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'Top Secret America' Washington Post Investigation Reveals Massive, Unmanageable, Outsourced US Intelligence System
An explosive investigative series published in the Washington Post today begins, "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." Among the findings: An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances. More than 1,200 government organizations and nearly 2,000 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in 10,000 locations. We speak with one of the co-authors of the series, Bill Arkin.
AMY GOODMAN: "Top Secret America." That’s the title of an explosive investigative series published in the Washington Post this morning that’s already creating a firestorm on Capitol Hill. It starts, quote, "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 of the findings of the two-year investigation include more than 1,200 government organizations and nearly 2,000 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 one-and-a-half times as many as live in Washington, DC—hold top-secret security clearances. Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste.
The series by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Bill Arkin includes an online searchable database and locator map. PBS Frontline is producing an hour-long documentary on the investigation that will run in October. This is its trailer.
NARRATOR: You think you know America. But you don’t know Top Secret America. We’re all aware that there are three branches of government in the United States. But in response to 9/11, a fourth branch has emerged. It is protected from public scrutiny by extraordinary secrecy. Top Secret America.
WILLIAM ARKIN: This is a closed community. And since 9/11, it’s become even more so.
DANA PRIEST: The money spigot was just opened after 9/11, and nobody dared say, "I don’t think we should be spending that much."
NARRATOR: It has become so big, and the lines of responsibility are so blurred, that even our nation’s leaders don’t have a handle on it. Where is it? It’s being built from coast to coast, hidden within some of America’s most familiar cities and neighborhoods—in Colorado, in Nebraska, in Texas, in Florida, in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Top Secret America includes hundreds of federal departments and agencies operating out of 1,300 facilities around this country. They contract the services of nearly 2,000 companies. In all, more people than live in our nation’s capital have top-secret security clearance.
DANA PRIEST: It’s, again, the size, the lack of transparency and the cost. And if we don’t get it right, the consequences are gigantic.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Washington Post writer Dana Priest, the trailer from the upcoming PBS Frontline documentary on "Top Secret America" that features Priest and Bill Arkin.
The investigative series is already creating waves in the intelligence community. More than two weeks ago, the director of communications for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Art House, sent a memo to public affairs officers in the intelligence community warning about the series. He wrote, quote, "This series has been a long time in preparation and looks designed to cast the [intelligence community] and the [Department of Defense] in an unfavorable light. We need to anticipate and prepare so that the good work of our respective organizations is effectively reflected in communications with employees, secondary coverage in the media and in response to questions," he wrote.
Well, Bill Arkin is the co-author of the piece. He’s joining us now from the offices of the Washington Post in Washington, DC.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bill. Why don’t you first lay out the scope of this series and why you started this two years ago?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, two years ago, Dana and I got together, and we were actually just talking to each other about various things that we were working on, and we realized very quickly that we were looking at something that was very similar and that we had both detected in our long years of work in the national security world that something had been created since 9/11 that wasn’t normal, that wasn’t on the books, that looked like it was a gigantic superstructure on top of regular government. And we started our investigation to try to figure out what it is that we were looking at, and here we are two years later revealing our conclusions.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what those conclusions are. What did you find, Bill?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, really, the most significant thing that we found, Amy, is not that the intelligence agency or the vast homeland security apparatus does work in this field and that is—and that they are engaged in counterterrorism. Really the most significant finding, to me, is the number of private companies in America who have been enlisted in the war on terrorism and who have now become an intrinsic part of government, really where the line is blurred between government and private sector. And the fact that there are almost 2,000 companies that do top-secret work in—for the intelligence community and the military is not only surprising to me as someone who actually put together the data, but it really asks some fundamental questions about the nature of government and the nature of accountability.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about these 2,000 companies.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, you know, it’s funny. We think of the military-industrial complex in a sort of old-fashioned way still. In fact, we don’t even have an appropriate word to describe what this enterprise is today, and we’ve struggled ourselves to try to figure that out. You know, the military-industrial complex of the Eisenhower era was one that produced massive amounts of capital goods for the military—bombers, missiles, nuclear weapons, etc. But today’s national security establishment really values information technology more than it values weapons. And really, one of the things that was most surprising to us, but maybe not so surprising given the nature of society, is that a half of the companies in this particular area are really IT companies, information technology companies, and support companies.
