled with tracking abuse, and fewer still could argue that the system doesn’t need better oversight and regulation. But there is also a serious problem in how the Post chooses to frame the issue.

As one example, Priest and Arkin state that there are 1,931 private companies doing top-secret work of some sort. That sounds crazy, especially considering that only 1,271 government organizations work in the same area. They describe this huge ecosystem of organizations and agencies as if they all appeared, from the ether, in 2001. That’s a slightly misleading picture: with the exception of ODNI and the National Counterterrorism Center, almost all of these agencies existed before the 9/11 attacks, and most of the companies did too. Furthermore, complaining merely about the size of this top secret ecosystem misses the grander point, which is that this ecosystem grew in response to public and congressional demands for “more” intelligence to prevent another 9/11. You don’t somehow squeeze greater output from the same organizations — you must expand them, rapidly.

There’s also the issue of how top-secret work is funded. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been funded through budget instruments called supplementals — yearly sums of money to cover the costs of the war (those costs include salaries, weapons, equipment, facilities and a whole host of intelligence analysis work back in the U.S.). If an intelligence organization needs to expand its capabilities to support the wars, it cannot feasibly hire employees directly. Federal employees are difficult to fire, and the hiring process is so laborious, the effort hardly justifies the benefit — especially when the money might run out next year. When all you have to work with are supplementals, hiring contractors to do the work makes sense, since they can be let go easily if the project is defunded the next year.

The national security state

By far the most revelatory aspect of Priest’s and Arkin’s work so far is the sense that no one knows what the IC is up to. While they didn’t explain in any detail what is redundant, there are some obvious redundancies: is the U.S. Navy’s “National Maritime Intelligence Center” (pdf) really all that different from ODNI’s “Global Maritime Domain Awareness” (pdf) initiative? In a field that has grown so rapidly — most agencies have seen their budgets at least double over the last eight years — there is bound to be waste, redundancy, even fraud.

At the same time, however, the IC didn’t grow in a vacuum. The 2009 intelligence budget was, according to the DNI, $49 billion. That is an incredible amount of money to spend on spying, but it pales next to the $663 billion defense budget, or the $695 billion Social Security budget. The Department of Defense has seen its budget more than double since 2001, but the rest of the government has been growing as well. In 2010, the federal budget was about $3.6 trillion; the federal budget in 2002 was only about $2 trillion. The DOD’s increase was only about a quarter of the extra $1.6 trillion more dollars the government spends today. While the growth in the IC and the DOD has been incredible, it’s been accompanied by the government growing in every other way, as well. While we should question where the money in the IC goes, we should also be questioning where the rest of the budget goes too.

Missing in “Top Secret America” is the sense that the demand for intelligence products has grown far more rapidly than its size. The normal response from Congress or the public to an “intelligence failure”— like the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmattab, has been to demand “more” intelligence, as if quantity was the problem. Priest and Arkin are the first to really lay out that what’s missing isn’t quantity, but quality — is the information any good, and if it’s so secret no one can read it, what good could it possibly be? Those are the intelligence failures we face — the system essentially choking on itself — not the inability to produce enough source materials.

None of this is to downplay what Priest and Arkin might uncover in the next two installments in their series. This is the first time all this open data has been brought together in one place, and it’s important to look at and question where our spending goes. But it’s just as important not to look only at cost and make a judgment. Rather than exclaiming at the IC’s enormous and growing size, and assume or imply that there clearly must be malfeasance at play — as Priest and Arkin unfortunately imply more than once — we should instead ask what we want the IC to accomplish, and then see if their budgets and behaviors are appropriate for it.