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'Top Secret America'—A Bust

Everyone says the 'Washington Post' series on the National Security State is great journalism. It’s not.

In late July the Washington Post published an ambitious report on U.S. national security intelligence that we are told had taken the Post’s staff two years to complete. The project was led by two competent and experienced reporters, Dana Priest and William Arkin, and the report has received an enthusiastic press. Having written about national security intelligence in books like Countering Terrorism: Blurred Focus, Halting Steps (2007), I was looking forward to reading the Post’s report.

The report is, in fact, a disappointment. It is descriptive rather than analytic, and the description is based entirely on two types of data, neither of which contributes to an understanding of the nature and problems of the nation’s intelligence system. The two types are statistics indicating the size and organizational complexity of national security intelligence, and expressions of exasperation at that size and complexity by former or current insiders.

The statistics are not broken down by each of the principal domains of national security intelligence, and so the reader is given no sense of the actual structure of the intelligence system. Five aspects need to be distinguished. The first is routine military intelligence—military intelligence unrelated to ongoing combat. The military has to keep tabs on the capabilities, deployments, intentions, and so forth of the armed forces of foreign countries even when it is not fighting them. Second, there is combat intelligence, which at present is focused on Afghanistan but extends to other areas as well, such as Iraq, Yemen, and the Philippines. This second area of military intelligence overlaps the third and fourth domains of national security intelligence—counterterrorist intelligence conducted abroad and at home, the latter complicated by sensitivities to potential violations of privacy and civil liberties. Last, and overlapping all the others, is the traditional kind of foreign intelligence conducted by the CIA, which includes wide-ranging intelligence analysis, recruitment of foreign agents, counterintelligence, and paramilitary operations in support of U.S. foreign policy.

Merely counting the number of people, parking spaces, square feet of building space, and other countables lovingly recited in the Post‘s report conveys no useful information and will impress only naïve readers who have somehow failed to realize that the U.S. government and its major components are huge. The report conveys the impression of mindless growth in intelligence personnel, contractors, and facilities since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But that was a watershed event that justified expanding the intelligence system. Before the attacks there was little concern with terrorism, and after there was and there continues to be acute concern, along with virtually continuous warfare in central Asia and enhanced concern with the nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran. The report, because it makes no effort at meaningful disaggregation of the statistics of expansion, does not indicate how much of the recent growth in our intelligence facilities and personnel is legitimately responsive to threats to national security that have emerged (or first been recognized) since 9/11 and how much is waste engendered by political, commercial, and bureaucratic exploitation of people’s fears.

Several of the “wow” statistics highlighted in the report are completely meaningless. One is the number of persons—more than 850,000—who have top-secret clearances. A top-secret clearance is required for all sorts of activities that have nothing to do with intelligence, such as advanced weapons research, high-level military command, and the management of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. (A cafeteria worker in a weapons factory might require such a clearance.) It is well known that overclassification is rampant, and so the number of top-secret clearances may well be excessive. But the figure casts no light on overclassification of intelligence.

Another meaningless figure is that more than 1,200 government organizations are involved in national security intelligence. The number was arrived at by dividing agencies that have intelligence duties into their constituent units. Any large organization contains a large number of organizational units. That doesn’t mean the organization is unmanageable, which is the inference that the study invites the reader to draw from the number of units.

Similarly meaningless is the large number (almost 2,000) of companies that have contracts with one or more intelligence agencies. They are suppliers of equipment, personnel, information, and expertise to the agencies. There is nothing unusual or untoward about a large enterprise—such as the conglomeration of U.S. intelligence agencies—having thousands of suppliers.

The overarching theme of the study is that the intelligence system is too large. But in emphasizing sheer size, the study reflects a lack of perspective. Although the national security state has about 100,000 employees and annual expenditures of $75 billion, IBM has four times as many employees and yearly costs approaching the same amount. Is IBM too large? Is $75 billion, which is roughly one-half of one percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, too much to spend on the full range of intelligence activities in which the world’s most powerful and globally committed nation—a nation at war and struggling against terrorism on many fronts, including the home front—is compelled to engage?

