Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William Arkin (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011); 320 pages.
All Americans are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Since the attacks of September 11, a new, powerful class of people has swarmed into the nation’s capital and its surrounding suburbs. Armed with top-secret security clearances, they are government counterterrorism and intelligence workers and contractors who believe they are critical to keeping the country safe from jihadi terrorists. But their belief is suspect: the absence of another spectacular attack only magnifies the zeal of their belief in their own necessity.
The rise of this homeland security and intelligence class, operating in secret, signals a distressing threat to American democracy from those ostensibly sworn, or hired, to protect it, according to Washington Post journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. The book, deriving from a special investigative series in the Washington Post, is a testament to the hard work and delayed gratification of investigative journalism. It’s a mostly successful, albeit padded, detective story spanning the decade since 9/11, as Priest and Arkin try to understand the cult of security that has invaded the Washington, D.C., area and that has grown fat and wealthy on taxpayer money drained through fear.
“The complexity of this system defies explanation,” admitted retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, although its power centers include the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pentagon, state-based intelligence-fusion centers, and the hundreds of thousands of contractors hired to support each organization’s mission. Starting to piece this new system of state capitalism together, Priest and Arkin describe it as a disease:
Just as the most significant thing about a spiking count of white blood cells was what the blood test couldn’t see — the infection that prompted the white cells to multiply in the first place — the top secret jobs and companies, and the government organizations they worked for, pointed to something unprecedented that had yet to be identified in the body politic.
Currently, about 854,000 people hold top-secret clearances, Priest and Arkin report. A little less than a third of them are private contractors working at for-profit companies feasting off a smorgasbord of security spending. The major product many of those companies sell is intelligence-analysis reports, and the government is drowning in them. While the idea is to have as many analysts trying to connect the dots as possible, the result is often massive duplication of effort that swallows decision-makers with a tsunami of intelligence reports. In a telling anecdote, Priest describes a meeting with a source angry at the volume of intelligence reports he receives: “The data, he scoffed, was outdated by the time it had arrived,” she writes. “A good deal of once valuable, expensively obtained information had been leeched of its value by virtue of the delay in getting it to the relevant people — if, that is, the relevant people even found it among mountains of pages and millions of kilobytes.”
This rapid expansion of the corporate security state was carried out uncritically with taxpayer dollars because no member of Congress had the courage to voice dissent after 9/11. “Who wants to be the guy that says we don’t need this anymore and then three weeks later something happens?” Obama National Security Adviser James Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps, told Priest and Arkin, adding, “I don’t think you can ever get it back” to a smaller size.
The reason is easy to understand: money, lots of it.
Early in the evolution of Top Secret America its economic strategy emerged. With tremendous opportunities to do business with the government, companies poached the government’s best middle and top managers, creating a brain drain that made private contractors even more important to homeland security and intelligence operations. “[The] quality of analysis in the age of al-Qaeda terrorism took a hit after 9/11 with the exodus several years later of experienced veterans in midcareer into the lucrative private sector,” report Priest and Arkin. In the CIA, for instance, Director Leon Panetta had no choice but to hire veteran employees back because they had the agency expertise no one else had.
But no one played the game quite like retired Rear Adm. Mike McConnell, who left Booz Allen Hamilton in 2006 to become the second director of national intelligence, where he argued for a larger role for contractors. In 2009, he went back to Booz Allen Hamilton after Obama took office, where he made $1 million a year with a total compensation package of $4.1 million, report Priest and Arkin. McConnell’s firm, naturally, has about 10,000 people with security clearances ready to serve the government for the right price.
No doubt it’s this perverse incentive that attracts many people to Top Secret America. They begin their career in government “service,” learn a trade in the security game, and then leave for a private company that contracts with the federal government, doing essentially the same thing they did while in public employ, only for more than twice the price. The most promising don’t even need to go slumming in government anymore. Corporate contractors, report Priest and Arkin, “offered to train prospective analysts straight out of college, which meant, in reality, on-the-job training at taxpayer expense.”
That turns the revolving door between government and corporate America into an elevator for those relatively smart college graduates who keep their noses clean. Whereas a government job in the past was either about “public service” or a stable middle-class job, for those able to grab a security clearance it has become a quick path to a six-figure salary and what looks like perpetual job security. As Priest and Arkin note, it’s no coincidence that many of the cities and counties that surround Washington, D.C. — such as Virginia’s Fairfax and Loudoun counties and Maryland’s Montgomery County — “share the lowest unemployment rates and the highest real estate values in the nation.”
