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:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

Feburary 2017

A Grim Fairy Tale

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Little Things

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Patient War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Remainers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

JB & FD

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Illustration (detail) by Steve Brodner
Article
The Patient War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
Photograph (detail) © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Redux
Article
Little Things·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
Photograph (detail) of miniatures by Lori DeBacker by Thomas Allen
Article
Blood and Soil·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch
Article
JB & FD·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson

Amount New York City spends each year on air, bus, and train tickets to send homeless people out of town:

$500,000

The Laboratory of Neurophenomics described a possible blood test for suicide.“Suicide,” said the laboratory’s director, “is a big problem in psychiatry.”

Beijing set its air-quality target for 2017 at twice the amount deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today