“Top Secret America” originated in a 2010 Washington Post series of the same name that set out to enumerate how many Americans held top secret clearances — about 854,000, the Post’s investigative team found, more than the population of Washington. The book is far more ambitious than was the series, however, and makes the team’s investigations available in detail to those of us who live beyond the Beltway.
Throwing money after security turns out to be a classic example of the law of diminishing marginal utility. Serialized intelligence reports might be helpful, for example, but 50,000 of them published annually under 1,500 titles? A “senior intelligence officer” broke security rules to show Priest a classified list of them digitally and an overflowing inbox of their printed counterparts and “grew visibly angry” as he did so. Too much, too slow, too late, he told her. The result, she and Arkin write, was that senior officials didn’t even try to read the reports but relied on their personal briefers who, equally overwhelmed, relied on only the output of their own shops. “Thus a post-9/11 goal of breaking down walls to give decision makers a broader analysis, all easily accessible online, was completely defeated.”
Since Priest and Arkin themselves lack security clearances, part of the interest of their book is how they acquired so much secret information. Arkin is the numbers man, and much of what he learns comes from the security establishment’s unclassified contracts and task orders, job announcements, job descriptions, resumés and biographies. With a team of assistants, Arkin reports collecting “112,000 individual files totaling 520 GB of data” that yielded databases with 640,000 fields “describing over 700 government entities and 1,900 companies.” If a large chunk of the federal government is disappearing down a black hole, that hole leaks. In this, as in many other instances supplied by Priest and Arkin, “one of the greatest secrets of Top Secret America is its disturbing dysfunction.”
The waste of taxpayer money is bad enough, especially in a time of crumbling infrastructure and severe recession. Worse is the expansion of top-secret America into domestic counterterrorism. “The federal-state-corporate partnership has produced a vast domestic intelligence apparatus,” Priest and Arkin write, “that collects, stores, and analyzes information about tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.” U.S. representative Jane Harman of California, they note, warned at a 2010 Congressional hearing that homeland security intelligence done the wrong way would produce “the thought police,” with consequences like the 1950s Red Scare excesses of Joe McCarthy or the FBI’s covert efforts in the 1960s to discredit the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Domestic counterterrorism, lacking terrorist targets, has turned to using the expensive tools that federal grants have made available to fight ordinary crime, “from school vandalism to petty drug dealing.” Local law enforcement did what every other agency and private business did after 9/11, Priest and Arkin say: “They followed the money.” Police departments now fly surveillance drones over some U. S. cities, aircraft that happily are not yet equipped with Hellfire missiles.
In 2010, Priest interviewed then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, no man’s fool, who put the terrorist threat against the United States in perspective. “There’s a lot of talk about the growth of radicalization,” Gates said. “Yes, there has been growth. But between September eleventh, 2001, and December thirty-first, 2009, we had forty-six cases prosecuted . . . and about a hundred twenty-five people involved. So I would say the numbers of extremists are very small. Let’s stay calm.”
The good news is that the government’s enlarging black hole is increasingly illuminated by what Priest and Arkin call “a new, anything-goes era of flash mobs, tweet-olutionaries, Facebook communities, file sharing, YouTube intelligence and surveillance, hacktivists, Wikileaks, and twenty-four-hour-a-day Internet media.” There are, they add, “a thousand other ways technology spreads information cheaply across the globe, reordering political power in the process.” In this “era of involuntary transparency,” historic transformations like the populist overthrow of dictator after dictator in the Middle East discredit secret entities like al-Qaeda. Or, dare I say, like top-secret America, which for all its accumulating trillions in national treasure, failed to predict 9/11, predicted Iraqi WMD that weren’t there, and in “the most glaring example . . . the colossal intelligence failure of 2011,” failed to predict the Arab Spring.
is the Pulitzer-winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and “The Twilight of the Bombs.”