Yet this well-paid army of domestic defenders doesn’t have many public successes in disrupting serious attacks against the United States to show for their power and privilege. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s 2009 attack at Fort Hood occurred, killing 13, despite multiple warning signs. The domestic intelligence and security apparatus failed to identify and disrupt Faisal Shahzad’s Times Square bomb attack. Fortunately, the bomb failed and no one was hurt.
But the perfect illustration of Top Secret America’s dysfunction and waste was evident in its response to Christmas 2009’s underwear-bomb plot. Despite warnings from the bomber’s well-respected father to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had gone jihadi, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name never made it onto the terrorism no-fly or selectee lists and he boarded his flight to Detroit without being screened. “[Just] as the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of security-cleared personnel of the massive 9/11 apparatus hadn’t prevented Abdulmutallab from getting to this moment, it did nothing now to prevent disaster,” Priest and Arkin note. “Instead, a Dutch video producer … dove across four airplane seats to tackle the 23-year-old when he saw him trying to light something on fire.”
The government’s and Con-gress’s response to the event was predictable. Rather than using the incident to talk seriously about the impossibility of eliminating all risks or about the connections between American foreign policy and homeland security, DHS opted for rolling out full-body scanners without ever doing a cost-benefit analysis on the expensive and highly invasive technology. Most elected leaders decided not to push back, despite clear civil-liberty and health concerns. “In Top Secret America, more is often the solution,” Priest and Arkin write sardonically.
What may be the scariest irony of Top Secret America is that nearly a million people who never did anything frowned upon by polite society are now empowered to electronically peep into the lives of innocent Americans and even help kill America’s enemies, whether they present an imminent threat to the nation or not. In one of the more ridiculous processes, Priest and Arkin note that private contractors can remotely operate killer drones in Afghanistan and Iraq until the time when they enter “the kill box.” When the time is right, the joystick-like contraption is handed to an Air Force pilot who then remotely vaporizes a human being.
Priest and Arkin reveal how surgical these distressing strikes really are, exposing the monstrous side of American exceptionalism. “According to Sensitive Target Approval and Review (STAR) procedures, a sensitive target required going all the way up to the secretary of Defense to get approval to strike,” they write. “An estimate that more than 35 civilians might be killed also triggered the external approval process, which included almost any strike within an urban area.” Talk about collateral murder. Afterward that pilot and contractor can drive home to suburban Nevada and North Carolina for dinner with the family, feeling proud of a day’s work.
But drone warfare has another purpose, according to Priest and Arkin: it allows the political class to wage war without too much American gristle’s hitting cable news or social media. “Explicit in the remote nature of the new warfare was a stark trade-off: saving the lives of more American soldiers and airmen at the expense of accidentally killing more innocent civilians abroad,” they write. By doubling down on drone warfare, Barack Obama has done what only a Democratic president could do without too much outrage from the Liberal-Left. He has found a way to make empire increasingly bloodless for Americans, because it’s simply a truism that American lives are more valuable than the lives of any other nationality.
The question Priest’s and Arkin’s work raises, which they unfortunately address only sporadically and never state plainly, is, How can we trust bureaucracies and state capitalists, who profit from insecurity, to ever give us an honest evaluation of the threats we face? The fewer threats we face from terrorism should translate into less money showered on this new American security establishment. That means there’s a natural incentive for both government and corporate security bureaucracies to exaggerate even relatively minor threats to keep the spigot flowing. Keep that in mind when you hear about the threat posed by homegrown terrorists and lone wolves.
The hope of this book, however, is that it was written at all. In wiggling their way into the nooks and crannies of Top Secret America, Priest and Arkin needed sources — lots of them — to talk. “Most of those who helped us did so with the knowledge that they were breaking some internal agency rule in doing so; they proceeded anyway because they wanted us to have a more complete picture of the inner workings of the post–9/11 world we sought to describe and because they, too, believe too much information is classified for no good reason,” the reporters explain. “They spoke because they, too, were alarmed that one of the greatest secrets of Top Secret America is its disturbing dysfunction.”
But it is not until people of conscience shed their anonymity and take their message viral that the American public will understand the inner rot at the heart of America’s new security state. That, however, may be asking too much of the men and women in today’s America, where WikiLeaks and other national-security whistleblowers are vilified and prosecuted, often with popular support, for protecting the people’s right to know. And while honest insiders look the other way, the corruption, excess, and security profiteering will continue, leaving the American people to connect their own dots about the inherent tradeoffs between liberty, security, and fiscal sanity. Otherwise the privileged few of Top Secret America will continue to profitably waste away.