The Geek Labyrinth
The most frightening thing about our unfathomably complex intelligence bureaucracy.
Don't believe the cynics, the lazybones, the tree-full-of-owls academics, or the apparatchik-apologists who dismiss it as simplistic, pointless, wrongheaded, or dangerous. The Washington Post's three-part series this week on "Top Secret America" is as important as the paper's PR campaign suggests. (Disclosure: The Washington Post Co. owns Slate.)
The culmination of a two-year probe by Dana Priest, one of the country's best military reporters, and William M. Arkin, a national-security sleuth of unparalleled ingenuity, the series lays out—in (occasionally numbing) detail—the vast proliferation of supersecret enterprises, and the compartmentalized security clearances that go with them, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The report's numbers are fairly staggering: 854,000 people have clearances of Top Secret or higher; 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies do superclassified work related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations nationwide; 33 building complexes for Top Secret intelligence work have been built, or are under construction, since 2001.
But the numbers are the least of it, and the critics who focus on them—scoffing that big isn't always bad and, after all, we might need all those companies and complexes in this dangerous world—miss the point.
The point, or one of the main points anyway, is that this Top Secret world has expanded so quickly, with so little control, that nobody knows its costs and boundaries; nobody can keep up with all the information going in and coming out. That's the irony: The expansion took place primarily to improve the intelligence networks, to make it easier for all the various intelligence agencies to integrate their efforts, and thus to "connect the dots," so that patterns can be discerned in random data and terrorist plots can be detected and stopped in time.
However, the result has proved so crushingly complex that, in many ways, the problem has intensified. Or, as retired Lt. Gen. John R. Vines—who was recently assigned to track the most secretive intelligence programs in the Defense Department alone—told the Post reporters, no entity anywhere has "the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities." As a result, he said, "we can't effectively assess whether it is making us more safe."
There's nothing necessarily wrong with the growth of private contractors that have put down stakes in this realm. Of those 1,931 private companies that Priest and Arkin catalog, nearly half—certainly more than 800—are doing work in information technology, the art and science of tracking, mining, and processing data from which the agencies might draw "actionable intelligence." Arguably, only private contractors can do this. Few of today's brilliant computer geeks who might carve a novel path through this maze are going to settle for government pay; if there's no lucrative work of this sort in counterintelligence, many of them will go design video games.
In other words, this is a new incarnation of the military-industrial complex in the making. The old complex—the aerospace and shipbuilding corporations that emerged or thrived after World War II—was probably necessary, too. But, as students of that complex know, it has a downside—and the downside in this new intelligence-IT complex could be fatal.
Arkin put it this way in a phone conversation Thursday afternoon: Let's say Company A is selling some kind of IT gizmo for the National Reconnaissance Office, and let's say Company B is selling another kind of gizmo for the National Security Agency. Neither company has the slightest incentive to tell the other what its gizmo is. And it's quite possible that the NRO doesn't know what the NSA has—and vice-versa.
The solution to the problem might be something that A and B could do together—but they will never join forces.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph by Jupiterimages.