No Comment — July 20, 2010, 4:05 pm

Top-Secret America

In the midst of a press season focused on moronic political banter (lately including analyses of the twitter feed of a certain former governor), it’s good to see the Washington Post invest substantial talent and resources in a scoping study of the new national-security state. The wealth of data offered in Dana Priest’s and William Arkin’s series “Top-Secret America” is impressive, and the even-keel approach that is Dana Priest’s hallmark adds to its credibility. Here are some nuggets that struck me on the first read:

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.

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.

Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. “I told him that after 4½ years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!” he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.

Priest and Arkin focus on the dilemma of consumption: the torrent of information received and analyses produced is simply so great and so undigested that there is real reason to worry whether essential intelligence gets into the right hands at the right time. Of course the 9/11 Report’s descriptions of stovepipe treatment, and the intelligence community recommendations that the Report contained, were heavily focused on this same issue. One thing that clearly emerges is that “bigger is not better.” Bigger may be worse, particularly if it results in stagnation of critical analysis and information. Bigger is also costlier, an important consideration in a time of rampant deficit spending.

There are two critical questions I hope that the Priest and Arkin series will help us answer. The first is simple: does this enormous state security apparatus actually make the country any safer? Again, it’s not generally true that bigger is better. On this point, the historical example of the former Soviet Union and its allies is informative. Good literature already exists about the German Democratic Republic, in many ways the “model state” for the Soviet Empire. The massive state security apparatus of the GDR, focused on the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (“Stasi”) may ultimately have encompassed up to 10% of the working population of the country (PDF) in its network of agents and informants (“inoffizielle Mitarbeiter”). This massive burden on the GDR’s economy contributed heavily to its inefficiency; in the name of state security, it degraded the quality of life for the entire nation. Yet the Stasi world is miniscule compared to the new system introduced after 9/11 in the United States. What are the consequences of this burden for the United States, and what is the concomitant payoff?

Second, we need to probe carefully the question of accountability. In theory, oversight is provided by a series of internal inspectors general and by Congress. In practice, however, it now seems obvious that security classifications have often been wielded not to protect national security but to avoid accountability. Max Weber’s classic study of the proclivities of bureaucracies would lead us to expect precisely this. Secrecy is used to avoid discovery of embarrassing errors. But even more troubling, it is used to avoid discovery of criminal conduct—especially corruption and the abuse of power.

The pendulum has swung dangerously away from accountability for the intelligence community. It’s time now to take stock of the scope and costs associated with this phenomenon.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

No Comment November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm

The Torture Doctors

An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath

No Comment August 12, 2013, 7:55 am

Obama’s Snowden Dilemma

How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
Article
You Had to Be There·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He explained how sober Doug structured the bits and worked out the material’s logic; drunk Doug found the funny.”
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
[Letter from Bentonville]
Citizen Walmart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From the July 2012 issue

“He’s taking on a heap of debt to scale up for Walmart, a heap of debt.”
Photograph by Thomas Allen
Article
Dark Heights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.

The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:

“The triangles represent an hourglass; the circle represents Earth; the symbol as a whole represents, according to a popular Twitter feed devoted to its dissemination (@extinctsymbol, 19.2K followers), “the rapidly accelerating collapse of global biodiversity” — what scientists refer to alternately as the Holocene extinction, the Anthropocene extinction, and (with somewhat more circumspection) the sixth mass extinction.

Article
Consume, Screw, Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Now may be the unlikeliest time for us to grow a conscience about how our rapacity is endangering other species, since we’re now aware of how frightfully our rapacity is endangering us.”
Collage (detail) by David McLimans

Percentage of Americans who say they would not enjoy spending time with their own clone:

70

Astronomers recorded the most powerful pulse of radiation ever observed; the radiation was emitted from a pulsar 12,000 light-years from Earth and was “capable of totally vaporising and ionising all known materials, shredding them into hot plasma.”

Alberta dentist Michael Zuk, the owner of a molar that belonged to John Lennon, revealed that he hoped to clone a new Lennon and raise him as a son. “Hopefully keep him away from drugs,” said Zuk, “but, you know, guitar lessons wouldn’t hurt.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST