Category Archives: CIA

The CIA Illegally Let the Wrong People Do Intelligence Work, Declassified Report Finds - Vice 20160427

The CIA Illegally Let the Wrong People Do Intelligence Work, Declassified Report Finds - Vice 20160427

The CIA violated federal laws and its own internal regulations by hiring independent contractors for a wide variety of intelligence and national security-related work that was supposed to be performed by government employees, according to a CIA Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit report obtained by VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The report said the CIA "relies heavily on independent contractors to accomplish important facets of its mission," particularly at the National Clandestine Service, the covert arm of the agency responsible for clandestine operations around the world. The report, dated June 22, 2012 but only declassified last month, raised numerous red flags about the CIA's use of independent contractors throughout all divisions within the agency, and for work performed work in areas that included covert operations and protective security services overseas.

By law, that work must be done by CIA employees.

The OIG did not scrutinize the CIA's "industrial contracts" with firms such as Booz Allen Hamilton, but instead reviewed independent contracts into which the agency enters with individuals, who the report said are made up largely of retired CIA case officers.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, reviewed the OIG report.

"I've had concerns for years about the extensive reliance on contractors by the government, and the intelligence community in particular," Feinstein told VICE News. "The Senate Intelligence Committee has focused in the past on bringing [independent contractors'] jobs back in-house where possible, and it's an area we'll continue to focus on."

The use of independent contractors by US intelligence agencies exploded after 9/11. At the CIA, the number of contractors working for the agency at one point surpassed the number of actual agency employees. At the end of the 113th session of Congress in January 2013, one year after the OIG concluded its audit, the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a report submitted to the Senate that it was concerned about the "dramatic increase in the use of contractors by the [intelligence community] since 9/11."

Although there were some efforts by the intelligence community to reduce the number of independent contractors by either ending their contracts or hiring them as government employees, "data reviewed by the Committee indicate that some elements of the [Intelligence Community] have been hiring additional contractors after they have converted or otherwise removed other contractors, resulting in an overall workforce that continues to grow."

The OIG said it looked at an unknown number of independent contractors' contracts and task orders during fiscal year 2010 (the exact number was redacted from the audit report), and examined whether the CIA complied with federal laws and regulations when it outsourced its work. The OIG found that the CIA did not.

"By using [independent contractors] for these functions, [some divisions within the CIA] have improperly transferred government authorities in violation of federal laws and CIA regulations," said the 39-page report [pdf at the end of this story], which was marked SECRET/NOFORN, meaning it was classified secret and the information could not be shared with foreign nationals. Notable among those laws was the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998 (FAIR Act), which mandates that work that is "intimately related to the public interest" must be performed by federal employees.

"To put it another way, contractors have been allowed to usurp authority to which they are not entitled," said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of Americans Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "Combined with the diminished oversight and accountability that contractors receive, that is an invitation to misconduct."

The report said "all [CIA] Directorates" use independent contractors. They include the CIA's Open Source Center, where independent contractors provide translation-related services; the Office of Security/Global Response Staff, which employs independent contractors who provide protective services overseas; the Directorate of Intelligence, where contractors "conduct research and analysis on assigned topics and prepare research papers and presentations"; and CIA University, where independent contractors "provide instruction and lectures, facility course segments, and create and provide support materials."

The OIG report singled out two of the offices within the CIA for using independent contractors to perform tasks that should have been carried out by federal employees — the National Clandestine Service and the CIA's Human Resources/Recruitment Center. The report said the latter entered into contracts with a redacted number of independent contractors "in part, to conduct phone and in-person interviews of applicants for employment within the [National Clandestine Service's] Professional Trainee (PT) and Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) Program, which is not in compliance with applicable federal laws" or the CIA's own internal regulations. Federal law explicitly prohibits "the use of contractors for 'the selection or non-selection of individuals for federal government employment, including the interviewing of individuals for employment.'"

Tim Shorrock, author of the book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, said that the report makes clear the National Clandestine Service "appears to be almost unrestrained" in its use of independent contractors.

The OIG report said the use of independent contractors by the National Clandestine Service is so widespread that it created the "appearance of an employer-employee relationship" between the CIA and the National Clandestine Service's independent contractors, which is a violation of CIA regulation and procedures and federal laws.

"There are significant risks to the CIA associated with treating [independent contractors] as employees, including the potential liability for taxes and employee benefits that would have been withheld or paid had the individuals been treated as employees, and potential criticism that the CIA is circumventing its Congressionally mandated personnel ceiling by utilizing [independent contractors] as employees," the audit report said.

One of the most notable of the CIA's National Clandestine Service contracts is the sole-source contract to create and manage the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program. That contract was awarded to two retired Air Force psychologists who operated and managed the program at a cost of $180 million over five years, according to a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that probed the efficacy of the CIA's program.

Additionally, VICE News obtained a copy of a CIA contract awarded to Burlington, Massachusetts–based Centra Technology, which the CIA paid more than $40 million for administrative support and other tasks related to the Senate's investigation of the CIA. Feinstein, the former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who oversaw the investigation, said the expenditure was a "waste of taxpayer dollars."

The report says the "number of [National Clandestine Service] contract actions increased by 55 percent from fiscal years 2008 to 2010." In many instances contractors began performing work before they were even awarded a contract or task order, a practice that the OIG said "must cease."

"These actions, referred to as unauthorized commitments, are non-binding agreements made by representatives without the authority to enter into contracts on behalf of the US government," the report said.

A section of the OIG audit that identified the National Clandestine Service contracts "with unauthorized commitments" was entirely redacted.

The report also said that independent contractors working for the CIA's counterterrorism center "are performing a supervisory role," a job that should be performed by CIA employees, and another instance in which the CIA violated federal law.

Shorrock said the report shows that CIA officials "have authority to contract with whoever they want, with no paper trail, and to let these privateers do whatever they choose."

"From the National Clandestine Service to black ops and on down the line, virtually every part of the CIA hires independent contractors, 'almost all' of them being retired case officers who are getting wealthy in the process," he said. "Yet there's virtually no oversight, admittedly no documentation, and, according to the report, 42 percent of the time contractors start work without a written contract or even a task order. This is not what you would expect of a secret intelligence service supposedly protecting the national interest."

Scott Amey, an attorney with the non-profit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said he's not surprised that contractors are violating the law by performing work that is supposed to be performed by government employees.

"Some of these concerns cited in the report apply to every federal agency, but there is something heightened because we know very little about the CIA's work and who is performing it," Amey said.

The OIG's audit report contained a section titled "What Contractors Can and Can't Do," along with a list of recommendations to address the issues the OIG raised about the CIA's reliance on independent contractors.

Both sections were completely redacted, but whatever the recommendations were, the CIA said it implemented them.

"The OIG made multiple recommendations to various [offices] across the Agency as a result of this audit," said Ryan Trapani, a CIA spokesperson. "All the OIG's recommendations have been implemented by CIA, and the OIG has deemed those actions as satisfying the recommendations."

The report went on to say that task orders were handed out to independent contractors without any specific tasks to be performed. "Instead, almost all of the task orders we reviewed merely stated that [independent contractors] are required to 'provide operational support' to a specific [CIA] station or base," the report said.

At a June 18, 2014 hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs entitled "The Intelligence Community: Keeping Watch Over Its Contractor Workforce," Senator Tom Carper, the committee's chairman, said in his opening remarks that "an agency that turns over too much responsibility to contractors runs the risk of hollowing itself out and creating a weaker organization."

"The agency could also lose control over activities and decisions that should lie with the government, not with contractors," Carper said. "Second, the use of contractors for mission-critical work creates an additional layer of management between the contractor employees and the government. Adding layers makes it more difficult to conduct oversight and to assign accountability. And, third, when agencies turn to contractors as a 'default' option without careful analysis, they run the risk of paying more to get work done than they would have paid if they had just relied on Federal employees."

The exact number of independent contractors who worked for the CIA at the time of the OIG's review was redacted from the audit report, as was the monetary value of their contracts.One of the findings of the OIG's audit was that the CIA could not back up its claims with documentary evidence that the money the agency spends to outsource its work is fair and reasonable.

"Contracting officers and procurement officers are not adequately documenting the price analysis and negotiations used to substantiate the fairness and reasonableness of the prices paid for [independent contractor] services," the report said. "Without such documentation, there is no evidence that analysis is being performed and that the resulting prices are, in fact, fair and reasonable. If the analysis is not being performed, the CIA could be paying more for [independent contractor] services than it should."

Priest, D and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Monitoring America Update - 20101220

Priest, D and Arkin, WM - Top Secret America - Monitoring America Update - 20101220

Correction to this article: An earlier version of this article contained several incorrect numbers that have since been updated. The errors occurred because of the accidental duplication of 74 records in a database of over 4,000 counterterrorism organizations that The Post assembled. While not affecting the overall conclusions of the article, the 74 duplications mean that there are 3,984 federal, state and local organizations working on domestic counterterrorism, not 4,058. Of the total, the number created since the 2001 attacks is 934, not 935.Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.

The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation's history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The government's goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States.

Other democracies - Britain and Israel, to name two - are well acquainted with such domestic security measures. But for the United States, the sum of these new activities represents a new level of governmental scrutiny.

This localized intelligence apparatus is part of a larger Top Secret America created since the attacks. In July, The Washington Post described an alternative geography of the United States, one that has grown so large, unwieldy and secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs or how many programs exist within it.

Today's story, along with related material on The Post's Web site, examines how Top Secret America plays out at the local level. It describes a web of 3,984 federal, state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions. At least 934 of these organizations have been created since the 2001 attacks or became involved in counterterrorism for the first time after 9/11.

(Search our database for your state to find a detailed profile of counterterrorism efforts in your community.)

The months-long investigation, based on nearly 100 interviews and 1,000 documents, found that:

* Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America.

* The FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously. It is accessible to an increasing number of local law enforcement and military criminal investigators, increasing concerns that it could somehow end up in the public domain.

* Seeking to learn more about Islam and terrorism, some law enforcement agencies have hired as trainers self-described experts whose extremist views on Islam and terrorism are considered inaccurate and counterproductive by the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies.

* The Department of Homeland Security sends its state and local partners intelligence reports with little meaningful guidance, and state reports have sometimes inappropriately reported on lawful meetings.

Job fair

Counterterrorism on Main Street

In cities across Tennessee and across the nation local agencies are using sophisticated equipment and techniques to keep an eye out for terrorist threats -- and to watch Americans in the process.Launch Gallery »

The need to identify U.S.-born or naturalized citizens who are planning violent attacks is more urgent than ever, U.S. intelligence officials say. This month's FBI sting operation involving a Baltimore construction worker whoallegedly planned to bomb a Maryland military recruiting station is the latest example. It followed a similar arrest of a Somali-born naturalized U.S. citizen allegedly seeking to detonate a bomb near a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore. There have been nearly two dozen other cases just this year.

"The old view that 'if we fight the terrorists abroad, we won't have to fight them here' is just that - the old view," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told police and firefighters recently.

The Obama administration heralds this local approach as a much-needed evolution in the way the country confronts terrorism.

Top Secret America is a project two years in the making that describes the huge security buildup in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Today’s story is about those efforts at the local level, including law enforcement and homeland security agencies in every state and thousands of communities. View previous stories,explore relationships between government organizations and the types of work being done, and view top-secret geography on aninteractive map.

However, just as at the federal level, the effectiveness of these programs, as well as their cost, is difficult to determine. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, does not know how much money it spends each year on what are known as state fusion centers, which bring together and analyze information from various agencies within a state.

The total cost of the localized system is also hard to gauge. The DHS has given $31 billion in grants since 2003 to state and local governments for homeland security and to improve their ability to find and protect against terrorists, including $3.8 billion in 2010. At least four other federal departments also contribute to local efforts. But the bulk of the spending every year comes from state and local budgets that are too disparately recorded to aggregate into an overall total.

The Post findings paint a picture of a country at a crossroads, where long-standing privacy principles are under challenge by these new efforts to keep the nation safe.

The public face of this pivotal effort is Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, which years ago built one of the strongest state intelligence organizations outside of New York to try to stop illegal immigration and drug importation.

Napolitano has taken her "See Something, Say Something" campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation's capital for "Terror Tips" and to "Report Suspicious Activity."

She recently enlisted the help of Wal-Mart, Amtrak, major sports leagues, hotel chains and metro riders. In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.

"This represents a shift for our country," she told New York City police officers and firefighters on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary this fall. "In a sense, this harkens back to when we drew on the tradition of civil defense and preparedness that predated today's concerns."


From Afghanistan to Tennessee

On a recent night in Memphis, a patrol car rolled slowly through a parking lot in a run-down section of town. The military-grade infrared camera on its hood moved robotically from left to right, snapping digital images of one license plate after another and analyzing each almost instantly.

Suddenly, a red light flashed on the car's screen along with the word "warrant."

"Got a live one! Let's do it," an officer called out.

The streets of Memphis are a world away from the streets of Kabul, yet these days, the same types of technologies and techniques are being used in both places to identify and collect information about suspected criminals and terrorists.

The examples go far beyond Memphis.

* Hand-held, wireless fingerprint scanners were carried by U.S. troops during the insurgency in Iraq to register residents of entire neighborhoods. L-1 Identity Solutions is selling the same type of equipment to police departments to check motorists' identities.

* In Arizona, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Facial Recognition Unit, using a type of equipment prevalent in war zones, records 9,000 biometric digital mug shots a month.

* U.S. Customs and Border Protection flies General Atomics' Predator drones along the Mexican and Canadian borders - the same kind of aircraft, equipped with real-time, full-motion video cameras, that has been used in wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan to track the enemy.

The special operations units deployed overseas to kill the al-Qaeda leadership drove technological advances that are now expanding in use across the United States. On the front lines, those advances allowed the rapid fusing of biometric identification, captured computer records and cellphone numbers so troops could launch the next surprise raid.

Here at home, it's the DHS that is enamored with collecting photos, video images and other personal information about U.S. residents in the hopes of teasing out terrorists.

The DHS helped Memphis buy surveillance cameras that monitor residents near high-crime housing projects, problematic street corners, and bridges and other critical infrastructure. It helped pay for license plate readers and defrayed some of the cost of setting up Memphis's crime-analysis center. All together it has given Memphis $11 million since 2003 in homeland security grants, most of which the city has used to fight crime.

"We have got things now we didn't have before," said Memphis Police Department Director Larry Godwin, who has produced record numbers of arrests using all this new analysis and technology. "Some of them we can talk about. Some of them we can't."

One of the biggest advocates of Memphis's data revolution is John Harvey, the police department's technology specialist, whose computer systems are the civilian equivalent of the fancier special ops equipment used by the military.

Harvey collects any information he can pry out of government and industry. When officers were wasting time knocking on the wrong doors to serve warrants, he persuaded the local utility company to give him a daily update of the names and addresses of customers.

When he wanted more information about phones captured at crime scenes, he programmed a way to store all emergency 911 calls, which often include names and addresses to associate with phone numbers. He created another program to upload new crime reports every five minutes and mine them for the phone numbers of victims, suspects, witnesses and anyone else listed on them.