The domination of this world of top-secret contractors over the traditional world of the military-industrial complex is huge. And we see very clearly that the megacorporations which have always been the powerhouses in the defense industry—Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics—they are moving more and more of their business from production to the provision of services—that is, providing staffing for the government. And so, what you see is that we are increasingly a national security establishment that’s producing paper rather than producing weapons. And the question is, with the production of all that paper, whether or not we have either an effective counterterrorism operation or whether or not we’re even safer.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what about the privatization of top-secret information or the people around the country who have access to top-secret information, especially when they’re working in a private corporation?
WILLIAM ARKIN: You know, one thing that we found in the evidence, Amy, is that people who are in business are in business. I’m not going to say that they’re not good Americans, any less than we are, but it seems to me that their fundamental mission is to make money for their businesses. And that is not the same as being a public servant. And as you can see from our articles, we have quotes from all of the principals involved, on the record—Secretary Gates; Leon Panetta, the CIA director; the Director of Defense Intelligence and the former Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Blair—essentially agreeing with us that this crazy, out-of-control system accreted after 9/11, and here, two years into the Obama administration, it is essentially in the same form that it was when the Bush administration left office. But there is something fundamentally wrong in America if you have people who are working in a for-profit environment caring for our national security and engaged in what we consider to be the inherent functions of government.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it is amazing that there are more people who have top-security clearance in this country than live in Washington, DC—more than 850,000 people.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, it is. It’s a good comparison. But I also think that what we find is that, more and more, Washington is not just the hub of government, but it is also the hub of this sort of intelligence information enterprise. You see gigantic companies like SAIC and Northrop Grumman moving their headquarters from California to the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and you know that with that comes not only thousands of workers and thousands of people whose job it is to secure contracts to do government work, but also the vast infrastructure that is required in order to secure the secrets and to do all of those things that are necessary in order to be in this hidden world. And so, more and more is being concentrated in Washington. And that’s undeniable. We show it very clearly in our series, and the data really backs it up. And I think it’s probably part of why there’s such an enormous groundswell throughout the United States that is so anti-Washington these days.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, what’s a Super User?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, what we discovered in the course of our investigation is that not only are there top secrets, but there are various compartments above the level of top secret which are utilized by each of the intelligence agencies and the military commands to compartment what they do. And intrinsically, that’s supposed to be to protect information, but in reality, what it does is it keeps programs from being revealed to other agencies. And in theory, above it all is supposed to be the Director of National Intelligence, an office created in 2004 to finally solve the problems of 9/11. But what we found was that even the Director of National Intelligence and even the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the top intelligence official in the government, that they don’t have full visibility on each other’s programs, and they don’t have full visibility on everything even within their own agency.
And there’s this thing called Super Users, people who are designated specially who have the ability to reach into all of the programs of all of the government. They actually have special logins. They actually have special computers. And there’s only a few dozen of them, as far as we can determine, throughout the entire government, only a half-dozen or so in the Defense Department and only a half-dozen in the Director of National Intelligence. And we’ve spoken to some of those Super Users who themselves say, "I don’t have enough hours in the day to look at all the programs of the US government. I don’t have enough—I don’t have enough time to read all of the material that I am authorized to read." And so, you can really see in a very vivid way the dysfunction of government through this little anecdote.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, talk about the warning, the letter that was sent around to the intelligence community from Art House—and explain who he is—warning them of this series of pieces that you and Dana Priest are doing.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, let me just make it clear, Amy, we’ve been working on this for two years. We’ve been engaged in interviewing people from the government and inside this world for two years. We’ve conducted over a thousand interviews, talked to hundreds of people, many multiple times. They were well aware of what we were doing, and we formally briefed them about this earlier this year. So for them to come out at the eleventh hour and somehow say that they are alarmed by what we’re going to put out, to me, seems to be classic cover-your-ass. I can’t take it in any other way, because we ourselves have gone through a massive internal review process, both fact checking and also looking at anything that could be detrimental to the national security interest and to the national interest, and I’m completely confident that we’ve done a rigorous job. I’m completely confident, through the use of numerous outside counsels at the Washington Post, people who are insiders to the system, helping us to make sure that we were able to produce the most granular picture we possibly could of this gigantic organization, but yet at the same time not put anybody’s life at risk. And I have to say at this point, I feel like the Washington Post has a better understanding of this overall problem than the government does.
