By Seth Huiras
Top secret operations in the United States have become so complex that no one person knows all of their facets, said author and two time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dana Priest at an annual lecture in Madison, Wis. She elaborated on her recent book, “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.” Priest, a reporter for the Washington Post, said the explosion of secrecy is partly because of the September 11 attacks. She investigated the government’s response to the attacks and found that it spent around 80 billion USD within weeks. It gave the CIA 1 billion USD to prevent future attacks as well. Priest focused on the two sources of government defense spending: outsourcing federal contractors and creating covert intelligence departments. Since the collapse of the World Trade Center, the number of departments and contractors has quickly grown, she said.
To begin her investigation, Priest mapped top-secret departments with coworker William Arkin, and they made interactive representations online. They collected addresses, organizations and names of contractors at the secret level, but found that too many existed for them to handle. At the top-secret level, they found over 1,200 federal government agencies working on counterterrorism. “There’s new buildings springing up everywhere,” said Priest. “Eventually, the buildings come to symbolize something important about the world that we’re entering.” The growth of secret departments is partly because of the CIA’s response to the attacks, Priest said. It created a covert action program called Greystone, the largest in its history, which spurred the growth of secret departments and counterterrorism operations. With Arkin, she found unusual codenames, secret prisons, restricted buildings and secret flights as individual parts to the larger picture of top-secret America. She said nobody in the government could hold the programs accountable because of their size, and this lack of oversight led to secrecy between agencies.
“I interviewed the person who’s now the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) who told me at the time that this world of super secrecy is so big that only God knows everything,” said Priest.
The DNI has little power, and the government created the position in a failed attempt to oversee the secrecy and complexity at the top-secret level, Priest said. The DNI is head of the National Intelligence Program, which grew to a large size without a clear purpose. Priest also pointed out that other post 9/11 organizations, such as operation centers, have flourished. Dozens exist with the sole purpose of briefing superiors on information.
“There are gigantic flat-screen TVs, lots of people, but they don’t manage operations,” said Priest. In addition to the growth of secret departments, Priest emphasized how outsourced contractors drain the government of money and resources. The rotating door between contractors and government employees has turned Washington D.C. into “a self-licking ice cream cone,” she said.Former government employees have found lucrative work as contractors, and their high salaries have protected them from the recent recession, Priest explained. The problem, she said, is the government’s dependence on contractors. Of the 865,000 people she and Arkin found with top-secret clearance in the United States, about a third are contractors.
“They filled so many roles, they had more experience than the new people, and they took on roles they’re legally not supposed to take on,” said Priest.
Although Priest inundated her audience with details of government inefficiencies and pointless departments as well as unaccounted spending and labor, she believes the United States is safer since 9/11. She said national security has risen because select organizations operate effectively within the larger security complex. With future budget cuts foreseeable, she hopes the government is careful with its cutting since some programs work well.
“One thing is for sure,” she said in her closing statement. “If and when they cut, you won’t know what they do because that too will be secret.”