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Our Secret American Security State

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Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama studying a document held by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during the presidential daily briefing in the Oval Office, February 3, 2011

What is the American intelligence bureaucracy good for? The question is difficult to ask in a serious way in Washington because it risks raising the hackles of career intelligence professionals and their political sponsors at a time when spy agencies remain under pressure to combat resilient if diminished international terrorist groups and to monitor and check Iran’s nuclear program, among other challenges. Yet a serious, transparent review of the intelligence system’s strengths and limitations is overdue.

The past decade has witnessed one of the most egregious misuses of intelligence in American history—the Bush administration’s distortion of information about Saddam Hussein’s terrorist ties and unconventional weapons, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. It has also seen a surge of paramilitary activity and covert action that has included the operation of secret prisons, the use of torture, and targeted killing. The Obama administration ended officially sanctioned torture, but it has refused to allow official inquiries into how it occurred, and the administration has increased the number of covert, unacknowledged targeted killings through the use of armed, unmanned aerial drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

In all, a president who might have challenged the American intelligence bureaucracy and given it a new direction has instead maintained and even expanded what he inherited. Nor has Congress reviewed the hasty organizational reforms it enacted after September 11 or reckoned in depth with the problems exposed by the Iraq disaster. The vital questions that seemed to be begged after the Bush era—about the intelligence system’s scope, effectiveness, costs, outsourcing, legal justifications, and vulnerability to politicization—have remained largely unaddressed.

Intelligence collection is an aspect of self-defense. Some of the work can be distasteful, but there is hardly a kingdom, empire, or democracy in history that has not engaged spies to provide warning about potential surprise attacks, assess the intentions of hostile governments, and ferret out the espionage of other powers. The United States did so in a modest way during the first century and a half of its existence. In an age of slow-moving ships, two oceans rendered strategic surprise unlikely. Pearl Harbor ended that era. By the early 1950s the American intelligence system was swelling into a labyrinth whose size would become much greater than anything imagined by the authors of the Constitution—intelligence became a sprawling, largely self-managing arm of cold war strategies and Pax Americana. The shape of the present intelligence bureaucracy—and the recurring doubts about its accountability to Congress and the public—are traceable to this postwar period.

The mission of cold war spies was to give warning about—and to help prevent—a Soviet nuclear strike on the United States or a conventional invasion of Western Europe, which might escalate into Armageddon. Technology emerged as a relative strength of American intelligence during this period. Spy planes, satellites, and eavesdropping nets provided continuous watch of Soviet missile silos, submarine pens, and fielded armies. Occasionally, the watchers missed critical developments, such as the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, but on the whole the system was reliable, and it eventually provided monitoring support for a nuclear test ban, other arms control treaties, and détente.

The intelligence bureaucracy has also expanded into war-fighting as one postwar president after another authorized covert action in direct and proxy conflicts against Soviet and Chinese interests, from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Nicaragua. These programs drew the CIA into a succession of dirty wars. In what turned out to be the most costly error of all, in Afghanistan, a covert program to support Islamist groups fighting the Soviet occupation helped to foster al-Qaeda.

Intelligence budgets shrank temporarily after the Soviet Union’s collapse, but before any deep structural or organizational changes in the system could take hold, the September 11 attacks reopened Congress’s checkbook. The American security state today is an unwieldy hybrid blending the technology-heavy systems of the cold war period with more recent adaptations intended to address the very different, needle-in-a-haystack problem of tracing and disrupting stateless terrorists. As a proportion of the economy or of federal spending, the bureaucracy is not as large today as it was at the cold war’s height. It remains, nonetheless, enormous and in many ways impenetrable by outsiders.

In their important investigation, Top Secret America, the journalist Dana Priest and the national security analyst William M. Arkin cite, as of 2010, acknowledged annual expenditures of $80.1 billion on national intelligence. But that figure does not include all of the military’s intelligence spending or the Department of Homeland Security’s $58 billion annual budget. Priest and Arkin present striking information about the current system’s reach. Between 2006 and 2010, Arkin constructed a database that documented 182,000 job openings requiring a Top Secret clearance, the highest baseline level of classification. (Above Top Secret there are “compartmented” clearances required for access to particular programs or information such as the names of confidential sources.) According to the authors the government spends $10 billion a year just to manage the secrecy of its secrets.