AMY GOODMAN: What is it they did not want you to print, Bill?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, they always don’t want you to do whatever it is that’s going to bring them—you know, that’s going to disrupt their day. You know, the government, we asked them repeatedly to give us specifics, to tell us what it is that they didn’t want us to show. And only one government agency was actually able to come back to us and specifically explain to us why they didn’t want us to reveal something, and they made a reasonable argument to the editors, and the editors decided that we wouldn’t.
This is such a rich area that we felt that really to diminish it by somehow not looking at these requests from the government seriously was a mistake. We’re giving you information on 1,931 corporations, on 1,271 government entities across forty-five different departments and agencies. I mean, this is an enormous amount of information. And Secretary Gates himself said to us in an interview that he can’t even get this type of information about his own office and who contracts all of the contractors within his own office. People recognize that this is a problem, and I think that the Washington Post should really be given an enormous amount of credit for putting the resources into this over a two-year period in order to present something that I hope will be the foundation of a new national debate about this whole question.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, what’s Liberty Crossing?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Liberty Crossing is the name, the nickname, for the new complex of buildings that has gone up in McLean, Virginia, that is home to the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center, other counterterrorism task forces, and the National Counterproliferation Center. We highlight the buildings around Washington that have been created since 9/11, because we thought that it was a very tangible representation of government. It’s often hard to really talk about government in terms of money, because the billions, after a while, begin to just glaze over. But we thought—you know, our approach was going to be, we know that everything that happens happens somewhere, and we’re going to find out where it happens. And lo and behold, as we began to map this alternative geography of America, one of the things we discovered was that these guys have been on a fabulous building spree since 9/11. There have been over thirty-three buildings in the Washington, DC area alone, encompassing 17 million square feet, which is four times the size of the Pentagon, and there are more underway. The NSA and others are building and planning to build even more office space. So the reality is that—I think in my research I found that there was only one civilian agency that’s had the privilege of building a new headquarters since 9/11 in Washington, and that’s the Department of Transportation. But this is a very tangible way of seeing this in your backyard, in reality, in a real physical location.
And one of the phenomena that is also associated with 9/11 is that these locations, like Liberty Crossing, are undisclosed locations, meaning you can’t look them up in a phone book. It has a cover address. It’s not publicly bragged about, in terms of where it is, although it’s obvious where it is to anyone who goes by. And that in itself is sort of an odd manufacture from 9/11, which is that these government agencies, on their own, with really no consideration of national security, can just decide what’s going to be disclosed, what’s going to be undisclosed. And as far as I can see, it’s random to the agency and its power, and it has nothing to actually do with the security of the buildings or the people who work inside them.
AMY GOODMAN: The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the new $1.8 billion headquarters, the fourth-largest federal building in the area, in Springfield, right near Dulles Airport?
WILLIAM ARKIN: No, in Springfield, Virginia, it’s down south near Fort Belvoir. This is a gigantic facility that’s going to—that’s going up right now. It’s going to house 8,500 workers of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. I mean, they are going to leave their older buildings that are scattered throughout Washington. But you know what? They’re going to be in well-appointed offices, and they’ll be in one facility in Washington, and they will obviously, I assume, be able to do their work better. But it’s just one of many. It’s just one of many agencies that probably most Americans have never heard of within the national security and intelligence establishment. And as we found, you know, there are thirty-nine new construction starts this year alone nationwide of buildings going up for various pieces of the intelligence, homeland security and military communities.