Now, instead of having to decide which license plate numbers to type into a computer console in the patrol car, an officer can simply drive around, and the automatic license plate reader on his hood captures the numbers on every vehicle nearby. If the officer pulls over a driver, instead of having to wait 20 minutes for someone back at the office to manually check records, he can use a hand-held device to instantly call up a mug shot, a Social Security number, the status of the driver's license and any outstanding warrants.

The computer in the cruiser can tell an officer even more about who owns the vehicle, the owner's name and address and criminal history, and who else with a criminal history might live at the same address.

Take a recent case of two officers with the hood-mounted camera equipment who stopped a man driving on a suspended license. One handcuffed him, and the other checked his own PDA. Based on the information that came up, the man was ordered downtown to pay a fine and released as the officers drove off to stop another car.

That wasn't the end of it, though.

A record of that stop - and the details of every other arrest made that night, and every summons written - was automatically transferred to the Memphis Real Time Crime Center, a command center with three walls of streaming surveillance video and analysis capabilities that rival those of an Army command center.

There, the information would be geocoded on a map to produce a visual rendering of crime patterns. This information would help the crime intelligence analysts predict trends so the department could figure out what neighborhoods to swarm with officers and surveillance cameras.

But that was still not the end of it, because the fingerprints from the crime records would also go to the FBI's data campus in Clarksburg, W.Va. There, fingerprints from across the United States are stored, along with others collected by American authorities from prisoners in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are 96 million sets of fingerprints in Clarksburg, a volume that government officials view not as daunting but as an opportunity.

This year for the first time, the FBI, the DHS and the Defense Department are able to search each other's fingerprint databases, said Myra Gray, head of the Defense Department's Biometrics Identity Management Agency, speaking to an industry group recently. "Hopefully in the not-too-distant future," she said, "our relationship with these federal agencies - along with state and local agencies - will be completely symbiotic."


The FBI's 'suspicious' files

At the same time that the FBI is expanding its West Virginia database, it is building a vast repository controlled by people who work in a top-secret vault on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington. This one stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. What they have done is appear to be acting suspiciously to a town sheriff, a traffic cop or even a neighbor.

If the new Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, or SAR, works as intended, the Guardian database may someday hold files forwarded by all police departments across the country in America's continuing search for terrorists within its borders.

The effectiveness of this database depends, in fact, on collecting the identities of people who are not known criminals or terrorists - and on being able to quickly compile in-depth profiles of them.

"If we want to get to the point where we connect the dots, the dots have to be there," said Richard A. McFeely, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office.

In response to concerns that information in the database could be improperly used or released, FBI officials say anyone with access has been trained in privacy rules and the penalties for breaking them.

But not everyone is convinced. "It opens a door for all kinds of abuses," said Michael German, a former FBI agent who now leads the American Civil Liberties Union's campaign on national security and privacy matters. "How do we know there are enough controls?"

The government defines a suspicious activity as "observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity" related to terrorism.

State intelligence analysts and FBI investigators use the reports to determine whether a person is buying fertilizer to make a bomb or to plant tomatoes; whether she is plotting to poison a city's drinking water or studying for a metallurgy test; whether, as happened on a Sunday morning in late September, the man snapping a picture of a ferry in the Newport Beach harbor in Southern California simply liked the way it looked or was plotting to blow it up.

Suspicious Activity Report N03821 says a local law enforcement officer observed "a suspicious subject . . . taking photographs of the Orange County Sheriff Department Fire Boat and the Balboa Ferry with a cellular phone camera." The confidential report, marked "For Official Use Only," noted that the subject next made a phone call, walked to his car and returned five minutes later to take more pictures. He was then met by another person, both of whom stood and "observed the boat traffic in the harbor." Next another adult with two small children joined them, and then they all boarded the ferry and crossed the channel.

All of this information was forwarded to the Los Angeles fusion center for further investigation after the local officer ran information about the vehicle and its owner through several crime databases and found nothing.

Authorities would not say what happened to it from there, but there are several paths a suspicious activity report can take:

At the fusion center, an officer would decide to either dismiss the suspicious activity as harmless or forward the report to the nearest FBI terrorism unit for further investigation.

At that unit, it would immediately be entered into the Guardian database, at which point one of three things could happen:

The FBI could collect more information, find no connection to terrorism and mark the file closed, though leaving it in the database.

It could find a possible connection and turn it into a full-fledged case.

Or, as most often happens, it could make no specific determination, which would mean that Suspicious Activity Report N03821 would sit in limbo for as long as five years, during which time many other pieces of information about the man photographing a boat on a Sunday morning could be added to his file: employment, financial and residential histories; multiple phone numbers; audio files; video from the dashboard-mounted camera in the police cruiser at the harbor where he took pictures; and anything else in government or commercial databases "that adds value," as the FBI agent in charge of the database described it.

That could soon include biometric data, if it existed; the FBI is working on a way to attach such information to files. Meanwhile, the bureau will also soon have software that allows local agencies to map all suspicious incidents in their jurisdiction.

The Defense Department is also interested in the database. It recently transferred 100 reports of suspicious behavior into the Guardian system, and over time it expects to add thousands more as it connects 8,000 military law enforcement personnel to an FBI portal that will allow them to send and review reports about people suspected of casing U.S. bases or targeting American personnel.

And the DHS has created a separate way for state and local authorities, private citizens, and businesses to submit suspicious activity reports to the FBI and to the department for analysis.

As of December, there were 161,948 suspicious activity files in the classified Guardian database, mostly leads from FBI headquarters and state field offices. Two years ago, the bureau set up an unclassified section of the database so state and local agencies could send in suspicious incident reports and review those submitted by their counterparts in other states. Some 890 state and local agencies have sent in 7,197 reports so far.

Of those, 103 have become full investigations that have resulted in at least five arrests, the FBI said. There have been no convictions yet. An additional 365 reports have added information to ongoing cases.

But most remain in the uncertain middle, which is why within the FBI and other intelligence agencies there is much debate about the effectiveness of the bottom-up SAR approach, as well as concern over the privacy implications of retaining so much information on U.S. citizens and residents who have not been charged with anything.

The vast majority of terrorism leads in the United States originate from confidential FBI sources and from the bureau's collaboration with federal intelligence agencies, which mainly work overseas. Occasionally a stop by a local police officer has sparked an investigation. Evidence comes from targeted FBI surveillance and undercover operations, not from information and analysis generated by state fusion centers about people acting suspiciously.

"It's really resource-inefficient," said Philip Mudd, a 20-year CIA counterterrorism expert and a top FBI national security official until he retired nine months ago. "If I were to have a dialogue with the country about this . . . it would be about not only how we chase the unknowns, but do you want to do suspicious activity reports across the country? . . . Anyone who is not at least suspected of doing something criminal should not be in a database."

Charles Allen, a longtime senior CIA official who then led the DHS's intelligence office until 2009, said some senior people in the intelligence community are skeptical that SARs are an effective way to find terrorists. "It's more likely that other kinds of more focused efforts by local police will gain you the information that you need about extremist activities," he said.

The DHS can point to some successes: Last year the Colorado fusion center turned up information on Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born U.S. resident planning to bomb the New York subway system. In 2007, a Florida fusion center provided the vehicle ownership history used to identify and arrest an Egyptian student who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism, in this case transporting explosives.

"Ninety-nine percent doesn't pan out or lead to anything" said Richard Lambert Jr., the special agent in charge of the FBI's Knoxville office. "But we're happy to wade through these things."


Expert training?

Ramon Montijo has taught classes on terrorism and Islam to law enforcement officers all over the country.

"Alabama, Colorado, Vermont," said Montijo, a former Army Special Forces sergeant and Los Angeles Police Department investigator who is now a private security consultant. "California, Texas and Missouri," he continued.

What he tells them is always the same, he said: Most Muslims in the United States want to impose sharia law here.

"They want to make this world Islamic. The Islamic flag will fly over the White House - not on my watch!" he said. "My job is to wake up the public, and first, the first responders."

With so many local agencies around the country being asked to help catch terrorists, it often falls to sheriffs or state troopers to try to understand the world of terrorism. They aren't FBI agents, who have years of on-the-job and classroom training.

Instead, they are often people like Lacy Craig, who was a police dispatcher before she became an intelligence analyst at Idaho's fusion center, or the detectives in Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas who can talk at length about the lineage of gangs or the signs of a crystal meth addict.

Now each of them is a go-to person on terrorism as well.

"The CIA used to train analysts forever before they graduated to be a real analyst," said Allen, the former top CIA and DHS official. "Today we take former law enforcement officers and we call them intelligence officers, and that's not right, because they have not received any training on intelligence analysis."

State fusion center officials say their analysts are getting better with time. "There was a time when law enforcement didn't know much about drugs. This is no different," said Steven W. Hewitt, who runs the Tennessee fusion center, considered one of the best in the country. "Are we experts at the level of [the National Counterterrorism Center]? No. Are we developing an expertise? Absolutely."

But how they do that is usually left up to the local police departments themselves. In their desire to learn more about terrorism, many departments are hiring their own trainers. Some are self-described experts whose extremist views are considered inaccurate and harmful by the FBI and others in the intelligence community

Like Montijo, Walid Shoebat, a onetime Muslim who converted to Christianity, also lectures to local police. He too believes that most Muslims seek to impose sharia law in the United States. To prevent this, he said in an interview, he warns officers that "you need to look at the entire pool of Muslims in a community."

When Shoebat spoke to the first annual South Dakota Fusion Center Conference in Sioux Falls this June, he told them to monitor Muslim student groups and local mosques and, if possible, tap their phones. "You can find out a lot of information that way," he said.

A book expanding on what Shoebat and Montijo believe has just been published by the Center for Security Policy, a Washington-based neoconservative think tank. "Shariah: The Threat to America" describes what its authors call a "stealth jihad" that must be thwarted before it's too late.

The book's co-authors include such notables as former CIA director R. James Woolsey and former deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, along with the center's director, a longtime activist. They write that most mosques in the United States already have been radicalized, that most Muslim social organizations are fronts for violent jihadists and that Muslims who practice sharia law seek to impose it in this country.

Frank Gaffney Jr., director of the center, said his team has spoken widely, including to many law enforcement forums.

"Members of our team have been involved in training programs for several years now, many of which have been focused on local law enforcement intelligence, homeland security, state police, National Guard units and the like," Gaffney said. "We're seeing a considerable ramping-up of interest in getting this kind of training."

Government terrorism experts call the views expressed in the center's book inaccurate and counterproductive. They say the DHS should increase its training of local police, using teachers who have evidence-based viewpoints.

DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the department does not maintain a list of terrorism experts but is working on guidelines for local authorities wrestling with the topic.

So far, the department has trained 1,391 local law enforcement officers in analyzing public information and 400 in analytic thinking and writing skills. Kudwa said the department also offers counterterrorism training through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which this year enrolled 94 people in a course called "Advanced Criminal Intelligence Analysis to Prevent Terrorism."


A lack of useful information

The DHS also provides local agencies a daily flow of information bulletins.

These reports are meant to inform agencies about possible terror threats. But some officials say they deliver a never-ending stream of information that is vague, alarmist and often useless. "It's like a garage in your house you keep throwing junk into until you can't park your car in it," says Michael Downing, deputy chief of counterterrorism and special operations for the Los Angeles Police Department.

A review of nearly 1,000 DHS reports dating back to 2003 and labeled "For Official Use Only" underscores Downing's description. Typical is one from May 24, 2010, titled "Infrastructure Protection Note: Evolving Threats to the Homeland."

It tells officials to operate "under the premise that other operatives are in the country and could advance plotting with little or no warning." Its list of vulnerable facilities seems to include just about everything: "Commercial Facilities, Government Facilities, Banking and Financial and Transportation . . ."

Bart R. Johnson, who heads the DHS's intelligence and analysis office, defended such reports, saying that threat reporting has "grown and matured and become more focused." The bulletins can't be more specific, he said, because they must be written at the unclassified level.

Recently, the International Association of Chiefs of Police agreed that the information they were receiving had become "more timely and relevant" over the past year.

Downing, however, said the reports would be more helpful if they at least assessed threats within a specific state's boundaries.

States have tried to do that on their own, but with mixed, and at times problematic, results.

In 2009, for instance, after the DHS and the FBI sent out several ambiguous reports about threats to mass-transit systems and sports and entertainment venues, the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center's Threat Analysis Program added its own information. "New Jersey has a large mass-transit infrastructure," its report warned, and "an NFL stadium and NHL/NBA arenas, a soccer stadium, and several concert venues that attract large crowds."

In Virginia, the state's fusion center published a terrorism threat assessment in 2009 naming historically black colleges as potential hubs for terrorism.

From 2005 to 2007, the Maryland State Police went even further, infiltrating and labeling as terrorists local groups devoted to human rights, antiwar causes and bike lanes.

And in Pennsylvania this year, a local contractor hired to write intelligence bulletins filled them with information about lawful meetings as varied as Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots Coalition gatherings, antiwar protests and an event at which environmental activists dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out coal-filled stockings.


'We have our own terrorists'

Even if the information were better, it might not make a difference for the simplest of reasons: In many cities and towns across the country, there is just not enough terrorism-related work to do.

In Utah on one recent day, one of five intelligence analysts in the state's fusion center was writing a report about the rise in teenage overdoses of an over-the-counter drug. Another was making sure the visiting president of Senegal had a safe trip. Another had just helped a small town track down two people who were selling magazine subscriptions and pocketing the money themselves.

In the Colorado Information Analysis Center, some investigators were following terrorism leads. Others were looking into illegal Craigslist postings and online "World of Warcraft" gamers.

The vast majority of fusion centers across the country have transformed themselves into analytical hubs for all crimes and are using federal grants, handed out in the name of homeland security, to combat everyday offenses.

This is happening because, after 9/11, local law enforcement groups did what every agency and private company did in Top Secret America: They followed the money.

The DHS helped the Memphis Police Department, for example, purchase 90 surveillance cameras, including 13 that monitor bridges and a causeway. It helped buy the fancy screens on the walls of the Real Time Crime Center, as well as radios, robotic surveillance equipment, a mobile command center and three bomb-sniffing dogs. All came in the name of port security and protection to critical infrastructure.

Since there hasn't been a solid terrorism case in Memphis yet, the equipment's greatest value has been to help drive down city crime. Where the mobile surveillance cameras are set up, criminals scatter, said Lt. Mark Rewalt, who, on a recent Saturday night, scanned the city from an altitude of 1,000 feet.

Flying in a police helicopter, Rewalt pointed out some of the cameras the DHS has funded. They are all over the city, in mall parking lots, in housing projects, at popular street hang-outs. "Cameras are what's happening now," he marveled.

Meanwhile, another post-9/11 unit in Tennessee has had even less terrorism-related work to do.

The Tennessee National Guard 45th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, one of at least 50 such units around the country, was created to respond to what officials still believe is the inevitable release of chemical, biological or radiological material by terrorists.