Top Secret America‘s most troubling finding involves the spread of highly compartmented intelligence activities known as Special Access Programs (SAPs). These are often covert actions and can range from unconventional intelligence collection to sabotage and paramilitary violence. The Defense Department is required to transmit a list of many but not all of its SAPs to Congress annually; as of 2010, the list ran to three hundred pages. Priest and Arkin quote John Rizzo, a former CIA acting general counsel, as saying that the number of covert operations launched since September 11 far exceeds the number that were underway during even the busiest cold war periods. James R. Clapper, currently the director of national intelligence, tells the authors, “There’s only one entity in the universe that has visibility on all SAPs—that’s God.” In view of its source, this is a disturbing statement, however facetiously it was intended.

One of the many strengths of Top Secret America is that Priest and Arkin take nothing for granted. They ask basic, even faux-naive questions about the purpose, accountability, and effectiveness of the acronym soup of covert programs, companies, and Pentagon commands created or expanded after September 11. Their analysis is neither naive about the threat posed by al-Qaeda and similar groups, nor credulous about the generals, spies, and bureaucrats who have so dramatically expanded the country’s defenses in response to September 11.

The book unfolds as a kind of detective story. Arkin works from a converted barn in Vermont, where he mines open sources: government websites, help wanted advertisements, requests for proposals issued to contractors, newsletters, and replies to letters he dispatches to federal officials. His work is that of a mapmaker—he accumulates fragments of evidence about new or undisclosed intelligence and secret defense programs, connects diverse sources, and gradually fills in an overarching sketch. Arkin concentrated his research only on Top Secret–level programs. To map all the information about Secret and other less classified data sets would be virtually impossible—there is, he found, just too much of it. At various times during his multiyear investigation, for example, Arkin discovered as many as 15,000 listings at one time for jobs requiring a Top Secret clearance.

Collating and correlating, he handed off promising paths of inquiry to Priest, who knocked on doors and interviewed sources. Priest is a Washington Post reporter who won Pulitzer Prizes for her investigations exposing the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prison system and the appalling conditions endured by wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at the Department of Defense’s Walter Reid Army Medical Center. She is perhaps the most dogged and fiercely independent national security reporter of her generation. Many of the most entertaining passages in the book describe her driving around the Washington area while using maps on her cell phone to locate and investigate offices and companies; she wandered through anonymous office buildings, matching names on doors with those in Arkin’s databases. Between them, the authors record, they conducted several hundred interviews and visited at least one hundred sites where Top Secret work takes place.

Arkin and Priest document three important failings of the country’s current intelligence apparatus. The growth of intelligence programs since September 11 has been very poorly managed, producing large amounts of waste and duplication. The system’s inefficiencies are dangerous, because they increase the probability of unintended errors. The system’s scale, finally, has become self-perpetuating. Politicians in both major parties are too cautious and too focused on electoral advantage to assume the political risks of an honest reassessment.

The authors often present their inventory of the system’s weaknesses through on-the-record statements by leading participants. John R. Vines, a retired lieutenant general assigned by former defense secretary Robert Gates to review the Pentagon’s intelligence programs, tells Priest and Arkin that “the complexity of this system defies description” and that it was impossible to tell whether the country was any safer because of all the spending authorized after the September 11 attacks. And yet the retired Marine General James Jones, President Obama’s first national security adviser, conceded that there is no political incentive to confront the problems: “Who wants to be the guy that says we don’t need this anymore and then three weeks later something happens?” He adds, “I don’t think you can ever get it back” to a manageable size.

Profiteering also explains the system’s intractability. In a chapter entitled “The Business Card,” Priest and Arkin portray the intelligence-industrial complex, a web, as of 2010, of about 1,900 companies working on Top Secret contracts. Of the 854,000 Americans with Top Secret clearances, Priest and Arkin estimate that more than a quarter—about 265,000—worked in 2010 not in the government but at for-profit corporations. Private-sector companies have long participated in American defense, but the numbers Priest and Arkin unearthed reflect a speeded-up drive for privatization that has gone haywire. The expansion was supposed to save money. In fact, according to a 2008 study by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, contractors made up 29 percent of the workforce in the intelligence system but were responsible for about half of the personnel costs. Gates, himself a former career intelligence officer, is quoted saying that contractors cost the Pentagon 25 percent more than federal employees.

And yet the waste is sustained by a revolving-door system in which intelligence officials who make policy decisions about privatization often leave office to join the for-profit companies they have aided. Priest and Arkin cite the case of J. Michael McConnell, a former director of national intelligence who has twice rotated between government intelligence posts and executive positions at the contractor Booz Allen. As the country’s intelligence chief during the second term of President George W. Bush, McConnell “was a strong advocate for increasing the contracting work of intelligence companies,” the authors write. When McConnell left the Bush administration, he returned to Booz Allen to run the firm’s national security contracting work; his total annual compensation was $4.1 million.

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