Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Top Secret America: First Reactions

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy, United States by Dan on July 25, 2010

I haven’t yet had a chance to read Dana Priest and William Arkin’s investigative bombshell in the Washington Post (called “Top Secret America”), but from the endless amount of responses on the blogosphere, I felt like I’ve memorized the whole thing (for a nice replay of what people have said so far, click here, here, or here).

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I highly suggest you jump online, because it only takes a few clicks (if that) to get a glimpse of the story.

But in any case, the entire Washington Post series is a two-year project in the making that takes a rare in-depth look into how large and secretive the U.S. intelligence community has become.  Through Priest and Arkin’s remarkable work- with personalized interviews, declassified records, and a frank tone to back that work up- the reader gets the sense that the United States is hostage to a besieged mentality.  Private contractors with top-secret security clearance are lurking in your neighborhoods, the National Security Agency is wiretapping your phones, and every move that you make (from swiping your credit card to calling a distant relative) is tracked by the government and packed away in a database for future use.  You are, in effect, a citizen with a million eyes on you at all times; a citizen who’s heard earned money is sent to fund this “Top Secret America” behemoth.  The trouble is that you don’t know who is really spying on you, or which agency your money is going to.

Here’s the summary in a nutshell: beware, because 854,000 people on the government’s payroll are watching you.

I don’t want to say that the article exaggerates the situation, because in many ways, Priest and Arkin are accurate in their reporting.  U.S. intelligence has grown dramatically since the September 11 attacks, with more workers in the industry than ever before.  There are 16 separate intelligence agencies across the U.S. Government, most of whom track the same information and come to the same conclusions.

But I can’t help but wonder if this whole story has another motive buried deep between the lines.  Could one of the Post’s messages be “look how much of your money is being wasted on keeping this country safe?”  From all of the comments surfacing up on blogs and editorials across the country, it appears that this could be a motive.  I doubt the Washington Post (or anyone in journalism) would be talking about the bloated national security bureaucracy if the U.S. economy were still in relatively healthy shape.

Arkin and Priest are not only making the point that U.S. Intel has gotten redundant and overweight (which is not necessarily a bad thing, as Dan Drezner pointed out earlier this week), but that this redundancy is costing American taxpayers billions upon billions of dollars every year.  It’s a quick and classic way to discredit a particular policy, and it’s also an easy way to criticize how things are being done inside the government.  Reporters have done this many times in the past, for good or for ill.

I don’t know if Arkin and Priest have a partisan agenda here, but by drilling the money aspect into this investigation, it gives you a reason to believe that they both may be trying to expose their own true feelings.

This isn’t an exercise in poor judgment, because democracy is all about conflicting views and outspoken mantra.  It’s just another factor to consider as you read the article.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Dan Drezner, Thomas G. Mahnken, and Peter Feaver**


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9 Responses

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  1. Solsyn said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:27 am

    …many of the most wealthy counties in the US seem to correspond to dense intelligence clusters, in Gramscian terms this is the most interesting aspect. It is not a question of whether or not secrecy is needed, but what is done with the largess created by the veil. Priest and Arkin effectively point to the sheer volume of money changing hands behind these doors that mere citizens are prevented form scrutinizing. Any democratically minded citizen should remember the lessons of other bloated security aparati, and their effects on civil rights, as well as how inefficient they were in fulfilling their missions, yet how effective they were in consuming tax dollars (rubles or shekels, or marks), and what else could have been done with those resources, financial and human, rather than guard against some phantom menace. Conflict is inevitable in human interaction, even more so when sovereignty issues are involved, but is spying really the only way or the best way to guarantee security?

    • Norboose said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:27 am

      Calling all intelligence activity “spying” is incredibly misleading. “Spying” to most people would mean active human intelligence operations, which is only a small part of intelligence agencies. More importantly, when countries deal with things, they have diplomacy at one end of the spectrum and warfare at the other. Everything in between is the domain of intelligence agencies. In general, since the cost of conventional warfare has become so unimaginably high since the end of WW2, countries have shifted a lot of work onto intelligence agencies. Their role on the world stage is incredibly important, and I think your view of them is way too sentimentalized.

  2. Zorro said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:28 am

    Two relevant points:

    1. How many dollars are used to save one life? Could said dollars be spent otherwise to save more lifes?

    2. Redundancy in intelligence operations can be good. However, said intelligence must be coordinated to be useful.

    I.E. waste does not equal redundancy.

  3. F1Fan said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:28 am

    What the WaPo articles and this articles miss is that the CIA and the American intelligence apparatus does nothing to make us safer. It exists purely to sell terror and panic to make sure their budgets are increased yearly and they get the money for their projects.
    I don’t see why we still trust an apparatus that at it’s base missed things like the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, Nukes in North Korea, the 9/11 attacks and so on and so forth. We could spend the money better on a giant dart board to predict where the next security threat would come from.

    • GraceStip said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:29 am

      I believe one of the critical points brought to attention by the Priest article is the distrust of American citizens feel towards their government. It is nearly impossible for them to believe that the government might be taking legitimate action towards their protection and safety against terrorism. That being said, I am shocked that you would assert that the “intelligence apparatus does nothing to make us safer”. That is completely untrue and an insult to the people who work within the intelligence community.

      The system is by no means perfect, but it is unequivocally at the forefront of protection of both citizen’s civil liberties as well as their safety. To those who doubt this, I invite you to experience the ‘protection’ of other countries involved in the fight against terrorist threats, such as the United Kingdom, where civil liberties are eroding more quickly by the day and the radicalization of young citizens continues to worsen.

      It is impressive that you have managed to undermine the honest work of thousands of people as well as make me slightly ashamed to be a fellow fan of F1.

  4. Palmer said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:30 am

    I completely agree with the comments regarding the Washington Post piece. It purports to offer startling revelations, but at least the first installment only says there are a lot of people working on national security and it costs a lot of money. Is that news? And they seem very annoyed that there are a lot of secrets they don’t know. If you want to know the secrets held within the federal government, apply for a job in the intelligence community, pass your background check, get hired and take an oath of office. Then, once you have demonstrated your fitness and commitment to protect the security of the United States, you can work on secrets. The Washington Post is not supposed to have full access to national security secrets for good reasons. Some things really are secret for a reason, and the assertion that there is no oversight is just farcical. The Congressional intelligence committees, or only their leadership for especially sensitive matters, are fully briefed on what the intelligence community is doing.

  5. KarenYKarl said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Redundancy in the US intel community is not necessarily a good thing either. Take for example, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. As one of the Bush children, it seems to be an agency in search of a mission. And unfortunately, it reminds me of a bureaucratic reform undertaken by the Los Angeles Unified School District (another overblown bureaucracy). In order to make things more “responsive” they added district offices, and all they succeeded in doing was to create yet another superfluous layer of bureaucracy.

    Part of the problem is our federalist system. Part is interest group politics in the bureaucracy and Congressional committees. But the problems that the superusers have are all too real. The underwear bomber was merely a new intel failure.

    Not only Red Teams need to be encouraged, but cross pollination between agencies needs to be created at every level of the bureaucracy. And the contractors in intel need to be eliminated as quickly as possible. They need to be replaced by real government employees. Privatization? pppfffffffffft!

  6. Concerned_Citizen said, on July 25, 2010 at 12:35 am

    While I agree that there are probably too many people doing to much of the same thing within the intelligence community, the authors of this piece have defined redundancy rather broadly. By their definition one might come to the conclusion that the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are redundant. They both do the same thing, pass (or obstruct passage of) laws and conduct oversight, for the same ultimate consumer, the U.S. citizen.

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