The unit's 22 hazardous-materials personnel have the best emergency equipment in the state. A fleet of navy-blue vehicles - command, response, detection and tactical operations trucks - is kept polished and ready to roll in a garage at the armory in Smyrna.

The unit practices WMD scenarios constantly. But in real life, the crew uses the equipment very little: twice a year at NASCAR races in nearby Bristol to patrol for suspicious packages. Other than that, said Capt. Matt Hayes, several times a year they respond to hoaxes.

The fact that there has not been much terrorism to worry about is not evident on the Tennessee fusion center's Web site. Click on the incident map, and the state appears to be under attack.

Red icons of explosions dot Tennessee, along with blinking exclamation marks and flashing skulls. The map is labeled: "Terrorism Events and Other Suspicious Activity.

But if you roll over the icons, the explanations that pop up have nothing to do with major terrorist plots: "Johnson City police are investigating three 'bottle bombs' found at homes over the past three days," one description read recently. ". . . The explosives were made from plastic bottles with something inside that reacted chemically and caused the bottles to burst."

Another told a similar story: "The Scott County Courthouse is currently under evacuation after a bomb threat was called in Friday morning. Update: Authorities completed their sweep . . . and have called off the evacuation."

Nine years after 9/11, this map is part of the alternative geography that is Top Secret America, where millions of people are assigned to help stop terrorism. Memphis Police Director Godwin is one of them, and he has his own version of what that means in a city where there have been 86 murders so far this year.

"We have our own terrorists, and they are taking lives every day," Godwin said. "No, we don't have suicide bombers - not yet. But you need to remain vigilant and realize how vulnerable you can be if you let up."

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America Part 1: A hidden world, growing beyond control - The Washington Post 20100719

Priest, Dana and Arkin, WM - Top Secret America Part 1: A hidden world, growing beyond control - The Washington Post 20100719

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation's other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

An alternative geography

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the top-secret world created to respond to the terrorist attacks has grown into an unwieldy enterprise spread over 10,000 U.S. locations. Launch Photo Gallery »

These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.

They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation's security.

"There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that - not just for the CIA, for the secretary of defense - is a challenge," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials - called Super Users - have the ability to even know about all the department's activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation's most sensitive work.

"I'm not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything" was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn't take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ''Stop!" in frustration.

"I wasn't remembering any of it," he said.

Underscoring the seriousness of these issues are the conclusions of retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who was asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department's most sensitive programs. Vines, who once commanded 145,000 troops in Iraq and is familiar with complex problems, was stunned by what he discovered.

"I'm not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities," he said in an interview. "The complexity of this system defies description."

The result, he added, is that it's impossible to tell whether the country is safer because of all this spending and all these activities. "Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste," Vines said. "We consequently can't effectively assess whether it is making us more safe."

The Post's investigation is based on government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records, and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials. Most requested anonymity either because they are prohibited from speaking publicly or because, they said, they feared retaliation at work for describing their concerns.

The Post's online database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records. The investigation focused on top-secret work because the amount classified at the secret level is too large to accurately track.

Today's article describes the government's role in this expanding enterprise. Tuesday's article describes the government's dependence on private contractors. Wednesday's is a portrait of one Top Secret America community. On the Web, an extensive, searchable database built by The Post about Top Secret America is available at

Defense Secretary Gates, in his interview with The Post, said that he does not believe the system has become too big to manage but that getting precise data is sometimes difficult. Singling out the growth of intelligence units in the Defense Department, he said he intends to review those programs for waste. "Nine years after 9/11, it makes a lot of sense to sort of take a look at this and say, 'Okay, we've built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?' " he said.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was also interviewed by The Post last week, said he's begun mapping out a five-year plan for his agency because the levels of spending since 9/11 are not sustainable. "Particularly with these deficits, we're going to hit the wall. I want to be prepared for that," he said. "Frankly, I think everyone in intelligence ought to be doing that."

In an interview before he resigned as the director of national intelligence in May, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair said he did not believe there was overlap and redundancy in the intelligence world. "Much of what appears to be redundancy is, in fact, providing tailored intelligence for many different customers," he said.

Blair also expressed confidence that subordinates told him what he needed to know. "I have visibility on all the important intelligence programs across the community, and there are processes in place to ensure the different intelligence capabilities are working together where they need to," he said.

Weeks later, as he sat in the corner of a ballroom at the Willard Hotel waiting to give a speech, he mused about The Post's findings. "After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did as we so often do in this country," he said. "The attitude was, if it's worth doing, it's probably worth overdoing."

Outside a gated subdivision of mansions in McLean, a line of cars idles every weekday morning as a new day in Top Secret America gets underway. The drivers wait patiently to turn left, then crawl up a hill and around a bend to a destination that is not on any public map and not announced by any street sign.

Liberty Crossing tries hard to hide from view. But in the winter, leafless trees can't conceal a mountain of cement and windows the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of one another rising behind a grassy berm. One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.

Past the armed guards and the hydraulic steel barriers, at least 1,700 federal employees and 1,200 private contractors work at Liberty Crossing, the nickname for the two headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its National Counterterrorism Center. The two share a police force, a canine unit and thousands of parking spaces.

Liberty Crossing is at the center of the collection of U.S. government agencies and corporate contractors that mushroomed after the 2001 attacks. But it is not nearly the biggest, the most costly or even the most secretive part of the 9/11 enterprise.

In an Arlington County office building, the lobby directory doesn't include the Air Force's mysteriously named XOIWS unit, but there's a big "Welcome!" sign in the hallway greeting visitors who know to step off the elevator on the third floor. In Elkridge, Md., a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building. In Arnold, Mo., the location is across the street from a Target and a Home Depot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., it's in a modest brick bungalow in a run-down business park.

Each day at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, workers review at least 5,000 pieces of terrorist-related data from intelligence agencies and keep an eye on world events. (Photo by: Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

This is not exactly President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex," which emerged with the Cold War and centered on building nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union. This is a national security enterprise with a more amorphous mission: defeating transnational violent extremists.

Much of the information about this mission is classified. That is the reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is being spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.

At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration andCongress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending.

The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106. It was phenomenal growth that began almost as soon as the Sept. 11 attacks ended.

Nine days after the attacks, Congress committed $40 billion beyond what was in the federal budget to fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda. It followed that up with an additional $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. That was only a beginning.

With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.

With so many more employees, units and organizations, the lines of responsibility began to blur. To remedy this, at the recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, the George W. Bush administration and Congress decided to create an agency in 2004 with overarching responsibilities called the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to bring the colossal effort under control.

While that was the idea, Washington has its own ways.

The first problem was that the law passed by Congress did not give the director clear legal or budgetary authority over intelligence matters, which meant he wouldn't have power over the individual agencies he was supposed to control.

The second problem: Even before the first director, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, was on the job, the turf battles began. The Defense Department shifted billions of dollars out of one budget and into another so that the ODNI could not touch it, according to two senior officials who watched the process. The CIA reclassified some of its most sensitive information at a higher level so the National Counterterrorism Center staff, part of the ODNI, would not be allowed to see it, said former intelligence officers involved.

And then came a problem that continues to this day, which has to do with the ODNI's rapid expansion.

When it opened in the spring of 2005, Negroponte's office was all of 11 people stuffed into a secure vault with closet-size rooms a block from the White House. A year later, the budding agency moved to two floors of another building. In April 2008, it moved into its huge permanent home, Liberty Crossing.

Today, many officials who work in the intelligence agencies say they remain unclear about what the ODNI is in charge of. To be sure, the ODNI has made some progress, especially in intelligence-sharing, information technology and budget reform. The DNI and his managers hold interagency meetings every day to promote collaboration. The last director, Blair, doggedly pursued such nitty-gritty issues as procurement reform, compatible computer networks, tradecraft standards and collegiality.

But improvements have been overtaken by volume at the ODNI, as the increased flow of intelligence data overwhelms the system's ability to analyze and use it. Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

The practical effect of this unwieldiness is visible, on a much smaller scale, in the office of Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Leiter spends much of his day flipping among four computer monitors lined up on his desk. Six hard drives sit at his feet. The data flow is enormous, with dozens of databases feeding separate computer networks that cannot interact with one another.

There is a long explanation for why these databases are still not connected, and it amounts to this: It's too hard, and some agency heads don't really want to give up the systems they have. But there's some progress: "All my e-mail on one computer now," Leiter says. "That's a big deal."

To get another view of how sprawling Top Secret America has become, just head west on the toll road toward Dulles International Airport.

As a Michaels craft store and a Books-A-Million give way to the military intelligence giants Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, find the off-ramp and turn left. Those two shimmering-blue five-story ice cubes belong to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes images and mapping data of the Earth's geography. A small sign obscured by a boxwood hedge says so.

Across the street, in the chocolate-brown blocks, is Carahsoft, an intelligence agency contractor specializing in mapping, speech analysis and data harvesting. Nearby is the government's Underground Facility Analysis Center. It identifies overseas underground command centers associated with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups, and advises the military on how to destroy them.

Clusters of top-secret work exist throughout the country, but the Washington region is the capital of Top Secret America.

About half of the post-9/11 enterprise is anchored in an arc stretching from Leesburg south to Quantico, back north through Washington and curving northeast to Linthicum, just north of the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Many buildings sit within off-limits government compounds or military bases.
Others occupy business parks or are intermingled with neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers and go unnoticed by most people who live or play nearby.

Many of the newest buildings are not just utilitarian offices but also edifices "on the order of the pyramids," in the words of one senior military intelligence officer.

Not far from the Dulles Toll Road, the CIA has expanded into two buildings that will increase the agency's office space by one-third. To the south, Springfield is becoming home to the new $1.8 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters, which will be the fourth-largest federal building in the area and home to 8,500 employees. Economic stimulus money is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for this kind of federal construction across the region.

Construction for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield (Photo by: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post)

It's not only the number of buildings that suggests the size and cost of this expansion, it's also what is inside: banks of television monitors. "Escort-required" badges. X-ray machines and lockers to store cellphones and pagers. Keypad door locks that open special rooms encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force capable of responding within 15 minutes. Every one of these buildings has at least one of these rooms, known as a SCIF, for sensitive compartmented information facility. Some are as small as a closet; others are four times the size of a football field.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. "In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF," said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. "They've got the penis envy thing going. You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF."

SCIFs are not the only must-have items people pay attention to. Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.

"You can't find a four-star general without a security detail," said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. "Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, 'If he has one, then I have to have one.' It's become a status symbol."

Among the most important people inside the SCIFs are the low-paid employees carrying their lunches to work to save money. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year, whose job is at the core of everything Top Secret America tries to do.

At its best, analysis melds cultural understanding with snippets of conversations, coded dialogue, anonymous tips, even scraps of trash, turning them into clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.

Their work is greatly enhanced by computers that sort through and categorize data. But in the end, analysis requires human judgment, and half the analysts are relatively inexperienced, having been hired in the past several years, said a senior ODNI official. Contract analysts are often straight out of college and trained at corporate headquarters.

When hired, a typical analyst knows very little about the priority countries - Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming, say current and former intelligence officials who try to cull them every day. The ODNI doesn't know exactly how many reports are issued each year, but in the process of trying to find out, the chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness. "Like a zombie, it keeps on living" is how one official describes the sites.

The problem with many intelligence reports, say officers who read them, is that they simply re-slice the same facts already in circulation. "It's the soccer ball syndrome. Something happens, and they want to rush to cover it," said Richard H. Immerman, who was the ODNI's assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards until early 2009. "I saw tremendous overlap."

Even the analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is supposed to be where the most sensitive, most difficult-to-obtain nuggets of information are fused together, get low marks from intelligence officials for not producing reports that are original, or at least better than the reports already written by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency.

When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. "I told him that after 41/2 years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!" he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.

Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington's bureaucracy. "Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn't gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?" he said. "Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn't produce the same thing?"

He's hardly the only one irritated. In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer was dealing with his own frustration. Seated at his computer, he began scrolling through some of the classified information he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WIRe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight . . .

It's too much, he complained. The inbox on his desk was full, too. He threw up his arms, picked up a thick, glossy intelligence report and waved it around, yelling.

"Jesus! Why does it take so long to produce?"

"Why does it have to be so bulky?"

"Why isn't it online?"

The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them. Some policymakers and senior officials don't dare delve into the backup clogging their computers. They rely instead on personal briefers, and those briefers usually rely on their own agency's analysis, re-creating the very problem identified as a main cause of the failure to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.

A new Defense Department office complex goes up in Alexandria. (Photo by: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post)

The ODNI's analysis office knows this is a problem. Yet its solution was another publication, this one a daily online newspaper, Intelligence Today. Every day, a staff of 22 culls more than two dozen agencies' reports and 63 Web sites, selects the best information and packages it by originality, topic and region.

Analysis is not the only area where serious overlap appears to be gumming up the national security machinery and blurring the lines of responsibility.

Within the Defense Department alone, 18 commands and agencies conduct information operations, which aspire to manage foreign audiences’ perceptions of U.S. policy and military activities overseas.

And all the major intelligence agencies and at least two major military commands claim a major role in cyber-warfare, the newest and least-defined frontier.

"Frankly, it hasn't been brought together in a unified approach," CIA Director Panetta said of the many agencies now involved in cyber-warfare.

"Cyber is tremendously difficult" to coordinate, said Benjamin A. Powell, who served as general counsel for three directors of national intelligence until he left the government last year. "Sometimes there was an unfortunate attitude of bring your knives, your guns, your fists and be fully prepared to defend your turf." Why? "Because it's funded, it's hot and it's sexy."

Last fall, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opened fire at Fort Hood, Tex., killing 13 people and wounding 30. In the days after the shootings, information emerged about Hasan's increasingly strange behavior at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he had trained as a psychiatrist and warned commanders that they should allow Muslims to leave the Army or risk "adverse events." He had also exchanged e-mails with a well-known radical cleric in Yemen being monitored by U.S. intelligence.

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But none of this reached the one organization charged with handling counterintelligence investigations within the Army. Just 25 miles up the road from Walter Reed, the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group had been doing little to search the ranks for potential threats. Instead, the 902's commander had decided to turn the unit's attention to assessing general terrorist affiliations in the United States, even though the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI's 106 Joint Terrorism Task Forces were already doing this work in great depth.

The 902nd, working on a program the commander named RITA, for Radical Islamic Threat to the Army, had quietly been gathering information on Hezbollah, Iranian Republican Guard and al-Qaeda student organizations in the United States. The assessment "didn't tell us anything we didn't know already," said the Army's senior counterintelligence officer at the Pentagon.

Secrecy and lack of coordination have allowed organizations, such as the 902nd in this case, to work on issues others were already tackling rather than take on the much more challenging job of trying to identify potential jihadist sympathizers within the Army itself.

Beyond redundancy, secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness in other ways, say defense and intelligence officers. For the Defense Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is extremely limited and monitored by specially trained security officers.
These are called Special Access Programs - or SAPs - and the Pentagon's list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authorized to know anything about them. All this means that very few people have a complete sense of what's going on.

