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July 19, 2010

Top Secret America and the National Surveillance State

There's an excellent piece (the first of three; the others will appear later this week) at the Washington Post, titled Top Secret America, on the extensive buildup of highly classified, intelligence-related infrastructure since the 9-11 terrorist attacks. By "infrastructure", I mean the creation of hundreds of new government agencies and tasks forces, the construction of dozens of huge new governmental facilities for handling and analyzing intelligence, the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts to private companies, and perhaps even a little investment in developing genuinely new intelligence capabilities [1]. What struck me most is that the people at the top of the intelligence food chain, such as the Secretary of Defense and a former Director of National Intelligence [2], stated for the article that this new intelligence infrastructure is too complicated to understand and that no one has complete knowledge or authority over its various projects or funding.

Recently, at the recommendation of friend and former intel insider, I read Tim Shorrock's Spies For Hire, which describes in great detail the trials and tribulations of the US intelligence community over the past 20-30 years and the ultimate privatization of about 70% of the intelligence community [3,4]. The Washington Post piece paints a more foreboding picture than Shorrock does by suggesting that the build-up after 9-11 was somehow a departure from previous trends. Shorrock, however, argues that the Clinton administration played a large role in the outsourcing of sensitive intelligence-related governmental activities to the private sector and that 9-11 simply accelerated that trend by providing enough money to support a feeding frenzy by private intel companies and defense-related agencies.

One of Shorrock's main concerns is that the huge buildup of intelligence infrastructure, with much of it held privately and with so little systematic oversight and public accountability, provides an immense potential for abuse both by well-meaning government agencies and self-interested individuals. Almost surely there will be bad outcomes as a result of all this buildup, and the fact that these systems are so shrouded in secrecy means that it may be left up to whistle-blowers, clever investigative journalists, and well-monied lawsuits to ferret them out, publish the transgressions in the press, and basically embarrass the government into behaving better. This does not seem like a good way to design a functioning system.


[1] Surely, many of these things are useful [5] and many probably legitimately improve national security. The question is whether the huge amount of money invested since 9-11 has been used wisely, whether it has legitimately addressed the problems identified by the 9-11 Commission, and whether it's building a sustainable, functioning capability for reducing legitimate threats to national security in the long-term. On these counts, the evidence doesn't seem encouraging.

[2] The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a short press release today claiming that the Washington Post story is wrong and that everything is going well.

[3] Apparently, 70% of total US government expenditures on intelligence go to private companies through contracts to provide various hardware, software, logistical support, and services. Some of this was probably unavoidable. For instance, the National Security Agency (NSA) produced the best science and technology on cryptography for most of the 20th century. But, with the rise of the commercial computing industry, the NSA's efforts were eclipsed and the best capabilities now often lie outside the government. Thus, it seems reasonable that some capabilities would be sourced from outside the government. But, it's not clear that 70% of the necessary work has to be supplied by private companies, especially analysis-related work.

[4] For more information, I've been recommended these sources: Secrecy News, a blog by Steven Aftergood, The Spy Who Billed Me, a blog by R. J. Hillhouse, or Outsourced, a book by R. J. Hillhouse on intelligence outsourcing.

[5] For instance, I didn't know that the maps used by Google Earth were originally provided by a company called Keyhole Inc, which was partly funded by the CIA's venture capital fund.

posted July 19, 2010 01:16 PM in Political Wonk | permalink