Top Secret America
The Washington Post series “Top Secret America” doesn’t contain many stunning new revelations, at least not yet. What’s stunning is how it collects so many things that were perhaps already known but not yet organized or presented in such a clear, publicly accessible way. If this doesn’t change how people think about the surveillance state we are now subject to, I’m not sure what will.
I find particularly insightful the alternate geography of the United States of Secret America. Information becomes more powerful when you can place it. For example, get to know your new capital city, Fort Meade, Maryland. It’s twitchy. It’s secretive. And it’s growing:
Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by concrete cylinders, it is an access point to a government cable. “TS/SCI,” whispers an official, the abbreviations for “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information” – and that means few people are allowed to know what information the cable transmits.
All of these places exist just outside Washington in what amounts to the capital of an alternative geography of the United States, one defined by the concentration of top-secret government organizations and the companies that do work for them. This Fort Meade cluster is the largest of a dozen such clusters across the United States that are the nerve centers of Top Secret America and its 854,000 workers…
In the clusters of Top Secret America, a company lanyard attached to a digital smart card is often the only clue to a job location. Work is not discussed. Neither are deployments. Debate about the role of intelligence in protecting the country occurs only when something goes wrong and the government investigates, or when an unauthorized disclosure of classified information turns into news.
The existence of these clusters is so little known that most people don’t realize when they’re nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade’s, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.
In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.
“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.
“I wasn’t remembering any of it,” he said.
Underscoring the seriousness of these issues are the conclusions of retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who was asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department’s most sensitive programs. Vines, who once commanded 145,000 troops in Iraq and is familiar with complex problems, was stunned by what he discovered.
“I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities,” he said in an interview. “The complexity of this system defies description.”
Nine days after the [September 11] attacks, Congress committed $40 billion beyond what was in the federal budget to fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda. It followed that up with an additional $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. That was only a beginning.
With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Obviously, some secrecy is always going to be needed. I don’t think we could ever get rid of all of it, nor should we try. But surely some of this vast effort must be wasted or counterproductive. Glenn Greenwald writes:
[T]he objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this — National Security — is not only unfulfilled by “Top Secret America,” but actively subverted by it. During the FISA debate of 2008 — when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA’s authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight — it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe. Thus, anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most: Staying Safe.
But as I wrote many times back then … the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, the more unsafe we become. That’s because the public-private axis that is the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications — so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale — that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats….
Which may be a slight overstatement, but it’s probably not much of one. Meanwhile, traditional police work and alert citizens have stopped plenty of terrorism on their own, as we’ve seen in recent years. And many government-touted success stories of uncovered plots that never came to fruition have turned out to be gangs of random losers who never could (and perhaps never would) have attacked anyone, but who were goaded over the line into doing or saying something incriminating — by U.S. government agents.
These aren’t the marks of added value, but of elaborate busywork designed to justify more of the same. The fact that waste, fraud, and abuse are all too common in the above-ground government raises natural questions, albeit questions not so easily answered, about the secret government. The idea that Congress has meaningful oversight power over the non-classified bureaucracy has been something of a legal fiction for a very long time. How much more do we not know about out-of-control secret programs?
Indeed, the fictions abound. Terrorists are everywhere. Only the government can keep us safe, and only with extraordinary measures. No expense is too great. It’s for our own good, and we only ever rest securely thanks to them.
The reality, namely that security threats are real but very rare and almost always of distinctly limited severity, could never be used to fund such an extensive secret bureaucracy, to say nothing of our endless wars. Greenwald continues:
[T]he Real U.S. Government — the network of secret public and private organizations which comprise the National Security and Surveillance State — expands and surveills and pilfers and destroys without much attention and with virtually no real oversight or accountability. It sucks up the vast bulk of national resources and re-directs the rest to those who own and control it. To their immense credit, Dana Priest and William Arkin will spend the week disclosing the details of what they learned over the past two years investigating all of this, but the core concepts have long been glaringly evident. But Sarah Palin’s Twitter malapropism from yesterday will almost certainly receive far more attention than anything exposed by the Priest/Arkin investigation. So we’ll continue to fixate on the trappings and theater of government while The Real Government churns blissfully in the dark — bombing and detaining and abducting and spying and even assassinating — without much bother from anyone.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.