"There's only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs - that's God," said James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Obama administration's nominee to be the next director of national intelligence.

Such secrecy can undermine the normal chain of command when senior officials use it to cut out rivals or when subordinates are ordered to keep secrets from their commanders.

One military officer involved in one such program said he was ordered to sign a document prohibiting him from disclosing it to his four-star commander, with whom he worked closely every day, because the commander was not authorized to know about it. Another senior defense official recalls the day he tried to find out about a program in his budget, only to be rebuffed by a peer. "What do you mean you can't tell me? I pay for the program," he recalled saying in a heated exchange.

Another senior intelligence official with wide access to many programs said that secrecy is sometimes used to protect ineffective projects. "I think the secretary of defense ought to direct a look at every single thing to see if it still has value," he said. "The DNI ought to do something similar."

The ODNI hasn't done that yet. The best it can do at the moment is maintain a database of the names of the most sensitive programs in the intelligence community. But the database does not include many important and relevant Pentagon projects.

Because so much is classified, illustrations of what goes on every day in Top Secret America can be hard to ferret out. But every so often, examples emerge. A recent one shows the post-9/11 system at its best and its worst.

Last fall, after eight years of growth and hirings, the enterprise was at full throttle when word emerged that something was seriously amiss inside Yemen. In response, President Obama signed an order sending dozens of secret commandos to that country to target and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda affiliate.

In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the United States.

That was the system as it was intended. But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis, it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data that are reviewed each day. Analysts had to switch from database to database, from hard drive to hard drive, from screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.

As military operations in Yemen intensified and the chatter about a possible terrorist strike increased, the intelligence agencies ramped up their effort. The flood of information into the NCTC became a torrent.

Somewhere in that deluge was even more vital data. Partial names of someone in Yemen. A reference to a Nigerian radical who had gone to Yemen. A report of a father in Nigeria worried about a son who had become interested in radical teachings and had disappeared inside Yemen.

These were all clues to what would happen when a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left Yemen and eventually boarded a plane in Amsterdam bound for Detroit. But nobody put them together because, as officials would testify later, the system had gotten so big that the lines of responsibility had become hopelessly blurred.

"There are so many people involved here," NCTC Director Leiter told Congress.

"Everyone had the dots to connect," DNI Blair explained to the lawmakers. "But I hadn't made it clear exactly who had primary responsibility."

And so Abdulmutallab was able to step aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. As it descended toward Detroit, he allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear. It wasn't the very expensive, very large 9/11 enterprise that prevented disaster. It was a passenger who saw what he was doing and tackled him. "We didn't follow up and prioritize the stream of intelligence," White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan explained afterward. "Because no one intelligence entity, or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation."

Blair acknowledged the problem. His solution: Create yet another team to run down every important lead. But he also told Congress he needed more money and more analysts to prevent another mistake.

More is often the solution proposed by the leaders of the 9/11 enterprise. After the Christmas Day bombing attempt, Leiter also pleaded for more - more analysts to join the 300 or so he already had.

The Department of Homeland Security asked for more air marshals, more body scanners and more analysts, too, even though it can't find nearly enough qualified people to fill its intelligence unit now. Obama has said he will not freeze spending on national security, making it likely that those requests will be funded.

More building, more expansion of offices continues across the country. A $1.7 billion NSA data-processing center will be under construction soon near Salt Lake City. In Tampa, the U.S. Central Command’s new 270,000-square-foot intelligence office will be matched next year by an equally large headquarters building, and then, the year after that, by a 51,000-square-foot office just for its special operations section.

Just north of Charlottesville, the new Joint-Use Intelligence Analysis Facility will consolidate 1,000 defense intelligence analysts on a secure campus.

Meanwhile, five miles southeast of the White House, the DHS has broken ground for its new headquarters, to be shared with the Coast Guard. DHS, in existence for only seven years, already has its own Special Access Programs, its own research arm, its own command center, its own fleet of armored cars and its own 230,000-person workforce, the third-largest after the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Soon, on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths mental hospital in Anacostia, a $3.4 billion showcase of security will rise from the crumbling brick wards. The new headquarters will be the largest government complex built since the Pentagon, a major landmark in the alternative geography of Top Secret America and four times as big as Liberty Crossing.

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Q and A 01 - The Washington Post 20100719

Accessed from the Wayback Machine on 20151201 - Top Secret America: A Hidden World, Growing Out of Control


Glad you could join us. We've had lots of reaction to the piece this morning. Hope everyone gets a chance to play around with the database. But for now--let's go. Bill and I will be answering separately and posting as we do. Cheers, Dana


Yes, this part of the Federal Government is big and getting bigger. One of the problems is that since the purpose of these entities isn't to make money there are no spreadsheets to help assess success as there are in private industry. Instead, there are fuzzy perceptions of public safety, and it takes just one failure to undercut those perceptions. And when failures occur, legislation invariably makes things bigger, not smaller. So how, exactly, does one determine when big becomes too big?


Dana here: you can't do if from the outside. You need to examine all programs, determine what's working, really working and what is not. A thorough review. Overlap is one sign that it has indeed gotten too big.


Please make sure that people realize that the IC is not some autonomous cancer. Everything that is being done is being done in response to specific mandates of Congress. I also hope that it is well understood that the secrecy that permeates so much, and is an acknowledged constraint to communication and efficiency, is also a matter or law. Further since gaining and maintaining a clearance is non-negotiable job requirement, people are loath to do anything that might jeopardize this. The IC is a behemoth, but there are reasons for this and solutions are hard to come by.


Thanks for your comment.  Of course our series is not just about the intelligence community and that is the precise point we make.  The world of counter-terrorism includes uncoordinated and sometimes little known entities of  the military, intelligence community, homeland security, and even civil government.  No one is in charge of it all and Congress hardly has the resources to oversee it all.


One can imagine that over 1,000 entities producing analyses and data would produce more than 1,000,000 documents (electronic and paper) each year. In the project have you folks made an estimate of number of products? Can you imagine the information morass yet to come for those folks who will decide upon declassification when that time comes?


Dana: We tried. Got the number 50,000 for intel reports. Such a flood and so much of the same thing that some people don't bother to read.


At what point do you think intelligence clearances and covert operations ceases to become an instrument of a representative democracy and more of a shadow government designed to circumvent bureacratic legal entanglements? At what point have we sold democratic ideals for the sake of expediency and to what extent does it become an instrument of a new class of robber barrons competing for millions of dollars in defense contracts under an umbrella of secrecy? Do you think that this is developing a new class of covertly wealthy Americans living both at home and abroad while those that remain to do business in the U.S. are suffering through a major economic recession?


I don't think that any of this is being done intentionally to create the end points you describe, but I completely agree that we need to ask these questions, perhaps more in the form of is our form of government really intending to put so much of our national security in the hands of profil making companies rather than public servants.


When did the idea for this project originate? And is there any significance to why your findings are being published now? Thank you.


A nice question.  Dana and I started working on this together in August 2008, realilzing that we were both struggling with the same question,  that we were looking at something but didn't quite know what.  Something had fundamentally changed since 9/11, we could see that.   It proved to be so big and so secret in its totality, frankly it has just taken us this long to wrap our collective arms and brains around it.


There is some irony here that might be lost on some. This series has been produced by coordinating information gained from the open literature. In the trade, this is called "Open Source Analysis" and, far more than the sexy secret stuff many envision, is where the bulk of the Intelligence Community spends its time. In other words, these reporters have done to the IC quite well what the IC routinely does to other countries and organizations.


You are right Irony, but it is also true that we conducted hundreds upon hundreds of interviews with sources and visited many locations.  So open source is certainly important,  and probably has far too little cachet in the "Top Secret" world of sexier sources.


Please include the salaries these top secret employees earned before they were hired by Booz Allen, SAIC, etc and the quarter million plus the taxpayer pays for them now. The numbers need lots of sunlight and will shock the nation.


ok, good idea. if anyone has more information on it, pls send it along to


How much of this apparatus is needed? How much is the tendency obvious these days of providing employment from the public purse? What in your opinion is the best way to address this chaotic sector and have only those agencies and contracts in place that serve We, The People?


This is certainly the key question.  And we hope that we are creating enough of a foundation for all of us to find the answers.


Why was your article run on Monday and not Sunday? There are many more subscribers for the Sunday edition. Thanks.


Because many more people go to the website on Monday rather than Sunday and this project was designed from the start to be very rich on the web. You should play around with the database to see what I mean.


As an ordinary citizen will we make serious mistakes in our votes or support of candidates when we are missing critical information that has been classified TS? Is some of this TS data merely protecting purely private interests?


As citizens, we are all asked to make important national decision, as in our consent to go to war.  As such, this should certainly be informed consent.  Secrecy, or lack of government transparency in general, is certainly an impediment to achieving the American ideal.


I have just read "Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Explore the Myth of a Free Press" and would like to know how you were able to get the go ahead and support for your investigation into this hot topic? Thank you for your dedication.


Easy. I just asked and they said yes. The notion that we might be able to pull this off was attractive to them, although I have to say this was the most difficult thing I've ever worked on and several times during the two years I wonder whether we would be able to translate what we were seeing into journalism. editors here a committed to investigative work and certainly so are the reporters/


What were your objectives in writing and publishing this article and to what extent did you take operational and personal security and safety into consideration?


The objective was to describe this most important part of the US government, to analyze what we found, to point out the problems. We took operational and personal security into consideration at every step. Notice, for instance, that the story today gives you a sense of what things feel like but usually does not direct you to a specific place. Same with the datatbase.


Great series -- much need coverage. Your intro used the same language as Trevor Paglen's Blank Spots on the Map, in terms of defining a secret geography for the U.S. top-secret infrastructure. Did his book contribute to your research, and especially to how you framed some of the issues?


I loved Paglen's book and its literary approach.  And any such work that delves into the hidden landscape is inspiration.  But as investigative journalists, we did our own work and collected our own data.  I think the extensive story and the online presentation at shows that.


Considering the complexity of the topic, at what point do you feel as a writer that you got a grasp on how to approach it?


Sometimes I ask myself this question, even after 30 years in the business.  And there is never a clear answer.  But talking to enough people and seeing enough things with your own eyes, and a lot of editors and experts around sure helps.


I'm concerned that the "hidden world" will grow so out of control that it will threaten democracy. As we learned from the Nixon years, it's very tempting for leaders to use that type of apparatus against citizens, to stifle dissent or to harass political opponents. I remember NSA being accused of widespread monitoring of phone conversations as far back as the 1970s. And with the apparatus as unwieldy as you portray, it would seem to be much harder to enforce accountability to citizens. I can easily imagine lower-level managers or contractors abusing these powers for their own agendas.


Obviously that temptation is something we should all be vigilant about and one way for journalists to do that is to continue to try to  write about this world, eventhough it is difficult and eventhough there are prickly security questions involved. if we don't even try because it's tricky, we, as journalists, are abandoning our responsbility. And its a responsibility enshrined in the Constitution---that the free press has a role in checking government.


Why did you cripple your article with such abysmal formatting? I got to page 4 and then abandoned the rest. What a waste.


You should try it in the paper version, maybe that will work better for you.


Granted you're not a historian (unless you are?), but just wondering how the current status of secret information gathering by the federal government compares to other times in American history especially during the Cold War (although I dislike the term "Cold War" since it's a bit too broad)?


One thing is abundantly clear about the current intelligence system.  It dwarfs anything previously in terms of the amount of information collected and processed.  I heard someone in the military say once that ONE Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance mission today uses about the same bandwidth as was used during the entire 1991 Gulf War.


I see no pratical reason for publishing this information. What in the hell are you folks trying to prove - that you are dumber than the New York TImes and the Pentagon Papers fiasco. You are going to get taken over the coals for this and deservedly. Jack C.


Obviously we disagree. This is exactly what newspapers should be doing everyday: holding government accountable for how they spend our money and what they get for it--without risking national security. This  is what we believe we've done. But welcome to America, where different opinions can be aired with civility.


You cited a few examples of top brass not having access to certain Top Secret information. Who determines who is granted access?


This is a great question.  Sometimes just the clearance itself connotes a "need to know," particularly in the networked world.  But in the compartmented world, specific billets are designated for access to information and in this way whoever owns the billet owns the information and thus the control.  I don't think that this is any specified way, and the evidence shows that again and again key people are left out of the loop on ... shall we say, matters of national security.


Aside from a general comment thanking you for this incredibly important work -- I look forward to reading the next installments -- I just have to send huge kudos to the computer wizards at the Post for the design and accessibility of the article. The color wheel of which agencies do what -- its ease of use and sortability -- is marvelous, for example. Really impressive work, computerized newspapers at their finest. Thank you.


thak you so much. they are such a great group to work with and they worked soooo hard.


I'm curious about why you found it necessary to give landmark info about the location of sites which were obviously aiming to be concealed or inconspicuous. It felt like gratuitous information that didn't add anything to the story, but could potentially jeopardize their security.


As the editor's note explains in the newspaper and online, we went through a months long process of confirming, fact-checking, and double-checking information and its potential harm even before we went through a months-long dialog with the government at the highest levels.   The balance we achieved I think is exactly right for this information age, enough information to convey the story and the bigness "at a granular level" as the editors say, but also information that could not do harm to the national security.


Downside of "Top Secret America": It's watching everything you do. Upside: It doesn't know what it's seeing.


ha ha


Knowing a little about some of the public contracting databases, how were you able to come up with so many companies and, even harder, match them to agencies on top secret contracts? I assume some of these were subcontractors where there is virtually no public info because, up until a recent rule change, the prime contractors were not required to let the government know who the subs were. How'd you guys do it?


Thanks for the compliment.  It took two years, but we were able to figure it out using hundreds of thousands of pieces of information.


Do you have any sense about the scale of expansion overseas? Are we experiencing similar growth in our intelligence community abroad?


Certainly Iraq and Afghanistan dominate in this area and most of the national security activity and contracting is also concentrated in those two countries, but there has also been an expansion into Africa (with the creation of Africa Command) and a greater intelligence and military presence in certain parts of the world.  It's not the Cold War, but the expansion is global, including inside the United States, where much of the most important work is done.


Wow! You just can't help raising the bar can you? 🙂 Thanks for this extremely important series (can't wait to read the rest). In addition to the seriousness of national security, how do you see the impact/interplay re: political realities and political theater? As an independent it simply adds to my growing deepening despair that the whole system really is now set up for enriching and empowering those with the 'secret keys' to the 'secret clubhouse' and very little is actually about we the people .. it's more of a byproduct. Those with the least power/money and resources will continue to be thrown under the bus by the rich and powerful, on every level. And the People with good intentions simply aren't competent and are very naive. That's how deep my cycnicism runs, mounting these past 25+ years with pure unadulterated disgust. And fear for our national well-being on many levels. That's part of what this article tells me. Too cynical? Again, thank you both for your historically important work on this and other issues!


