Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin shocked the nation with an incredible report detailing a “Fourth Branch” of American government that has grown out of the ashes of 9/11. Dubbed “Top Secret America,” the branch constitutes clandestine and almost out of control intelligence infrastructure that spans the United States financed by out of control Congressional spending.
For two years, Priest, Arkin, and The Washington Post worked to build what may be the most comprehensive report to date documenting an unwieldy network of more than 1,200 government agencies and almost 2,000 private companies that employ more than 850,000 people holding top secret security clearance. In Washington D.C. alone, some 17,000,000 square feet of top secret building space has been constructed to house departments with unknown purposes. The report does not seem to estimate how many people total staff the government intelligence effort.
Not the least of the matters exposed by Top Secret America is the amount of government intelligence money being poured into private contractors to escape budgetary accountability. According to the Top Secret America report, many of these contractors have little or no oversight and work in buildings that are not even allowed to be on the map or have a street address doing things that some believe no one knows about.
All told, the branch of government called Top Secret America is supposed to help defend the nation against terrorism, but with reports that agencies struggled to spend money shoveled into them by Congress fast enough and with so much of the intelligence network “off the grid,” Top Secret America questions how anyone can evaluate the effectiveness of the system. The part of Top Secret America that is known, produces so many reports and so much data that much of it is never used.
In classic American government style, the supposed solution to the problem of managing Top Secret America was the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) which is supposed to control a host of intelligence agencies, although Congress gave no authority over those agencies to the Director. The report suggests that now ODNI is so large that many of the people running it do not know what the office is supposed to be doing.
Exasperating the enormity and complexity of Top Secret America is the development of an internal culture complete with its own status symbols. Departments and agencies apparently compete to get larger and more numerous secure rooms called SCIFs, which are said to be equivalent to comparing penis sizes within the community. Other status symbols are armored cars, command centers, and security details, all increasing in size, number, and expense as employees within the system compete for prominence.
In short, the intelligence community is afraid of the Top Secret America report because it puts their livelihood at risk. If enough people find out about the incredibly chaotic, expansive, and expensive state of Top Secret America, the possibility exists that voters may pressure political leaders to take action to bring American intelligence under scrutiny. Such an action could end the “gravy train” that the hidden Top Secret American world has enjoyed for nearly a decade.
Priest, Dana, and William M. Arkin. “Top Secret America.” Washington Post. July 19, 2010. http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-americ a/articles/ (accessed July 19, 2010).