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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.

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