Secrecy News — 09/01/11

from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 83
September 1, 2011

Secrecy News Blog:



Most people can vaguely recall that there was once no U.S. Department of
Homeland Security and that there was a time when you didn't have to take
your shoes off before boarding an airplane or submit to other dubious
security practices.

But hardly anyone truly comprehends the enormous expansion of the
military, intelligence and homeland security bureaucracy that has occurred
over the past decade, and the often irrational transformation of American
life that has accompanied it.

The great virtue of the new book “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and
William M. Arkin (Little Brown, September 2011) is that it illuminates
various facets of our secret government, lifting them from the periphery of
awareness to full, sustained attention.

Top Secret America, which builds on the series of stories the authors
produced for the Washington Post in July 2010, delineates the contours of
“the  new American security state.”  Since 9/11, for example, some 33 large
office complexes for top secret intelligence work have been completed in
the Washington DC area, the equivalent in size of nearly three Pentagons. More than 250,000 contractors are working on top secret programs.  A
bewildering number of agencies – more than a thousand — have been created
to execute security policy, including at least 24 new organizations last
year alone.  And so on.

But the vast scale of this activity says nothing about its quality or
utility.  The authors, who are scrupulous in their presentation of the
facts, are critical in their evaluation:

“One of the greatest secrets of Top Secret America is its disturbing

“Ten years after the attacks of 9/11, more secret projects, more secret
organizations, more secret authorities, more secret decision making, more
watchlists, and more databases are not the answer to every problem.  In
fact, more has become too much.”

“It is time to close the decade-long chapter of fear, to confront the
colossal sum of money that could have been saved or better spent, to
remember what we are truly defending, and in doing so, to begin a new era
of openness and better security against our enemies.”

(From this point of view, it was disappointing to hear the former chair of
the 9/11 Commission, Gov. Tom Kean, declare yesterday that “we are not as
secure as we could or should be.”  We need to accelerate along the path we
have been following, Gov. Kean seemed to say, not to fundamentally change

According to Priest and Arkin, “The government has still not engaged the
American people in an honest conversation about terrorism and the
appropriate U.S. response to it.  We hope our book will promote one.”

Despite the sobering subject matter, Top Secret America actually makes for
lively reading.  It is full of the authors' remarkable insights, anecdotes
and encounters.  Dana Priest explored some of the physical geography of the
classified world, taking elevators to unmarked floors in suburban office
buildings and driving up to guard booths at secret facilities to innocently
ask for information.  She accompanied police in Memphis while they
conducted neighborhood surveillance with newfangled automatic license plate
readers.  She was polygraphed at her request — and found to be a poor
liar.  Bill Arkin, whose painstaking research informed the entire work
(which is narrated by Priest), spent ten days in Qatar at the U.S. military
facility that controls air operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,
and somehow got himself invited to classified briefings.

One question that lurks throughout the book is whether the excesses and
misjudgments that constitute so much of Top Secret America can be corrected
or reversed.  The authors are not very optimistic, particularly since there
are so many people who benefit from current arrangements, however wasteful,
useless or pointless they might be.

By way of illustration they cite U.S. Northern Command, the newest
military command that is nominally responsible for defense of North America
but in practice is largely subordinate to other agencies and organizations.
“The fact that Northern Command would even continue to exist as a major,
four-star-led, geographic military command, with virtually no
responsibilities, no competencies, and no unique role to fill, demonstrated
the resiliency of institutions created in the wake of 9/11 and just how
difficult it would be to ever actually shrink Top Secret America,” they

Secrecy is naturally a persistent theme throughout the book.  As is often
the case in national security reporting, the authors relied on unauthorized
disclosures to complement their own research and reporting. And in this
case, such disclosures served as a particularly effective antidote to

“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,” they

At the same time, the authors noted that they “have left out some
information” based on national security considerations.

Top Secret America will be featured on PBS Frontline on September 6, the
book's official release date.


Last month Sandia National Laboratories published an unlikely account of
the thought of C.S. Peirce (1839-1914), the American pragmatist
philosopher.  See “Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Right Way of Thinking” by
Philip L. Campbell of the Sandia Networked Systems Survivability and
Assurance Department, Sandia Report SAND2011-5583, August 2011:

What is the connection between Peirce's philosophy and the national
security mission of Sandia, or of the Department of Energy's National
Nuclear Security Administration, which sponsored the paper?  The author did
not reply to an email inquiry from Secrecy News on that point yesterday. But the paper states that “In practical terms, we can use Peirce's lectures
to build a model of how we make decisions.” (p. 12)

Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the
Federation of American Scientists.

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