What Washington is talking about today: "Top Secret America" - Macleans.ca

What Washington is talking about today: “Top Secret America”

Uncovering the secretive “fourth branch” of U.S. government


Two-years in the making, and the subject of much speculation and anticipation, the Washington Post has released its investigative project into the growth of  US intelligence establishment since 9/11 co-authored by Dana Priest — the reporter who won two Pulitzers — one for her story revealing CIA secret prisons, and one for co-authoring a piece on problems with veterans’ care at Walter Reed hospital.

It’s a big, sprawling project with all kind of on-line features. I haven’t browsed them all yet myself.

The bottom line —  a big, expensive, unaccountable, secretive “fourth branch” of government has grown up since 9/11. Priest and William Arkin write:

“After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation’s other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 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 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.”


What Washington is talking about today: “Top Secret America”

  1. Haha, what's with all the trivia? 'If you stacked end to end all of the dollar bills spent on security since 9/11, it would reach to the moon and back 11 times!' 'Government employees working in intelligence services could fill 2,415 football stadiums!' 'Ham and cheese sandwiches consumed by intelligence service employees in a single year could feed the entire nation of Eritrea for a month!'

    • I really don't think ham and cheese sandwiches are that popular. I know that obesity is an issue in the US but I doubt that those sandwiches would feed the entire nation of Eritrea for more than a week, 10 days tops.

    • I don't know how big 33 building complexes might be. When I find out they occupy 22 times the floor space of the U.S. capitol, I learn something. One of my profs at university told me the best public-administration textbook was a Government of Canada telephone directory, because you could see how important something was by how many pages of phone numbers it occupied.

      Incidentally, "all the trivia" is two paragraphs in tens of thousands of words of reporting that took two reporters and a team of their colleagues two years' work.

      • Haha, fair enough – I really wasn't pronouncing on the quality of the work or the diligent efforts of these fine researchers so much as make a glib remark about this aspect of their presentation, and it wasn't my intention to impugn or tranish their contribution to public knowledge. Personally, I've never been to the U.S. Capitol is, or the Pentagon, so it means little to me, but maybe that's because I'm a bumpkin. As for the other statistic, I'm not sure that saying "1.5 times as many people live in Washington D.C." would help anyone better concieve of the number 845,000 (especially when we normally provide populations of metro centres, which for Washington is about 5 million).

  2. And most of those intelligence people would tell you that they can barely do their job because they spend most of it trying not to trip over each other, and communication between the groups is a joke.

    The government's idea of fixing the continuity and communication problems is to create more bureaucracies to oversee the communication (just adding more steps and hands for information to pass through). Can't simply cut down on the waste and redundancy, God forbid…

    • Such is the way of intelligence. Such was the case in 1947 when the NSC and CIA were established to co-ordinate intelligence from military, diplomatic and law enforcement branches (creating the Director of Central Intelligence); Such was the case after the Church and Pike commissions in the mid-70s where expanded oversight yielded more black budgets; Such was the case after the 9/11 Commission report and Bush's establishment of the Director of National Intelligence … Another layer, another Czar, more outsourcing, more gear, another cash cow for contractors, more federal dollars hidden from auditing … and they'll still learn about events along with the rest of us when they break on CNN or the pages of the NY Times.

  3. They are all spying on each other now, as the Empire collapses in on itself.

  4. Someone tell me why the US is like this. In the early part of the 20th century they were fanatic about Italian bomb-throwers. Then Communists held the stage untile the stage collapsed on the communists. Now it is terrorists. Next it will probably be Christian Fundamentalists against Islamic Fundamentalists or whatever.

    How do they as a nation get siezed up with these mono-hates? Then the bag of gold is thrust in the hands of several bureaus and this sort of nonsense emanates. How many terrorists can dance on the head of a pin? I don't know but these "researchers"need a pin in the derriere (sp)

  5. How is that the same people who are afraid of letting government make timid rules for health insurance and can't trust government to get anything right, think it's just hunky dory to create a massive super secret bureaucracy that is barely accountable to anyone, let alone citizens?

    • How is it that the same people who think bloated bureaucracies everywhere else are just hunky dory get all upset over the same phenomenon occurring in the intelligence field?

    • Likely because of the profits to be made by people like Rumsfeld and Cheney and other uber-rich and highly connected neocons who follow their footsteps in the pharmaceutical and security multi-nationals.

  6. It's striking how often culture anticipates/reflects politics and society, or the impression people have of it. Condor/Parallax/Conversation then, now Rubicon: http://www.amctv.com/originals/Rubicon/

    I am also struck, as always, by the franco-american cultural exchange. Hard not to think Rubicon isn't drawing heavily on "I… comme Icare" (parallel govt of secret services – hard to beat French at this game, been paranoid forever – with good reason, given their history) http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/I…_comme_Icare http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Sqqhr4_J28