The second type of data in the Post report is not statistical; it consists rather of anecdotes in which present or former members of intelligence agencies, or officials who interact with the agencies, express exasperation at the gaps and redundancies in the intelligence system and at the impossibility of sorting and analyzing the staggering amount of intelligence data that the system collects every minute of the year. Although anecdotes are not analysis and do not reveal the scope and gravity of problems, the problems revealed by the anecdotes that pepper the Post report are real. But they are also well known, rather than having been discovered, Watergate-fashion, by The Washington Post. The problems are more difficult to solve than the Post report, which attributes them to incompetence and giantism, lets on.

One of the problems is the number of different intelligence databases and the difficulty of searching across them, or in other words of pooling the information in them. It’s not like searching on Google, which will scan many thousands of databases for the answer to your query. Wouldn’t it be great if thousands of intelligence analysts could search all the intelligence system’s databases Google-fashion? No it wouldn’t be, because if one of those analysts was a foreign agent, deeply disgruntled employee, or lunatic, he could and might reveal to the world all the intelligence data, techniques, analyses, names of agents, etc. possessed by the United States. There is a difficult tradeoff between the interest in security, which argues for bulkheads between intelligence databases and for high standards for granting security clearances, and the interest in making data accessible to all intelligence personnel who could use the data effectively to warn, to recruit, to advise, and so forth.

No doubt the right tradeoff between security and accessibility is not being struck. For all the good reasons for limiting access to intelligence databases even within the intelligence system, there are bad reasons that exert strong pressure on intelligence officials. Information is power, and agencies are reluctant to share their best information with each other, because the recipient may be able to use the information to pull off—and get credit for—an intelligence coup. And agencies that take a chance on greater openness are sure to be blamed if a breach of security results but are unlikely to receive full, or maybe any, credit if taking the risk results in an intelligence success. Success has a thousand fathers and failure has a scapegoat.

As a result, the standards for security clearances and for access to databases of sister intelligence agencies (or sister units within the same agency) are set too high. Making the right tradeoff is a problem in coordination, and it has long been recognized that coordination is the Achilles’ heel of our intelligence system. Before the system was revamped in 2004, the head of the CIA doubled as the overall coordinator of the 16 or so federal agencies that constitute the intelligence system. (Actually state and even some city intelligence services should be counted as part of the overall national system, along with the security offices of major banks and other large corporations.) Running the CIA was a full-time job and so the coordination function was slighted. The 2004 reform separated the jobs by creating a Director of National Intelligence, but confusingly made him not only the system coordinator but also the nation’s chief intelligence officer, responsible for advising the President and other senior officials on substantive intelligence matters. This required a large staff and made him a rival of the director of the CIA and triggered turf wars that continue to this day. James Clapper, who has been nominated to be the Director of National Intelligence in succession to Dennis Blair, appears to recognize the problem and to be determined to devote himself and his staff to coordination, leaving the director of the CIA to be the nation’s chief substantive intelligence officer—which is as it should be.

The glitzy Post report—with its video clips and color charts, its padding (a typically empty sentence is “Trees, walls and a sloping landscape obscure the NSA’s presence from most vantage points, and concrete barriers, fortified guard posts and warning signs stop those without authorization from entering the grounds of the largest intelligence agency in the United States”), and its dizzying context-free statistics (as in: “From the road, it’s impossible to tell how large the NSA has become, even though its buildings occupy 6.3 million square feet—about the size of the Pentagon—and are surrounded by 112 acres of parking spaces”)—is intended to awe the reader and make him feel privy to deep secrets that only a big news room could unearth. In fact, it contributes little to the understanding and improvement of the intelligence system.

Richard A. Posner is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.

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