Category Archive 'Top Secret America'

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.

19 Jul 2010

WaPo Top Secret America Website Launched Today

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The Washington Post’s sexy new multimedia web-site adversarially reporting on the US Intelligence Community’s components, contractors, facilities, size, and expenditures is, as was predicted, up and running today.

The introductory 1:47 video and a lengthy article by Dana Priest and William Arkin take a downright conservative-sounding tone of skepticism of big government, complaining about massive growth, duplication of effort, paralysis and confusion stemming from over-large bureaucracy, and an excessive cult of secrecy leading to a lack of accountability.

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. …

An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. …

Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored. …

The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.

At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending. …

Beyond redundancy, secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness… say defense and intelligence officers. For the Defense Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is extremely limited and monitored by specially trained security officers.

These are called Special Access Programs – or SAPs – and the Pentagon’s list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authorized to know anything about them. All this means that very few people have a complete sense of what’s going on.

“There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs – that’s God,” said James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence.

Such secrecy can undermine the normal chain of command when senior officials use it to cut out rivals or when subordinates are ordered to keep secrets from their commanders.

One military officer involved in one such program said he was ordered to sign a document prohibiting him from disclosing it to his four-star commander, with whom he worked closely every day, because the commander was not authorized to know about it. Another senior defense official recalls the day he tried to find out about a program in his budget, only to be rebuffed by a peer. “What do you mean you can’t tell me? I pay for the program,” he recalled saying in a heated exchange.

These contentions sound reasonable, though the idea of top secret government functions and processes being reformed by even more unaccountable journalists with a record of personal career advancement via damaging leaks of highly classified intelligence operations strikes me as a case of the local foxes putting on efficiency expert Halloween costumes and volunteering to improve operations in the chicken house.

I’m not in the least persuaded that the Post really needed to publish a cool interactive map of government facility and contractor company locations and a searchable database of companies working on top secret contracting assignments. Why do Washington Post readers need such detailed information? Couldn’t foreign intelligence services do their own research?

It is also far from clear to me that Dana Priest and the Washington Post have not knowingly again violated the Espionage Act of 1917 by publishing that map and database. This time, who knows? It is much easier for a leftwing administration to undertake prosecutions of these kinds of offenses. The Obama Administration has already demonstrated more willingness to enforce the law in National Security cases than the Bush Administration ever did. It will be interesting to see how the government reacts.

Will Dana Priest go to jail or will she just collect one more Pulitzer Prize?

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Fox News says the Obama Administration is expecting some absurd spending stories and quotes Intelligence Community sources talking about what a great resource for America’s enemies that Post website is going to be.

The Obama administration is bracing for the first in a series of Washington Post articles said to focus in unprecedented detail on the government’s spending on intelligence contractors.

The intelligence community is warning that the article could blow the cover of contract companies doing top-secret work for the government. At the same time, a senior administration official acknowledged that the kind of wasteful spending expected to be spotlighted in the series is “troubling” and something the administration is trying to address.

“There will be examples of money being wasted in the series that seem egregious and we are just as offended as the readers by those examples,” the official said. The official said some of the information in the story is “explainable,” in that some “redundancy” is necessary in the intelligence community. But the official said the administration has been working to reduce “waste” and that “it’s something we’ve been on top of.”

Other sectors of the administration were on high alert over the piece. A source told Fox News that the series amounts to a “significant targeting document” in that it will apparently bring together unclassified information from the public domain in a single location, making it a one-stop shop for this level of detail. The official said “few intelligence groups have the assets and resources to pool” this kind of information.

This has led to warnings about how the information could be used. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence sent out a memo saying that “foreign intelligence services, terrorist organizations and criminal elements will have potential interest in this kind of information.”


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