I hope if I ever become cynical, I will leave for Hawaii or something. No, I'm not cynical. As long as the public can seriously debate  the issues, things can change. I believe journalists play a role in prompting serious discussion about serious issues....and, yes, nice to be back. I have never worked on anything as long as this.


While I'm sure this Live Chat counts and appreciate you both taking the time for it, is there is going to be much promotion for this article? Are you booked on any news programs? Sean Hannity? Rachel Maddow? Are you planning any interviews with other print publications?


I've been running from interview to interview since 5:30 a.m. CBS Evening News will have something tonight, as did NBC and ABC this morning. thanks for your interest.


Your article seems like a blatant attempt at another Pulitzer...lots of opinion sprinkled in with information sliced and diced to seem sensationalistic. The competitive nature of the intelligence community is nothing new to the government. In face, it's the very nature of politics, funding practices, and pork. So why tear apart this function, created to protect and defend? And why publish locations of intelligence operations? Why not just hand a map to our enemies?


We don't publish locations of intelligence operations. We don't even write in detail about intelligence operations. Maybe you should re-read it again.


Who would you say is the member(s) of Congress who most supports this massive surveillance? Who would be on the opposite side and being more against the massive and inefficient system of surveillance? PS Hope you're getting a lot of postive feedback.


To me, this is not quite the right question.  It seems to me that while Washington and Congress is awash with special interests, the reality is that absent a clear national security strategy for fighting terrorism, the default is politics, which is to say, that where the bases, projects, emphasis, contracts, etc., get located and where the money goes, is a matter of horse trading and power relationships rather than one that is methodical.  Having said that, there is no denying the fact that the Washngton DC area has been the major beneficiary for the growth since 9/11.  Stay turned for parts 2 and 3 of the series to see this.


Short of another catastrophe - how do we test the information sharing with all of these groups? Is this another case of the $500 hammer?


There are certainly endless cases of $500 hammers, but in this world it is more the problem of $500 million networks.  This is an information-dominated system we have today and there is no question that there is tremendous duplication and expense being "wasted" in this realm.   That's today's gold-plating.


During your extensive research and interviews, did you find any evidence of domestic, and therefore illegal, C.I.A. operations?




So is there an estimate of how much money this all costs?


You know, in the end, we were not able to put a total pricetag to Top Secret America, so opaque is the spending and activity.  The official intelligence budget is $75 billion, but I suspect that actual spending, once one incorporates all elements of the military, homeland security, and civil government is closer to double that amount.


Is there a possibility in the future of one person being in charge of all agencies?


not really in charge-in charge, but managing in a more effective way than is right now being done. There will be much debate about the role of the Director of National Intelligence--whose hearing is tomorrow. DefSec Robert Gates see the position like a committee chairman. he can't tell members how to vote, but he can try to cajole and manage them into a consensus. it's worth mulling over.


Thank you once again for your investigative work. Of those private companies included in your report, are there many comparable to Halliburton, KBR off-shore entities with little accountability?


One of the ironic details we uncovered in our investigation is that many of the "household" named contractors like Halliburton and KBR do little if any Top Secret work.  That should also give you a sense of how small this sector is in comparison to the overall defense sector, but also how much "unclassified" and just secret work is done.


Have attacks been prevented at all because of this top-secret program?


I certainly would hope so. We asked the director of national intelligence for examples that were not already in the media. we received none.


Good Afternoon, Is there anyway for us, regular people, to find out what information the government has about us, why, and what they are doing with it?


Thanks for your question.  By us regular people, if you mean all of us, I think the answer is that we have built a system with the capacity to collect vast amounts of information, and it could be directed (and has been) to evil uses, if we the people are not vigilent.  But do I personally believe that the government surveilled Citizen A on a regular basis?  I don't.


What would be the ideal reaction by the fed to your providing of transparency into TS-America? I.e., is transparency the goal, or could it be to warn, in the likeness of Eisenhower, of the looming security-industrial complex?


Transparency itself is not the goal. The goal is to figure out whether the system is working as it should and to make it better. I cannot get so far inside that I would see these answers. Because this is a classified world, we have to rely on people with appropriate clearances to get that detailed information.


For every one guy that tries to set his pants on fire in a plane, don't you suppose there are 50 threats that didn't materialize because all that intelligence, all those intercepts, all those analysts and all that communication is working? What would you cut back on? Surely money and numbers of people alone aren't an indication that the programs need changing.


This is a terrific question, and I hope the answer is yes.   But also at the same time, it isn't just a matter of stopping individuals.  That's the work of security guards and airplane screeners.  We're talking about a far larger problem, of understanding the truth correctly and then finding the most effective (and least costly) way of responding.


The reporting in today's article is impressive. But the length of the article -- it took me 20 minutes to read -- seems excessive for a weekday edition of the paper. Why couldn't today's piece have been four separate articles (on topics such as lack of coordination among agencies, lack of control, and budgetary impact) with an overview piece on the front page? You seem to be engaging in the same practice of burying your readers in minutiae that you criticize in your article!


interesting point. we'll i guess you could wait to finish it in pieces. we wanted to give you a fuller context though. we tried hard to make the writing smooth so it didn't take even longer---now we hope you'll spend you evening playing around in the database where there is even more fun to be had.


Since the intelligence community has a long history of running amok and being reigned in by congressional oversight, do you think the "fourth branch" sort of moves thru cyclical expansion & contraction cycles? Do you detect any interest on the part of Congress to get involved at this time?


Congress just doesn't have the resources to deal with this problem in a comprehensive way.  There are many things that need to be improved in order for Congress to fulfill its obligation to oversee the Executive Branch, but secrecy is certainly the biggest impediment, not just for Congress, but for the news media and the public.  That is why we concentrated on the "most" secret part of the government's work.


Would your work have been possible during the Bush/Cheney administration?


certainly. not much as changed in the national security arena. although, i have to say i don't think donald rumsfeld would have been as open to the implicit criticism as secretary gates was.


Just a comment. It's rather mind boggling when you think that we spent trillions of dollars to bankrupt and bring down the Soviet Union, but Al Quaeda is doing the same thing to us for peanuts!


one of the striking observations we heard that is not in the stories is the concern that our reaction to every near-miss feeds into the enemies' hands. it's worth thinking about.


How do you know most documents go unread?


What we said in the story today is that most intelligence reports -- of which there are thousands daily -- go unread.  We have been told this again and again by our sources and we have seen it again and again in each new potential terorist event.   Everyone is clear: There is just too much information and not enough analysis.


Is the President even able to find out about all of these projects? With subordinates not being able to brief their bosses, can a SAP run-amok do damage with no oversight from even the highest levels?


theoretically yes. the prez can only ask about something he knows to ask about. that's why he needs to rely on staff to bring things to his attention. hence the staff need to have visibility on these sensitive programs.


Intel scholars have been blasting dysfunctional "fire alarm" oversight of the community for decades. When you say something had "fundamentally changed" after 9/11, do you have something in mind beyond the sheer scale?


What has fundamentally changed?  I would say three things:  First, the shift to so many contractors being engaged in matters of national security.  Second, the concentration of power and activity in the United States (rather than overseas) and particularly in the Washington area.  And third, the proliferation of super secrecy and compartmented programs.


Do you realize that a possible impact of your article is the reduction in jobs for both government and private contractors? Do you believe that in today's economy, that cutting jobs in the intelligence and engineering fields that support these efforts is a positive outcome? Out of the 850,000+ employees with clearances at the TS level, how much money do you think goes back into the economy in the form of domestic/commercial consumption?


i don't think this was meant to be a jobs program.


WP has obviously made significant investment in bringing this story to its pages, but how will it make a difference? Will the WP be doing regular follow-up stories on the issue of bringing real responsibility and focus withing the IC community, while at same time reducing redundancy and therefore cost?


A great question.  We've spent two years on this, and the Washington Post has put a lot of resources into it.  This is a question of national security; I'm confident that the Post will not only stick with the story, but I look at new hires at the Washington Post in the national security field, like Greg Miller (from the LA Times) or Greg Jaffe (from the Wall Street Journal) to really demonstrate the Post's commitment to serious journalism, even in these difficult financial times.


Great article, and looking forward to the rest in the series. But what can We, the People do to help combat this problem? It seems so out of our control that simply voting for someone else isn't enough. What can we do to demand accountability and results to help this?


talk to your representatives. write letters to the editor. raise the general dialogue to a thoughtful, in-depth one. can't help you any more than that.


I know the article just appeared today, but has there been any Congressional reaction and might there be hearings soon to examine some of the issues and concerns your articles are raising?


i haven't been following the reaction much. apparently, though, james Clapper's confirmation hearing for the postion of the top intelligence manager is tomorrow. so it could come up then.


IN the end, so much of our society is all about money. How can the DNI really gain control of this huge and inefficient intelligence community and the contractors that suppport it if the DNI in fact does not control the purse strings?


well, i can't.


Having lived in Washington and worked around the business side of the industry, I have never understood why we have so many seperate intelligence agencies. There is a massive amount of duplication of effort to say the least that could be eliminated by consolidating the agences to a more manageable level. Thoughts??


Ah, why do we have so many cars?  It is to some extinct part of the American character.  But in the same organizations to have so many?  We call it the "bling" of national security and sometimes I get the impression that activities are little more than that.


How did you get The Post to fork over the funding for this project? Better yet, where did the funding come from?


they signed on right away, although no one knew it would take so long, me included. the funding came from the washington post co., where all our funding comes from.


First, thank you. I don't believe readers thank journalists enough for writing well-researched articles. How long did this series take to research and, in general, how much work did it take to get all this information?


it took two years of work by two full time reporters who got frustrated at times by how difficult this was, but also by the sheer volume of things out there that we were finding.


What's the point of hiding Liberty Crossing? Everyone knows where the CIA Headquarters, the NSA Headquarters, the Pentagon, and the DIA Headquarters is located. Hiding the DNI location just seems wrong, as does its use of a political concept (Liberty) in its title. The CIA Headquarter is just the George Bush Center, the NSA Headquarters is Ft. Meade, and the Pentagon is the Pentagon. Liberty Crossing sounds like it contains a political message (but at least they aren't putting it on the graves of soldiers as they are with Operation Iraqi Freedom).


We did not hide Liberty Crossing.  We speak of it being an officially "undisclosed" location.  But we did have a very deliberate internal discussion, and much back and forth with the government, about whether there was any danger associated in describing any individual location.  In the end, I'm confident that the Post struck a comfortable balance between information the public and not jeopardizing public safety (or interests).


Great article but who is in charge of all this secrecy? I mean who it at the top?


The President. And he's got a lot of other things to do.


Is there a breaking point? You've mentioned the unwieldy nature of this whole expansion. Is there something that could suddenly reverse it? What's the likelihood of anything changing? I haven't finished reading the article yet but wanted to ask while I could.


I'll just say, Nothing Says the Same.


Who are the type of people who work in "Top Secret America"? Just bland Ivy League-types like the old Cold War guys or another breed?


This is a great question and we try, in the third part of the series, to answer this question about the "culture" of Top Secret America.  But I'm afraid we've barely touched the surface of this question.  Ivy Leagers  of yesteryear, no?  But what drives the workers outside of government?  I'm not sure.


Can you say something about the Frontline documentary which will air on PBS in October? I noticed at the end of the video there is an email address & phone number for people to provide information for more reporting. What areas do you most want to explore further?


I have the Frontline producer, Mike Kirk, here with me now. Mike? We are determined to tell the story that has been published today and add narrative elements that will vividly take viewers inside Top Secret America.  If you know about important events that have happened, critical decisions taken or refused, we are interested.

thank you mike. (he types slowly doesn't he?)



we have to run now. hope you join us on our blog...which is up now, and will go up with original material on thursday, after everything runs.

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Q and A 02 - The Washington Post 20100720

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Q and A 02 - The Washington Post 20100720

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin discuss the second part of their two-year investigation into the growth of the top secret world that the U.S. government created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as public reaction and reaction from the intelligence community

Dana Priest
thanks for joining us today. bill is doing a tele interview and will join us shortly. let's begin though. lots happening today..

Q: wikileaks
Did wikileaks play a role in this investigation at all?

A: Dana Priest
no! and i only took this question first because it's short. pls try to keep the questions short.....i see really, really long ones in the queue.

Q: How do you do this?
How did you get into the offices and conferences without 'Top-Secret' clearances? If I was a 'security' contractor and found a journalist in my offices, I'd make them disappear. So, how did you get access? Did you hire people from these mercenary companies to infiltrate each other?

A: Dana Priest
ha. ha. You didn't need a clearance to get into the Phoenix conference. I didn't go into any facility where 1-they didn't invite me, or 2-you needed a clearance. DOD allowed me into the national military command center. it was awesome. i met Eric Saar there.

Q: control of secrets
I haven't had the time to read much of the article, but given the huge amount of 'secret' info, is there anyone (or organization) responsible for making sure that these are actually secrets worth keeping?

A: Dana Priest
when you read it you will see there is no secret information in there, or very very little,,,,i have to run off for three mins to do a bloomberg right back

Q: Background Investigations
The last I heard, 10 years ago or more, the backlog for background investigations was 600,000. What is the backlog now?

A: Dana Priest
i'm back. the backlog is shrunk considerably. i don't have the figures now but i think the wait is more like three months on average if you are in the defense department system. as you know, the nsa, cia and others have their own systems.

Q: Companies versus Agencies
The first article has the premise that "There are a lot of new people doing intelligence work, who work for companies rather than the U.S. Government. What reason do we have to believe that the U.S. Government and it's agencies are any more amenable to oversight and enforcement of laws than the contractors are?

A: Dana Priest
because they fall under federal law and government regulation and their doings are relatively more accessible than those of private companies who are not. public companies must disclose some info to shareholders, but not private ones.

Q: How Many Interns?
The data are fascinating, though I assume more details are not available because of the classification issues. But my question in: how many interns did it take to compile that database? How many man-hours of labor did that represent?

A: Dana Priest
we did hold back many details, not because they were classified because, for all we know, they were not. but for general public safety reasons. Bill Arkin put together the data took years.

Q: Conflicts of Interest
What is The Washington Post's ad policy for this project? At present the project simultaneously investigates government contractors while promoting their ads. Addendum: If you are using a third party prone to ignoring context like DoubleClick (owned by Google), I have to wonder that you haven't taken a more active role in your advertising, especially in terms of this investigative report. For example, would you consider the following occurrence [screencap] to be a conflict of interest? Thank you, @JSto

A: Dana Priest
I don't have a clue about our advertising policies and i hope i never do.

Q: top secret
I am a bit intimidated here. Being just a regular unemployed Joe, there is so much that I don't understand. That having been said. I AM PISSED OFF. I barely can afford to put food in the fridge yet my government is overlapping intelligence services to the tune of an amount of money that I cannot even fathom. If less than a fraction of a fraction of that money were given back to the people who paid their taxes year after year,(We just let them take it. They don't ask us they just take it and we say well NOTHING ) I want my money back! I am truly grateful for the great minds that produce systems to keep us safe. But we schmucks that have funded it are deciding now whether or not to pay the electric bill or the 8 year old car repair? The overlapping of services is unacceptable when we the people are funding it and are hungry. I always knew there were things done in secret for the security of the nation. But if potential great minds are not eating or being educated, because there isn't any money for it, then God help us all.

