23 Jul 2010

Top Secret America Graded By A Professional

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Thomas G. Mahnken, Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, harshly criticizes the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” in Foreign Policy.

I’ve just finished Dana Priest and William Arkin’s “Top Secret America,” The Washington Post’s two-year, three-part “investigation” into U.S. classified activities. If one of my graduate students handed this in as a term paper, I’d have a hard time giving it a passing grade. …

[T]he authors have, at best, a weak thesis. That’s actually giving them the benefit of the doubt, because the series as a whole doesn’t really have a thesis. Instead, it is a series of strung-together facts and assertions. Many of these facts are misleading. For example, the authors point to the fact that large numbers of Americans hold top-secret security clearances, but fail to distinguish between those who are genuinely involved in intelligence work and those who require the clearances for other reasons — such as maintaining classified computer equipment or, for that matter, serving as janitors or food service workers in organizations that do classified work. Similarly, they point to the large number of contractors involved in top-secret work without differentiating those who actually perform analysis and those who develop hardware and software.

Second, the authors fail to provide context. They make much of the fact that the U.S. intelligence community consists of many organizations with overlapping jurisdiction. True enough. But what they fail to point out is that this has been a key design feature of the U.S. intelligence community since its founding in the wake of World War II. The architects of the U.S. intelligence system wanted different eyes to look at the same data from diverse perspectives because they wanted to avoid another surprise attack like Pearl Harbor. …

In emphasizing the growth of the intelligence community since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the authors are at the same time accurate and misleading. They accurately note that the size of intelligence agencies grew rapidly after 9/11, but that’s like saying that the scale of U.S. warship construction ballooned in the months after Pearl Harbor. It’s true but misses the larger point. …

During the 1990s the size of the U.S. intelligence community declined significantly because both the Clinton administration and leaders in Congress believed that we were headed for a more peaceful world. Indeed, the Clinton administration made trimming the size of the intelligence community a priority through its Reinventing Government initiative. Many intelligence analysts took offers of early retirement and became contractors — contractors that the U.S. government hired back after 9/11. A good deal of the post-9/11 intelligence buildup thus involved trying to buy back capacity and capability that had been eliminated during the 1990s.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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