AMY GOODMAN: The growth of the military budget, Bill Arkin, since 9/11?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, you know, it’s hard to say even what we spend on national security anymore, Amy. I guess we say we spend a half-a-trillion dollars now on national security. But with supplemental budgets and secret budgets and all that, I mean, it’s really impossible to be able to put a true figure on it. And more importantly, it’s really impossible to gauge where this money is actually going and how effective it is. We’ve talked to people on the Hill who have said to us that the budget documents get thinner and thinner as the budget gets bigger and bigger. There’s no way that Capitol Hill has the resources or the ability to oversee all of this activity. And all sorts of workarounds and devices have been created since 9/11 to essentially put as much as possible into secret programs or off-the-books programs so that they’re beyond scrutiny. Maybe there’ll be eight people in the Congress who have the authority to see the information, but, you know, that’s not oversight as it’s written in the Constitution. Those are people who are co-opted into the system. And I think that really this is an issue that we, as Americans, need to ponder, that we have created a government apparatus that really does not comply with our very precept of the balance of powers. And that’s something that I hope that our series will provoke Congress to take a hard look at, in terms of thinking about better ways in which it can exercise its oversight responsibilities over the executive branch.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill, you’ve been doing this kind of work for years. What were you most shocked by in this latest investigation?
WILLIAM ARKIN: I remember having a conversation with Dana, my writing partner, in the summer of 2009. We had sort of started by looking at the government and then shifted our attention to looking at the contracting base. And I said, "Wow! There’s 200 companies that do top-secret work for the government." And now we’re at 2,000. I mean, it is the sheer magnitude of it, Amy, that is stunning. And to me, you know, it’s not that there might not be redundancies that are necessary or that there might not be overlap which is necessary and disparate departments doing disparate things.
And many of the conclusions that we draw, I think, are ones that your viewers and listeners would accept readily and are part of their normal discussions of government. But the truth is that no one really has a handle on it all. No one really does. We’ve talked to the people at the highest level. We’ve talked to the principals involved, and they have all readily admitted that, yes, this ad hoc crazy system was created after 9/11. We threw money at the problem. We did it the American way, Admiral Blair said to us. You know, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. I mean, ha ha, but the truth of the matter is that now we’re two years into the Obama administration, and the basic system really has not been reformed at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Lay out for us what we will see over the next two days—this is a three-part series—and also the database that you have collated. What is online at washingtonpost.com?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, this is a very rich digital journalism project. I would almost go as far to say that this is a digital product with a small print component to it. As much as the Washington Post has allocated five pages to the newspaper today to our first in this series, the online presentation includes a link analysis application, which will allow you to look at government agencies and look at functions and see how many contractors work for them at the top-secret level and at how many locations and to look at some of the featured companies that we discuss in the article series and look at who they work for and some of their locations. There’s also a mapping application that allows you to delve into the presence of Top Secret America in your own community. And then there is a profile of each of those 3,000-plus entities, where you can look in more detail at their revenue, the size of the companies, and what it is that they do in this field.
So we’ve provided, as is the nature of the internet, the actual backup material to do it. But it wasn’t a second thought to the stories. It wasn’t like we wrote stories and then said, "Let’s put a web presentation together." From the very inception of this project, we have worked in unison with the website, and we’ve had a team of over thirty people working with us, and that’s an enormous amount of resources these days in the mainstream media, to be able to have really what we consider to be the future of investigative journalism displayed in these various multimedia ways with documentary footage, with photo galleries, with a database that’s searchable. We have a Facebook page. And there is a URL, topsecretamerica.com, where you can see our blog that’ll launch today and that we’ll be starting to write on on Thursday, as well as online discussions and other comments and commentary from our readers.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Bill Arkin, a reporter for the Washington Post, co-authored this investigative series that has just been released today in the Washington Post called "Top Secret America." We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.