A: Dana Priest
no reasons to be shy. i hate to say it, but wait until you see tomorrow' s story. it makes your point .

Q: balance between public/private for good government
As I read this article, it does NOT necessarily say that the development of private contractors, or even our reliance upon them, is a bad thing. The mixture of public and private to create new and innovative ways to attack our problems appears necessary. How can this partnership become rationalized in the public interest, save money, and avoid waste and abuse? Are waste and abuse necessary components of public/private partnerships?

A: Dana Priest
there definitely could be a balance. innovation is such the realm of the private sector as you say. the problem with the current situation is that the USG relies on contractors (paid double) to do the same work--not better work, not genius work, not groundbreaking work--but most the same work as government folks.

Bill Arkin
Hello everyone. This is Bill Arkin. I've just come out of the Studio doing an NPR interview with "Here and Now," but now I'm here.

Q: Department of Homeland Security, 501(c)3 Organizations
Excellent work. I know that the Department of Home Land Security was the first government department to emerge post 9/11 but for the most part hasn't "Top Secret America" been known since President Eisenhower's Farewell Address? I'm also curious if you believe there is anything to be uncovered regarding the various Think Tanks and 501(c)3 non profit organizations like 'Project for A New American Century' for example, and their relationship, if any, with 'Top Secret America'.

A: Bill Arkin
I think this is a fabulous question and also one for us to ponder about the Military Industrial Complex. What our investigation shows is that this is hardly an industrial complex anymore. Of the 1931 companies doing this work, almost half are IT companies and the majority are providing "services" and not goods, that is, they are producing paper, so it's just not Eisenhower's MIC anymore, but it is something else.

Q: Your map
Why is your map so confusing? Why not have the name of the company AND of the government office or agency clickable? We have all these blue and red dots, with NO IDEA what they are? Very confusing.

A: Dana Priest
red are for contractors. blue are for gov orgs. we decided not to be explicit about what each gov dot is for security reasons. and we decided to move all dots to the closest city rather than the exact address, for the same. sorry. the exception are the headquarters, which are well known. i know that's frustrating but we were trying to strike a balance.

Q: Agenda?
I have read some about Mr. Arkin. Is there an agenda in this project beyond the facts? A personal agenda by the writers?

A: Bill Arkin
I have read some about this guy too, and all I can say is that I don't decide what goes into the newspaper. And thank goodness. The series speaks for itself. No one in government as far as I know is disputing anything about the merits of our story. So, the answer is no, there is no "agenda" here other than informing the American public about where it's money is going. I think we've struck a really good balance between information and our interest in the national security.

Q: Contractors in "Top Secret America"
Your article today both hits and misses. It's true that contractors may be getting paid more than military or DoD Civilians. But many of us aren't doing it because of the money. We're retired military who want to keep helping. And, we bring a lot of knowledge that isn't present in the military or government civilian work force. When I retired becoming a DoD Civilian meant giving up a large percentage of my retired pay. That's not true now, but it made the decision to go to industry very easy. And look at the government hiring process. It's anything but easy and responsive as you point out. See anything of substance being done to fix that. A few years ago I offered to come back to the government but it was too hard to do. If you want to fix these problems make hiring easier and faster, keep salaries competitive and the government will get folks. Right now I have 20+ years of military experience and 15+ years as a contractor working for the military. Tell me how the government is going to replicate that?

A: Dana Priest
you make good points. i referred briefly--and with CIA director Panetta's quote--to these issues. The byproduct of such great private sector salaries is the government can't compete to keep you in. changing that (raising salaries) is always so political unless you are still in uniform.

Q: Security Clearance Cost(s)
Thus far, I've seen no mention of the cost of gaining a top-secret clearance for each person who has one. In 1986 or so, the cost was $60,000 (or so I was told) for a single investigation required to determine whether a person could receive that classification.

A: Bill Arkin
In this information age, the cost has certainly gone down (I think the figure is about $6000.00 per background investigation. But it is also the case that the cost is double what it is for people to be granted a MERE secret clearance. So spending double should be something that people look at closely.

Q: Security
This series is blurring the line for me between spy and journalist. What is the purpose of this "series"? What do I, a private citizen, gain from this knowledge? If anything, you leave me with a sense of insecurity. And about redundancy--isn't a lack of redundancy the reason we are having this BP problem? When the stakes are high, redundancy is good. I find the publication of this "research" irresponsible.

A: Dana Priest
big difference. spies steal, cheat and bribe, among other things. we just looked at loads and loads of publicly available records, walked the streets of TopSecret America and talked to hundreds of people will to help because they, too, had some concerns. maybe you should read it again???

Q: Federal contracting
To me, this reads as a somewhat cynical indictment of federal contracting in general, but I'm not sure what's so new here. I'd like to draw a parallel to the space race, where an unprecedented amount of funding - too much for the government alone to spend - was successfully applied to the vision of putting a man on the moon. Nearly every piece of the moon rockets, including the Grumman-built lunar lander, was built by contractors under secrecy. So, in lieu of sharing quantifiable intelligence success metrics (which will never happen in public) instead of a very visible flag on the moon, how is what you're describing any different?

A: Bill Arkin
I for one am not personally pro- or anti-industry. But I think that it is clear that when we speak of the private sector, the interests are in profit for the company and not efficiency for the government. We have lots of people telling us this, including the Secretary of Defense and the CIA director -- on the record.

Q: What You Would Change
Dana and Bill, if you each could make one concrete change within the intelligence community, what would it be? Or is even this question the wrong way to approach the spiraling situation of our intelligence community?

A: Bill Arkin
Personal opinion? Parsimony is the greatest route to effectiveness. Freeze the budget, hell, find out the budget, and then start cutting. The mission will continue to be fulfilled; the only thing the bureaucracy responds to is money.

Q: Relations between contractors and Congress
Spending on "security" is especially difficult to control because there's an intrinsic "more is better" philosophy. Inevitably this just makes the ties between Congress and the contractors stronger. What kinds of institutions need be created to review security spending effectively and reduce duplication and waste? Obviously the created of the Department of Homeland Security and the office of the DNI has done nothing to corral this beast.

A: Bill Arkin
I don't think that there's a more is better philosophy, there's a less is worse philosophy. That's an important distinction. No one wants to be the first to cut a program if the results are going to be the inevitable terrorist attack (small scale or large), so there's little incentive to cut things.

Q: lobbyiing restrictions for contractors
Are there lobbying prohibitions or restrictions for contractors doing intelligence work? How can we (the public) be sure that contractors are not influencing policy?

A: Dana Priest
well, this is difficult. while companies need to file lobbying records for most things they lobby congress and the executive branch about, if it's something in the classified intel annexes, then they don't.

Q: Scandal
Turns out that joke from yesterday's chat was copy and pasted from the twitter account of Ezra Klein.

@Neil_Irwin tweet

@ezraklein response

@Neil_Irwin response

A: Andrea Caumont
Come on chatters! We expect you all to be original.

Q: Cost and Qualifications of Contractors
I recall that you quoted someone, in today's article, who said contractors cost 25% more than USG employees. Can you provide the average dollar figures for both? I assume the figures are all inclusive; including pensions, benefits, contractor overhead etc. Did you notice that when USG agencies hire contractors, they frequently pay for more qualified people than they actually get? By that I mean that the individuals who fill positions often don't have the skills and qualifications described in the job description, but both the contractor and the USG agency pretend they are fully qualified and the company gets paid the full price. Very profitable for the company. There are far more checks and balances in the hiring process for USG direct-hire positions than for hiring contractors, so agencies are not nearly as apt to have severely under-qualified people in direct-hire positions.

A: Dana Priest
the average figure i've seen is 125,000 v 250,000 including benefits

Q: Thank You
Ms. Priest and Mr. Arkin: I'm sure you'll come under a tremendous amount of criticism for this series, mostly from people with vested interests in the form of money or power who feel threatened by it - but as someone inside the system you describe, who knows enough to know how refreshingly coherent this portrayal is - let me just say thank you. I feel proud to live in a country where this series can see the light of day, and am so pleased to see this in print. Sunshine is always the best disinfectant, and make no mistake, we're infected. The serious questions raised by these articles have been swept under the rug for too long. You, and the Post, should be proud of this series - especially since few journalists would have ever gotten the access to senior leadership that validates the painstaking research.

A: Dana Priest
thank you...i'll just pass this along to readers

Q: The Money
Your article hits on a good point: that Defense Contractors are "chasing the money." However, what would you have the government do? If a government agency can't find the skill-set they need with a current employee, and it is mission critical, what is the solution? The time and money spent to train the government employee may not be available, whereas a contractor can fill that gap right away; so it's a win-win. Look, if the mission succeeds, why does it matter whether the analyst is a private contractor, or a government employee?

A: Bill Arkin
If we were talking what had been built in 2002, I would be less concerned with the state of things. There is no question that the government had to "surge" quickly after 9/11 and that it had to turn to the private sector for help. But 10 years later, the same panic and ad hockery has continued virtually without regulation. So "what" government should do is more about the American people taking a breather from 9/11 and reassessing.

Q: Contracting database
I work for the private sector and analyze government contracts and spending as my daily job. There exists no public database of classified contracts, i.e. contracts whose existence is classified. There does exist a large database of non-classified contracts, the work under which requires security clearances. Would you please specify the data source(s) you used to build your "top secret contracts" database? If it is just FPDS, did you simply assume that any contract for an IC customer was classified at the TOP SECRET level? And if you used FPDS or one of its derivatives (, etc.) then you are missing a huge world of "black" contracting. Thank you.

A: Dana Priest
While we cannot go into our exact methodology, you are right, we are missing the truely black programs.

Q: Contractor Roles
It isn't just a surplus of funding and a sluggish procurement system that encourages a dependence on contractors. With many agencies, and especially the military, federal employees are expected to rotate positions every two years or so. Contractors provide technical expertise that comes from sticking with an area for many years, as well as continuity and "corporate memory."

A: Dana Priest
passing this along as a good thought

Q: Jobs
After reading the article it seems that you are criticizing this "niche" industry for growth during a recession, as if that's necessarily a bad thing. The largest criticism the public has about government these days is the lack of job creation: yet here you are presenting a scenario that paints the opposite picture; a beacon of job creation. Hundreds of thousands of professionals given new jobs who have families to feed. Why is this painted in such a negative light within your article?

A: Bill Arkin
I don't think that counter-terrorism was meant to be a jobs program.

I'm all for national security, but when those who are entrusted to safeguard it have an incentive to have things be just the way they are or even can benefit from inflating the nature of the threat, there is something wrong.

Q: The map - any plans to improve the ID of locations?
The map is engaging, but difficult to extract information from... Specifically, if I zoom to a location and see government or company locations it would be informative for the user if they could ID a site to obtain the details. Is your group under some restrictions when it comes to disseminating this information?

A: Dana Priest
see above. we are not "under restrictions" by someone else. we choose what it was prudent to publish.

Q: Lots of detail, but didn't advance an existing story
Hello, I was curious about the blacklash from other journalists who say that they and others have basically done the same story years ago. They being upset because there is no mention of their work and even if you didn't use their research, you can't deny you weren't the first to take up this subject. Also why did it take the Washington Post so long to write this story? It's not exactly "news" if this has been going on for close to a decade as well as not advancing the story beyond that was already printed in other publications.

A: Bill Arkin
I've seen some of this criticism. There is no doubt that other journalists have been writing about this as well; indeed Dana and I have been writing about this for years. But what's been done here, a two-year long investigation and a comprehensive look at the entire government national security structure since 9/11, that's not been done before. (And I welcome more reporting on matters of national security. Really)

Q: Jack said it best in "A Few Good Men"
Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Dana Priest? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for detainees and curse the Marines; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that their deaths, while tragic, probably saved lives and that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use them as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man or woman who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said "thank you," and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post. I guarantee your "moderators" won't post this.

A: Dana Priest
oh why not....

Q: Resentment
You don't talk about the resentments in the offices where contractors and govt employees are side-by-side. I hear the contractors complaining about the govt employees who can't be fired, get fat benefits and don't do any work. I hear the govt employees complaining about the overpaid contractors who perpetuate padded contracts rather than finish anything. What did your reporting find?

A: Dana Priest
we did not dig into that in this series but thanks for your thoughts

Q: Wake up
I think maybe you all wouldn't be so critical if you realized (or had the clearance to know!) that there are many successes in the community and all you have done is shown ignorance. Contractors are a necessity. You claim that they are more expensive then government employees. I could agree with you if your statistic is based on one year. However, contractors do not get gov't pensions and are not able to keep positions if entirely incompetent (like gov't). The tax payer ends up putting more money toward a gov't employee than a contractor over long term. Contractors are necessary.

A: Bill Arkin
I don't think we see that contractors aren't necessary. In fact, I don't think we draw any judgments whatsoever in the articles. The data speaks for itself: This is the way it is. Whether they are cheaper, even in this year terms, is open to debate. And certainly HOW we want to govern ourselves and preserve our national security isn't a matter of money; we should pay whatever is necessary. The question is whether it is necessary, and whether it is being done most efficiently.

Q: Investigations of the Reporters
How many agencies/activities do you think have opened files on you since your work on 'Top Secret America" began? What are your reactions?

A: Dana Priest
for what? many many government officials have known for over a year the subjects we have been probing. many many government agencies hosted my visit. I've toured and been given briefings by at least 20 intel units, most of them in the dod.

Bill Arkin
Thanks so much everyone for joining us today! Sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions. See you tomorrow and see you at

Bill Arkin

Q: Too big to fail?
Is there any chance this pseudo-industry, an unregulated intelligence community, is already (or will become) too big to let fail? That would mean that it's in our economic interest to be continually at war.

A: Dana Priest
well we certainly don't want the intel community to fail. we want it to get better.

Q: We cut IC funding before and it gave us.............
Last time I checked cutting funding to the IC gave us this thing called 9-11. I rather have too much spending than not enough.

A: Dana Priest
another viewpoint

Q: Hugely valuble series
Are you getting interest from congressional oversight committees on using this data for some serious reorganization/cutbacks?

A: Dana Priest
yes, but they only get what we publish for readers

Dana Priest
thanks for joining us. come back tomorrow.

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America Part 2: National Security Inc. - The Washington Post 20100720

Priest, Dana and Arkin, WM - Top Secret America Part 2: National Security Inc. - The Washington Post 20100720

In June, a stone carver from Manassas chiseled another perfect star into a marble wall at CIA headquarters, one of 22 for agency workers killed in the global war initiated by the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The intent of the memorial is to publicly honor the courage of those who died in the line of duty, but it also conceals a deeper story about government in the post-9/11 era: Eight of the 22 were not CIA officers at all. They were private contractors.

