Search Top Secret America’s Database of Private Spooks
By Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman
Wired | July 19, 2010
Figuring out exactly who’s cashing in on the post-9/11 boom in secret programs just got a whole lot easier.
U.S. spy agencies, the State Department, and the White House had a collective panic attack on Friday over an upcoming Washington Post expose on the intelligence-industrial complex. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin let it drop this morning.
It includes a searchable database cataloging what an estimated 854,000 employees and legions of contractors are apparently up to. Users can now to see just how much money these government agencies are spending and where those top secret contractors are located. Check out this nine-page list of agencies and contractors involved in air and satellite observations, for instance. No wonder it scares the crap out of Official Washington: it’s bound to provoke all sorts of questions — both from taxpayers wondering where their money goes, and from U.S. adversaries looking to penetrate America’s spy complex.
But this piece is about much more than dollars. It’s about what used to be called the Garrison State — the impact on society of a Praetorian class of war-focused elites. Priest and Arkin call it “Top Secret America” and it’s so big, and grown so fast, that it’s replicated the problem of disconnection within the intelligence agencies that facilitated America’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack. With too many analysts and too many capabilities documenting too much, with too few filters in place to sort out the useful stuff or discover hidden connections, the information overload is its own information blackout. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe,” a retired Army three-star general who recently assessed the system tells the reporters.
The Post — whose editorial page has been notably receptive to the growth of the security state over the years — explains in an editorial comment that it ran its constellation of websites by security officials to ensure that it wasn’t jeopardizing national security. In one instance, the editors deleted certain unspecified specific “data points” the project initially disclosed. And they further explain that most of what the project documents, like the locations of contractor and agency facilities, is already public information, distributed on company and agency websites. So it’s not as if the paper has put anyone in harm’s way. (Some of those overlapping contracts issued by the “263 organizations [that] have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11″ might now be in danger, however.)
Still, in compiling all this information, there’s a risk that the Post provides a hostile foreign power looking to infiltrate the U.S. security apparatus now has an online yellow pages for sending out his resume. Ironically, the very nature of the phenomenon Priest and Arkin document might be enough to foil an infiltrator. Security agencies and their companies produce more information than anyone can consume, adding uncertain value to the amount of information already public. And the spigot — contained in congressional budgets that are either politically sacrosanct or entirely secret — doesn’t seem to be able to close. One impressed observer notes to the paper about a useless intel program scheduled for closure, ”Like a zombie, it keeps on living.”
That rise in what might be called the counterterrorism-industrial complex is a story we’ve covered since this blog set up shop in 2007, as have many of our friends, because privatized intelligence is one of the major security developments of the last decade-plus. It’s also been enshrouded by near-baroque secrecy. The intelligence community would not even disclose just how many contractors it employs, for instance, until the Post did so.
That secrecy has concealed — barely — how inextricable the contractors are from the intelligence community. Take Bill Black, who ended his nearly-40 year career with the National Security Agency in 1997, when he became a vice president of intel contractor SAIC. That lasted for barely two years before Black returned as the agency’s deputy director — with some ideas about what company could revamp NSA’s software. Long story short: several years and a billion dollars later, the only thing the program yielded was an indictment of a whistleblower accused of leaking it to reporter Siobhan Gorman.
That’s been par for the course after the post-9/11 cash-in. Similar to their military counterparts, intelligence companies (sometimes they’re the same companies) often “bid back” the nation’s spies, enticing veteran intel professionals to the contracting sector with greater salaries — raising the overall price of the U.S. security infrastructure when the spy agencies basically contract out for their old workforce. Want data-mining, or to build a logic layer for your surveillance architecture? Contractors are often able to take a piece of the job with less red tape getting in the way.
Except that the information produced in Top Secret America has questionable ability to thwart, capture or kill terrorists. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab made his way onto Northwest Airlines Flight 253, and only alert passengers prevented him from detonating a bomb in his underwear. In fairness, the law enforcement and intelligence communities have racked up notable successes in recent years, like arresting Najibullah Zazi before, an indictment alleges, he could place suicide bombers in the New York City subway. And the fact remains that the closest thing the nation has experienced to a second 9/11 came from a deranged Army major who shot up Fort Hood in November, a horrific act that killed over a dozen people, not thousands.
Still, this is a critique that resonates:
When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. “I told him that after 41/2 years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!” he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.
Um, three wars? Only in Top Secret America…
UPDATE: Acting Director of National Intelligence David Gompert just released a wet-noodle response to Top Secret America. “The reporting does not reflect the Intelligence Community we know,” Gompert says in a statement. “We accept that we operate in an environment that limits the amount of information we can share. However, the fact is, the men and women of the Intelligence Community have improved our operations, thwarted attacks, and are achieving untold successes every day.”
In recent years, we have reformed the IC in ways that have improved the quality, quantity, regularity, and speed of our support to policymakers, warfighters, and homeland defenders, and we will continue our reform efforts…. We will continue to scrutinize our own operations, seek ways to improve and adapt, and work with Congress on its crucial oversight and reform efforts. We can always do better, and we will. And the importance of our mission and our commitment to keeping America safe will remain steadfast, whether they are reflected in the day’s news or not.
In other words: we’re doing just great, and pinching pennies, too. Now stop looking at that database.
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