From a strictly bureaucratic point of view, the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was a disaster for official Washington. Government institutions from the Pentagon to the National Security Agency and beyond shed budget and manpower. Even the privileged nuclear-weapons complex lost a large piece of its purpose when the nation’s longstanding primary enemy disappeared. Among hawks in the early 1990s — in then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s Pentagon in particular — there was a scramble to invent a new Cold War with China which might justify restoring defense appropriations to their former plenitude. China, however, chose not to enlist. In the unforgettable words of Colin Powell during his chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs, we were “running out of enemies”; he was, Powell said ironically, “down to Fidel Castro and Kim Il Sung.”

Then came 9/11, courtesy of al-Qaeda, followed by the anthrax letter attacks the next month. A panicked leadership under President George W. Bush, lacking a more targeted strategy, set the intelligence community loose tracking potential terrorists with every surveillance tool it could devise. “A culture of fear,” write journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin, “had created a culture of spending to control it, which, in turn, had led to a belief that the government had to be able to stop every single plot before it took place, regardless of whether it involved one network of twenty terrorists or one single deranged person.” The resulting “security spending spree,” they report, “exceeded $2 trillion.”

“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.”

‘Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State’ by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin (Little, Brown)

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.

Richard Rhodes is the Pulitzer-winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and “The Twilight of the Bombs.”


The Rise of the New American Security State

By Dana Priest and William Arkin

Little, Brown. 296 pp. $27.99