To ensure that the country's most sensitive duties are carried out only by people loyal above all to the nation's interest, federal rules say contractors may not perform what are called "inherently government functions." But they do, all the time and in every intelligence and counterterrorism agency, according to a two-year investigation by The Washington Post.

What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency that calls into question whether the federal workforce includes too many people obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest -- and whether the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities. In interviews last week, both Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta said they agreed with such concerns.

The Post investigation uncovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America created since 9/11 that is hidden from public view, lacking in thorough oversight and so unwieldy that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

It is also a system in which contractors are playing an ever more important role. The Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. There is no better example of the government's dependency on them than at the CIA, the one place in government that exists to do things overseas that no other U.S. agency is allowed to do.

Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. At Langley headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency's training facility in Virginia, they are helping mold a new generation of American spies.

Through the federal budget process, the George W. Bush administration andCongress made it much easier for the CIA and other agencies involved in counterterrorism to hire more contractors than civil servants. They did this to limit the size of the permanent workforce, to hire employees more quickly than the sluggish federal process allows and because they thought - wrongly, it turned out - that contractors would be less expensive.

Nine years later, well into the Obama administration, the idea that contractors cost less has been repudiated, and the administration has made some progress toward its goal of reducing the number of hired hands by 7 percent over two years. Still, close to 30 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies is contractors.

"For too long, we've depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done" by CIA employees, Panetta said. But replacing them "doesn't happen overnight. When you've been dependent on contractors for so long, you have to build that expertise over time."

A second concern of Panetta's: contracting with corporations, whose responsibility "is to their shareholders, and that does present an inherent conflict."

Or as Gates, who has been in and out of government his entire life, puts it: "You want somebody who's really in it for a career because they're passionate about it and because they care about the country and not just because of the money."

Contractors can offer more money - often twice as much - to experienced federal employees than the government is allowed to pay them. And because competition among firms for people with security clearances is so great, corporations offer such perks as BMWs and $15,000 signing bonuses, as Raytheon did in June for software developers with top-level clearances.

The idea that the government would save money on a contract workforce "is a false economy," said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official and now president of his own intelligence training academy.

As companies raid federal agencies of talent, the government has been left with the youngest intelligence staffs ever while more experienced employees move into the private sector. This is true at the CIA, where employees from 114 firms account for roughly a third of the workforce, or about 10,000 positions. Many of them are temporary hires, often former military or intelligence agency employees who left government service to work less and earn more while drawing a federal pension.

Stars engraved on the wall of the CIA represent people who died in the line of duty. Eight stars represent private contractors killed since 9/11. (Photo by: CIA)  |  Launch Photo Gallery »

Across the government, such workers are used in every conceivable way.

Contractors kill enemy fighters. They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks. They help craft war plans. They gather information on local factions in war zones. They are the historians, the architects, the recruiters in the nation's most secretive agencies. They staff watch centers across the Washington area. They are among the most trusted advisers to the four-star generals leading the nation's wars.

So great is the government's appetite for private contractors with top-secret clearances that there are now more than 300 companies, often nicknamed "body shops," that specialize in finding candidates, often for a fee that approaches $50,000 a person, according to those in the business.

Making it more difficult to replace contractors with federal employees: The government doesn't know how many are on the federal payroll. Gates said he wants to reduce the number of defense contractors by about 13 percent, to pre-9/11 levels, but he's having a hard time even getting a basic head count.

"This is a terrible confession," he said. "I can't get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense," referring to the department's civilian leadership.

Gallery thumb

The role of private contractors

As Top Secret America has grown, the government has become more dependent on contractors with matching security clearances. Launch Photo Gallery »


The Post's estimate of 265,000 contractors doing top-secret work was vetted by several high-ranking intelligence officials who approved of The Post's methodology. The newspaper's Top Secret America database includes 1,931 companies that perform work at the top-secret level. More than a quarter of them - 533 - came into being after 2001, and others that already existed have expanded greatly. Most are thriving even as the rest of the United States struggles with bankruptcies, unemployment and foreclosures.

The privatization of national security work has been made possible by a nine-year "gusher" of money, as Gates recently described national security spending since the 9/11 attacks.

With so much money to spend, managers do not always worry about whether they are spending it effectively.

"Someone says, 'Let's do another study,' and because no one shares information, everyone does their own study," said Elena Mastors, who headed a team studying the al-Qaeda leadership for the Defense Department. "It's about how many studies you can orchestrate, how many people you can fly all over the place. Everybody's just on a spending spree. We don't need all these people doing all this stuff."

Most of these contractors do work that is fundamental to an agency's core mission. As a result, the government has become dependent on them in a way few could have foreseen: wartime temps who have become a permanent cadre.

Just last week, typing "top secret" into the search engine of a major jobs Web site showed 1,951 unfilled positions in the Washington area, and 19,759 nationwide: "Target analyst," Reston. "Critical infrastructure specialist," Washington, D.C. "Joint expeditionary team member," Arlington.

"We could not perform our mission without them. They serve as our 'reserves,' providing flexibility and expertise we can't acquire," said Ronald Sanders, who was chief of human capital for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence before retiring in February. "Once they are on board, we treat them as if they're a part of the total force."

The Post's investigation is based on government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records, and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials. Most requested anonymity either because they are prohibited from speaking publicly or because, they said, they feared retaliation at work for describing their concerns.

The investigation focused on top-secret work because the amount classified at the secret level is too large to accurately track. A searchable database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records. [For an explanation of the newspaper's decision making behind this project, please see theEditor's Note.]


The national security industry sells the military and intelligence agencies more than just airplanes, ships and tanks. It sells contractors' brain power. They advise, brief and work everywhere, including 25 feet under the Pentagon in a bunker where they can be found alongside military personnel in battle fatigues monitoring potential crises worldwide.

Late at night, when the wide corridors of the Pentagon are all but empty, the National Military Command Center hums with purpose. There's real-time access to the location of U.S. forces anywhere in the world, to granular satellite images or to the White House Situation Room.

The purpose of all this is to be able to answer any question the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff might have. To be ready 24 hours a day, every day, takes five brigadier generals, a staff of colonels and senior noncommissioned officers - and a man wearing a pink contractor badge and a bright purple shirt and tie.

Erik Saar's job title is "knowledge engineer." In one of the most sensitive places in America, he is the only person in the room who knows how to bring data from far afield, fast. Saar and four teammates from a private company, SRA International, teach these top-ranked staff officers to think in Web 2.0. They are trying to push a tradition-bound culture to act differently, digitally.

Job fair

Help wanted: professionals with security clearances

Recruiters for companies that hold government contracts meet with job seekers who have security clearances at a Targeted Job Fairs event in McLean, Va. Launch Video »


That sometimes means asking for help in a public online chat room or exchanging ideas on shared Web pages outside the military computer networks dubbed .mil - things much resisted within the Pentagon's self-sufficient culture. "Our job is to change the perception of leaders who might drive change," Saar said.

Since 9/11, contractors have made extraordinary contributions - and extraordinary blunders - that have changed history and clouded the public's view of the distinction between the actions of officers sworn on behalf of the United States and corporate employees with little more than a security badge and a gun.

Contractor misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt U.S. credibility in those countries as well as in the Middle East. Abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, some of it done by contractors, helped ignite a call for vengeance against the United States that continues today. Security guards working for Blackwater added fuel to the five-year violent chaos in Iraq and became the symbol of an America run amok.

Contractors in war zones, especially those who can fire weapons, blur "the line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of force, which is just what our enemies want," Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College and the author of "One Nation Under Contract," told the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting at a hearing in June.

Misconduct happens, too. A defense contractor formerly called MZM paid bribes for CIA contracts, sending Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was a California congressman on the intelligence committee, to prison. Guards employed in Afghanistan by ArmorGroup North America, a private security company, were caught on camera in a lewd-partying scandal.

But contractors have also advanced the way the military fights. During the bloodiest months in Iraq, the founder of Berico Technologies, a former Army officer named Guy Filippelli, working with the National Security Agency, invented a technology that made finding the makers of roadside bombs easier and helped stanch the number of casualties from improvised explosives, according to NSA officials.

Contractors have produced blueprints and equipment for the unmanned aerial war fought by drones, which have killed the largest number of senior al-Qaeda leaders and produced a flood of surveillance videos. A dozen firms created the transnational digital highway that carries the drones' real-time data on terrorist hide-outs from overseas to command posts throughout the United States.

Private firms have become so thoroughly entwined with the government's most sensitive activities that without them important military and intelligence missions would have to cease or would be jeopardized. Some examples:

*At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the number of contractors equals the number of federal employees. The department depends on 318 companies for essential services and personnel, including 19 staffing firms that help DHS find and hire even more contractors. At the office that handles intelligence, six out of 10 employees are from private industry.

*The National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, hires private firms to come up with most of its technological innovations. The NSA used to work with a small stable of firms; now it works with at least 484 and is actively recruiting more.

*The National Reconnaissance Office cannot produce, launch or maintain its large satellite surveillance systems, which photograph countries such as China, North Korea and Iran, without the four major contractors it works with.

*Every intelligence and military organization depends on contract linguists to communicate overseas, translate documents and make sense of electronic voice intercepts. The demand for native speakers is so great, and the amount of money the government is willing to pay for them is so huge, that 56 firms compete for this business.

*Each of the 16 intelligence agencies depends on corporations to set up its computer networks, communicate with other agencies' networks, and fuse and mine disparate bits of information that might indicate a terrorist plot. More than 400 companies work exclusively in this area, building classified hardware and software systems.

Hiring contractors was supposed to save the government money. But that has not turned out to be the case. A 2008 study published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that contractors made up 29 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies but cost the equivalent of 49 percent of their personnel budgets. Gates said that federal workers cost the government 25 percent less than contractors.

The process of reducing the number of contractors has been slow, if the giant Office of Naval Intelligence in Suitland is any example. There, 2,770 people work on the round-the-clock maritime watch floor tracking commercial vessels, or in science and engineering laboratories, or in one of four separate intelligence centers. But it is the employees of 70 information technology companies who keep the place operating.

They store, process and analyze communications and intelligence transmitted to and from the entire U.S. naval fleet and commercial vessels worldwide. "Could we keep this building running without contractors?" said the captain in charge of information technology. "No, I don't think we could keep up with it."

Vice Adm. David J. "Jack" Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, said he could save millions each year by converting 20 percent of the contractor jobs at the Suitland complex to civil servant positions. He has gotten the go-ahead, but it's been a slow start. This year, his staff has converted one contractor job and eliminated another - out of 589. "It's costing me an arm and a leg," Dorsett said.


Washington's corridors of power stretch in a nearly straight geographical line from the Supreme Court to the Capitol to the White House. Keep going west, across the Potomac River, and the unofficial seats of power - the private, corporate ones - become visible, especially at night. There in the Virginia suburbs are the brightly illuminated company logos of Top Secret America: Northrop Grumman, SAIC,General Dynamics.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says he would like to reduce the number of defense contractors to pre-9/11 levels. (Photo by: Melina Mara | The Washington Post)

Of the 1,931 companies identified by The Post that work on top-secret contracts, about 110 of them do roughly 90 percent of the work on the corporate side of the defense-intelligence-corporate world.

To understand how these firms have come to dominate the post-9/11 era, there's no better place to start than the Herndon office of General Dynamics. One recent afternoon there, Ken Pohill was watching a series of unclassified images, the first of which showed a white truck moving across his computer monitor.

The truck was in Afghanistan, and a video camera bolted to the belly of a U.S. surveillance plane was following it. Pohill could access a dozen images that might help an intelligence analyst figure out whether the truck driver was just a truck driver or part of a network making roadside bombs to kill American soldiers.

To do this, he clicked his computer mouse. Up popped a picture of the truck driver's house, with notes about visitors. Another click. Up popped infrared video of the vehicle. Click: Analysis of an object thrown from the driver's side. Click: U-2 imagery. Click: A history of the truck's movement. Click. A Google Earth map of friendly forces. Click: A chat box with everyone else following the truck, too.

Ten years ago, if Pohill had worked for General Dynamics, he probably would have had a job bending steel. Then, the company's center of gravity was the industrial port city of Groton, Conn., where men and women in wet galoshes churned out submarines, the thoroughbreds of naval warfare. Today, the firm's commercial core is made up of data tools such as the digital imagery library in Herndon and the secure BlackBerry-like device used by President Obama, both developed at a carpeted suburban office by employees in loafers and heels.

The evolution of General Dynamics was based on one simple strategy: Follow the money.

The company embraced the emerging intelligence-driven style of warfare. It developed small-target identification systems and equipment that could intercept an insurgent's cellphone and laptop communications. It found ways to sort the billions of data points collected by intelligence agencies into piles of information that a single person could analyze.

It also began gobbling up smaller companies that could help it dominate the new intelligence landscape, just as its competitors were doing. Between 2001 and 2010, the company acquired 11 firms specializing in satellites, signals and geospatial intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, technology integration and imagery.

On Sept. 11, 2001, General Dynamics was working with nine intelligence organizations. Now it has contracts with all 16. Its employees fill the halls of the NSA and DHS. The corporation was paid hundreds of millions of dollars to set up and manage DHS's new offices in 2003, including its National Operations Center, Office of Intelligence and Analysis and Office of Security. Its employees do everything from deciding which threats to investigate to answering phones.

General Dynamics' bottom line reflects its successful transformation. It also reflects how much the U.S. government - the firm's largest customer by far - has paid the company beyond what it costs to do the work, which is, after all, the goal of every profit-making corporation.

The company reported $31.9 billion in revenue in 2009, up from $10.4 billion in 2000. Its workforce has more than doubled in that time, from 43,300 to 91,700 employees, according to the company.

Revenue from General Dynamics' intelligence- and information-related divisions, where the majority of its top-secret work is done, climbed to $10 billion in the second quarter of 2009, up from $2.4 billion in 2000, accounting for 34 percent of its overall revenue last year.

The company's profitability is on display in its Falls Church headquarters. There's a soaring, art-filled lobby, bistro meals served on china enameled with the General Dynamics logo and an auditorium with seven rows of white leather-upholstered seats, each with its own microphone and laptop docking station.

General Dynamics now has operations in every corner of the intelligence world. It helps counterintelligence operators and trains new analysts. It has a $600 millionAir Force contract to intercept communications. It makes $1 billion a year keeping hackers out of U.S. computer networks and encrypting military communications. It even conducts information operations, the murky military art of trying to persuade foreigners to align their views with U.S. interests.

"The American intelligence community is an important market for our company," said General Dynamics spokesman Kendell Pease. "Over time, we have tailored our organization to deliver affordable, best-of-breed products and services to meet those agencies' unique requirements."

In September 2009, General Dynamics won a $10 million contract from the U.S. Special Operations Command's psychological operations unit to create Web sites to influence foreigners' views of U.S. policy. To do that, the company hired writers, editors and designers to produce a set of daily news sites tailored to five regions of the world. They appear as regular news Web sites, with names such as " The News and Views of Southeast Europe." The first indication that they are run on behalf of the military comes at the bottom of the home page with the word "Disclaimer." Only by clicking on that do you learn that "the Southeast European Times (SET) is a Web site sponsored by the United States European Command."

