The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America”

July 24th, 2010

By Tom Carter

The Washington Post’s highly-touted, much-discussed three-part series on the U.S. intelligence community emphasizes the role of contractors involved in intelligence and security work.  Much is made of the fact that it took two years to research and write the series, using publicly available information and interviews with various sources, most of whom are named.

It was written by Dana Priest, an established Post investigative reporter who specializes in the military, health care issues, and intelligence.  Priest is generally a solid reporter, although she has in the past delighted in producing stories critical of the military.  The real problem is the co-writer and researcher for the project, William Arkin.  Arkin is infamous for his disdain for the military and for soldiers themselves, and including him in the project seriously detracts from its credibility.

The series is distinguished mostly by the Post’s extravagant packaging.  The three parts total 44 pages, but each page is very short.  If could easily have been written as a normal series, without all the bells and whistles, and might actually have merited being taken more seriously.  There are quite a few photos involved, but most of them are just window-dressing — pictures of buildings, cars lined up to enter facilities, unidentified people sitting at conference tables, and so on.

It seems the Post is desperate to make a big splash with something, anything, regardless of the true value of the content.  One could be forgiven for thinking that this historic monolith of the mainstream media is struggling to remain relevant.

The first article in the series begins with their conclusions and pretty much says what they have to say:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work. …

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* 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.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

That’s the way the entire series reads — lots of numbers, irrelevant descriptions of normal businesses located near contractor facilities, and interviews with people who agree that, golly, there really are a lot of contractors and it’s hard to keep tabs on who they are and what they do.  The important thing to remember is that they apparently had zero access to anything that was going on inside the facilities they managed to locate and photograph.  But, as they note repeatedly, son-of-a-gun, that’s really a big building.

Some of their criticisms of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are on the mark.  These new post-9/11 bureaucracies have grown into huge monsters that gobble billions of dollars before breakfast every day, and their real contributions to security are at least questionable.  The truth is, both new bureaucracies were born in the wake of 9/11 when politicians were at a loss for ideas on what to do to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks.  What they did was re-arrange the deck chairs and add expensive chaise longues, hoping nobody would notice the huge holes in the side of the ship.

The holes were specific but difficult to fix politically and organizationally.  They included cross-agency communications, centralized management of counter-terrorism efforts, imbalances in resource allocations, and the need for expanded funding.  For politicians, however, that was difficult to understand and even more difficult to communicate to voters.  So they created ODNI and DHS, wiped their hands, smiled at the voters, and said, “See, we fixed it!”  But that hasn’t proven to be true, especially in the case of ODNI.  Anyone who knew the intelligence community (a real, official term) knew that it would be just another layer of bureaucracy and that it wouldn’t work well, if at all.  We could have made the fixes actually needed and still protected the U.S. from most terrorist attacks at far, far less cost.

And the huge number of contractors and their employees involved in top secret work?  Reading the article closely will reveal that the majority of these contractors were there before 9/11.  There are more people working for them, true.  But every problem Priest and Arkin discovered existed in the past.  It’s true that there are too many contractors, that it’s hard to exercise close oversight of all their operations, and that they cost too much.  But what the authors don’t say is that if most of the contractors were terminated, they would have to be replaced by a huge number of federal employees.  Then Priest and Arkin would undoubtedly write an article that the Post would publish with great fanfare decrying the huge number of federal employees working on intelligence and security — all the while not knowing what those employees actually do, just like they don’t know what today’s contractors do.

They discuss a number of specific intelligence “failures” while providing no insight into how to avoid them.  A good example is the case of Major Nidal Hasan, the Muslim officer who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas.  There’s no acknowledgement in the article that the real problem is radical islamist terrorism, both foreign and home-grown.  Of all the things they said about the case of Hasan, they didn’t mention the glaring, painfully obvious reasons why he wasn’t stopped before the shooting started — the politically correct aversion to offending Muslims and profiling them as potential terrorists.  Major Hasan’s colleagues reported his weird behavior, but even though he did things that no other officer could have gotten away with, his superiors took no effective action.  They were afraid of risking their careers by offending a Muslim and appearing to profile him because he was a Muslim.  But, nothing about these facts from Priest and Arkin.

As is so often true with media reporting, there’s reason to question the authors’ sources.  They read open-source literature — one assumes phone books and such — and interviewed people who, to a remarkable extent, agreed with them.  Of course, there’s no way to know how many interviews went to File 13 because those interviewed didn’t agree with them.  This odd statement appears in the second article:

The Post’s estimate of 265,000 contractors doing top-secret work was vetted by several high-ranking intelligence officials who approved of The Post’s methodology.

What, exactly does that mean, one has to wonder?  Does “officials who approved of The Post’s methodology” mean they found some guys who agreed with them and relied on them to vet the data?  Forgive me for not being reassured.

Read the articles if you like, but you aren’t going to learn much that’s very helpful.  Yes, there are a lot of contractors, probably too many, and they cost too much.  What should we do about that?  No help from Priest and Arkin.  Are contractors doing the right things, or the wrong things, or should their work be re-oriented and re-distributed?  Again, no help from Priest and Arkin because they don’t know what the contractors are doing.

Finally, it’s also interesting to note that every problem Priest and Arkin discuss somehow happened after 2001 — apparently nothing was wrong during the Clinton Administration; it was all Bush’s fault.  In reality, every problem discussed in the series has been there for a long, long time.  The problems are bigger and more expensive in the post-9/11 world, but they aren’t new.  Apparently Priest and Arkin didn’t know that, either.

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3 Responses to “The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America””

  1. Brianna Aubin |

    Nice article Tom

  2. Lisa |

    I have to say the article itself is as bloated as the community it describes. I agree with you, Tom, on all of your observations. It was a difficult read. If the federal government could create a means to get rid of incompetent government civilians, there would not be a need for so many contractors, many of whom tend to be very competent retired military officers and NCO’s.

  3. Tom Carter |

    It’s amusing to hear all the conservative complaints about the article. In fact, it doesn’t reveal anything actually classified, as far as I can see, and it doesn’t damage national security. That’s why ODNI and DOD haven’t raised a stink about it. There may be some surprise among folks who don’t know much about intelligence and security operations that there are so many contractors involved and the number of employees they have.

    The article is mostly fluff, and it’s pretty clearly a desperate effort to get some attention and gain some readers. The Post is also playing on the controversies of the recent past about a very few contract employees, most notably in Iraq, who crossed the line.

    I can agree that we’ve reached the point where there are too many contractors, but there’s not a lot that can be done about it unless most of them are replaced by full-time government employees. And, contrary to what the Post reported, and as you said, Lisa, a lot of those contractors are not young and inexperienced; they’re retired and former experts who have skills that can’t be found anywhere else.

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