What all of these contracts add up to: This year, General Dynamics' overall revenue was $7.8 billion in the first quarter, Jay L. Johnson, the company's chief executive and president, said at an earnings conference call in April. "We've hit the deck running in the first quarter," he said, "and we're on our way to another successful year."


In the shadow of giants such as General Dynamics are 1,814 small to midsize companies that do top-secret work. About a third of them were established after Sept. 11, 2001, to take advantage of the huge flow of taxpayer money into the private sector. Many are led by former intelligence agency officials who know exactly whom to approach for work.

Abraxas of Herndon, headed by a former CIA spy, quickly became a major CIA contractor after 9/11. Its staff even recruited midlevel managers during work hours from the CIA's cafeteria, former agency officers recall.

Other small and medium-size firms sell niche technical expertise such as engineering for low-orbit satellites or long-dwell sensors. But the vast majority have not invented anything at all. Instead, they replicate what the government's workforce already does.

A company called SGIS, founded soon after the 2001 attacks, was one of these.

In June 2002, from the spare bedroom of his San Diego home, 30-year-old Hany Girgis put together an information technology team that won its first Defense Department contract four months later. By the end of the year, SGIS had opened a Tampa office close to the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, had turned a profit and had 30 employees.

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An alternative geography

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the top-secret world created to respond to the terrorist attacks has grown into an unwieldy enterprise spread over 10,000 U.S. locations. Launch Photo Gallery »

SGIS sold the government the services of people with specialized skills; expanding the types of teams it could put together was one key to its growth. Eventually it offered engineers, analysts and cyber-security specialists for military, space and intelligence agencies. By 2003, the company's revenue was $3.7 million. By then, SGIS had become a subcontractor for General Dynamics, working at the secret level. Satisfied with the partnership, General Dynamics helped SGIS receive a top-secret facility clearance, which opened the doors to more work.

By 2006, its revenue had multiplied tenfold, to $30.6 million, and the company had hired employees who specialized in government contracting just to help it win more contracts.

"We knew that's where we wanted to play," Girgis said in a phone interview. "There's always going to be a need to protect the homeland."

Eight years after it began, SGIS was up to revenue of $101 million, 14 offices and 675 employees. Those with top-secret clearances worked for 11 government agencies, according to The Post's database.

The company's marketing efforts had grown, too, both in size and sophistication. Its Web site, for example, showed an image of Navy sailors lined up on a battleship over the words "Proud to serve" and another image of a Navy helicopter flying near the Statue of Liberty over the words "Preserving freedom." And if it seemed hard to distinguish SGIS's work from the government's, it's because they were doing so many of the same things. SGIS employees replaced military personnel at the Pentagon's 24/7 telecommunications center. SGIS employees conducted terrorist threat analysis. SGIS employees provided help-desk support for federal computer systems.

Still, as alike as they seemed, there were crucial differences.

For one, unlike in government, if an SGIS employee did a good job, he might walk into the parking lot one day and be surprised by co-workers clapping at his latest bonus: a leased, dark-blue Mercedes convertible. And he might say, as a video camera recorded him sliding into the soft leather driver's seat, "Ahhhh . . . this is spectacular."

And then there was what happened to SGIS last month, when it did the one thing the federal government can never do.

It sold itself.

The new owner is a Fairfax-based company called Salient Federal Solutions, created just last year. It is a management company and a private-equity firm with lots of Washington connections that, with the purchase of SGIS, it intends to parlay into contracts.

"We have an objective," says chief executive and President Brad Antle, "to make $500 million in five years."

Gallery thumb

Anti-Deception Technologies

From avatars and lasers to thermal cameras and fidget meters, this multimedia gallery takes a look at some of the latest technologies being developed by the government and private companies to thwart terrorists. Launch Gallery »


Of all the different companies in Top Secret America, the most numerous by far are the information technology, or IT, firms. About 800 firms do nothing but IT.

Some IT companies integrate the mishmash of computer systems within one agency; others build digital links between agencies; still others have created software and hardware that can mine and analyze vast quantities of data.

The government is nearly totally dependent on these firms. Their close relationship was on display recently at the Defense Intelligence Agency's annual information technology conference in Phoenix. The agency expected the same IT firms angling for its business to pay for the entire five-day get-together, a DIA spokesman confirmed.

And they did.

General Dynamics spent $30,000 on the event. On a perfect spring night, it hosted a party at Chase Field, a 48,569-seat baseball stadium, reserved exclusively for the conference attendees. Government buyers and corporate sellers drank beer and ate hot dogs while the DIA director's morning keynote speech replayed on the gigantic scoreboard, digital baseballs bouncing along the bottom of the screen.

Carahsoft Technology, a DIA contractor, invited guests to a casino night where intelligence officials and vendors ate, drank and bet phony money at craps tables run by professional dealers.

The McAfee network security company, a Defense Department contractor, welcomed guests to a Margaritaville-themed social on the garden terrace of the hotel across the street from the convention site, where 250 firms paid thousands of dollars each to advertise their services and make their pitches to intelligence officials walking the exhibition hall.

Government officials and company executives say these networking events are critical to building a strong relationship between the public and private sectors.

"If I make one contact each day, it's worth it," said Tom Conway, director of federal business development for McAfee.

As for what a government agency gets out of it: "Our goal is to be open and learn stuff," said Grant M. Schneider, the DIA's chief information officer and one of the conference's main draws. By going outside Washington, where many of the firms are headquartered, "we get more synergy. . . . It's an interchange with industry."

These types of gatherings happen every week. Many of them are closed to anyone without a top-secret clearance.

At a U.S. Special Operations Command conference in Fayetteville, N.C., in April, vendors paid for access to some of the people who decide what services and gadgets to buy for troops. In mid-May, the national security industry held a black-tie evening funded by the same corporations seeking business from the defense, intelligence and congressional leaders seated at their tables.

Such coziness worries other officials who believe the post-9/11 defense-intelligence-corporate relationship has become, as one senior military intelligence officer described it, a "self-licking ice cream cone."

Another official, a longtime conservative staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee, described it as "a living, breathing organism" impossible to control or curtail. "How much money has been involved is just mind-boggling," he said. "We've built such a vast instrument. What are you going to do with this thing? . . . It's turned into a jobs program."

Even some of those gathered in Phoenix criticized the size and disjointedness of the intelligence community and its contracting base. "Redundancy is the unacceptable norm," Lt. Gen. Richard P. Zahner, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, told the 2,000 attendees. "Are we spending our resources effectively? . . . If we have not gotten our houses in order, someone will do it for us."

On a day that also featured free back rubs, shoeshines, ice cream and fruit smoothies, another speaker, Kevin P. Meiners, a deputy undersecretary for intelligence, gave the audience what he called "the secret sauce," the key to thriving even when the Defense Department budget eventually stabilizes and stops rising so rapidly.

"Overhead," Meiners told them - that's what's going to get cut first. Overhead used to mean paper clips and toner. Now it's information technology, IT, the very products and services sold by the businesspeople in the audience.

"You should describe what you do as a weapons system, not overhead," Meiners instructed. "Overhead to them - I'm giving you the secret sauce here - is IT and people. . . . You have to foot-stomp hard that this is a war-fighting system that's helping save people's lives every day."

After he finished, many of the government officials listening headed to the exhibit hall, where company salespeople waited in display booths. Peter Coddington, chief executive of InTTENSITY, a small firm whose software teaches computers to "read" documents, was ready for them.

"You have to differentiate yourself," he said as they fanned out into the aisles. Coddington had glass beer mugs and pens twirling atop paperweight pyramids to help persuade officials of the nation's largest military intelligence agency that he had something they needed.

But first he needed them to stop walking so fast, to slow down long enough for him to start his pitch. His twirling pens seemed to do the job. "It's like moths to fire," Coddington whispered.

A DIA official with a tote bag approached. She spotted the pens, and her pace slowed. "Want a pen?" Coddington called.

She hesitated. "Ah . . . I have three children," she said.

"Want three pens?"

She stopped. In Top Secret America, every moment is an opportunity.

"We're a text extraction company. . . ," Coddington began, handing her the pens.

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Q and A 03 - The Washington Post 20100721

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Q and A 03 - The Washington Post 20100721

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin discuss the third part of their two-year investigation into the growth of the top secret world that the U.S. government created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as public reaction and reaction from the intelligence community

Dana Priest
I'm here trying to eat a messy sandwich as I chat....hope there aren't too many typos...welcome

Q: Clarification of today's segment
I was wondering if you could clarify or explain today's article. The first part of the series dealt with the waste and redundancy in the intelligence community, but today's article seemed to be a "in the life of someone with a top-secret clearance." It was interesting, but not, I think, particularly newsworthy, at least for a front page article. Was it a prelude to something else, or did I just miss the point completely?

A: Dana Priest
ouch....i wanted to show the ripple effect on the culture of a place....newsworthy in a different way. that's all.

Bill Arkin
Hello everyone. Sorry I'm late today. There's still ... uh interest in the story.

Q: Work Environment
In addition to polygraphs and the other invasions of privacy, keep in mind that in Top Secret America there is no such thing as taking work home. All work is done at work, which, in federal spaces at least, typically means a small cramped cubical. Finally, imagine having to work in an environment in which cell-phones and, often, MP3 players are banned. This is what annoys the many young employees more than anything else.

A: Bill Arkin
Annoying indeed. But here's a good question for you? How much of this work really needs to take place in a SCIF? I think that the intelligence agencies just decide for themselves what's Top Secret SCI and work accordingly. There's no rhyme or reason why; the justification certainly isn't "exceptionally grave harm" as it is defined in the Executive Order.

Q: CIA Secret Prisons: Reprise
Ms. Priest, looking back at your 2006 investigative series on the CIA's secret prisons, is it fair to say that your articles contributed to the diminished prestige of the U.S. around the world? Yes, the existence of the prisons may have been reprehensible, but it was making their existance public that hurt American foreign policy. As a side note, I cancelled my paper subscription to WaPo a few months after that series, in part because I strongly disagreed with the Post's reckless decision to publish it.

A: Dana Priest
So let's follow your logic. This means the American public should not have been told about the following (because each, in their own way, hurt the reputation of the United States overseas):

Secret prisons; abu ghraib abuse; blackwater killing of innocent civilians; DOD lack of armor for soldiers; the extent of PTSD among US troops; the weakness of the pre-war intelligence on Iraq; the lack of understanding about Al Qaeda's strength, pre-9/11; the Clinton administration's distraction on the problem; Pres Clinton's "issues," ..... oh, I get it now.
Q: Redundancy in the Intelligence Community
The chart accompanying this series seems to suggest that multiple organizations in the intelligence community are wastefully and redundantly conducting the same activities. Do you believe this to be the case? Has your research revealed that, for example, the counternarcotics missions of PACOM and SOUTHCOM are wastefully duplicative? Is the intelligence analysis performed by CIA similar enough to that of NSA to be considered redundant?

A: Bill Arkin
Well obviously reader, you know more than we do if you're in the inside. I would say this: We found, at an extremely granular level in our investigation, that there was much duplication. Now it's for Congress or other overseers to answer your question. What I saw was how as "counter threat finance" became hot, things were renamed as counter-terrorism to be more prominent and take in more money. We saw the same with counter-terrorism in general after 9/11 and with counter-IED work.

Q: Top Secret America
Dear Ms Priest and Mr Arkin Your top class investigation and the result that you gathered is beyond any scope of normal degree of comprehension. Your story reads like a 25th century sci fi drama triggered by 9/11. I have no words to thank you. I just have only 1 Q. Are we any close to defeating the Taliban and AQ spending this much money and resources that we would continue to dispose till the end of time? Thanks. Elizabeth, Baltimore

A: Bill Arkin
Ah, as one reader said yesterday: Never have so many profited from the actions of so few. I'm afraid that this system has become quite self-perpetuating. That is indeed a problem.

Q: From an undisclosed location.
This has an impressive piece of work. I suspect it is will be extremely useful to those in the community who are concerned about the very issues raised. Even though I think some of the analysis simplifies, probably out of necessity, the subtleties of this world, I think the main themes are correct. Top Secret America is very big, is entrenched in our economy, and creates a unique subculture among its participants. Nobody should dispute this. And although much of the reaction, both good and bad, has been based more on a lazy interpretation than on your careful words, I hope that this begins an honest and informed debate over the issues raised by this article.

A: Dana Priest
thank you. my hope is that some of this conversation can take place here, on our site. we hope to launch a blog (can everyone help me think of a better name for it, I don't read blogs--write to with your suggestions.) I want it to be a place of civil, intelligent discussion and also a place where we can get into more details. Hope to get it up and running tomorrow or Friday...Monday at the latest.

Q: "A Few Good Men" from yesterday's chat
Dana and Bill: Just wanted to comment on the poster who took Dana to task, by name yesterday. He quoted Jack Nicholson's rousing speech from the end of "A Few Good Men." I had to laugh, because the Marine colonel Nicholson plays makes that macho declaration and then shortly reveals that he is not an honorable Marine commander at all, but a tin pot dictator who had an enlisted man killed in the name of security (ironically), then tried to get two other enlisted men to take the fall. The poster reminded me of those conservatives who thought Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was a flagwaving anthem when it's really about a veteran who feels that his country has used and deserted him. I guess people see, and hear, what they want to see and hear. Thanks for your work.

A: Dana Priest
passing along

Q: Classification
I've noticed that you haven't really discussed production of TS documents or what is really in them. I think the reading audience would benefit from a discussion of what TS means when items are classified as such, and I think they would benefit from the knowledge that each document doesn't necessarily mean its an original work. Any time a line is used from on TS report in something else that is completely harmless and common knowledge, that one line makes the entire document TS (and lines are often repeated meaning there could be 100 documents that are TS all because of one line). The mis-interpretation of what this work actually involves casts a shadow that we have all sorts of knowledge that we're not sharing- that we know where Bin Laden is, that we've uncovered thousands of attacks, etc. The truth is so far from that.

A: Bill Arkin
I completely agree with your observation, even from my own experience in Army intelligence in the 1970s! But the more that is "distributed" electronically, the more TS proliferates and that is also part of the problem, that access to the networks and the containment of those networks and the security of those networks requires signficant effort (and clearly is where much of the money is being spent).

Q: FOIA's usefulness
Was FOIA useful in your investigation? I understand your reluctance to talk specific sources and methods, but it would be a great service if you discussed how using FOIA helped, if at all, contribute to this series.

A: Dana Priest
yes it was. but maybe not as much as you would suspect. you can get a lot that's public without using FOIA if you explain that it's not classified in the first place and take the time talk about what you're trying to do.

Q: Welfare for the Best & Brightest?
It seems to me that if you do well in college, major in engineering, math, IT or Information Systems, have a clean history, you are an automatic hire for the DOD. Just what these people do, we will never know. But what is scary to see is the amount of money poured into this field, and we don't know what it is saving us from, because they disclose very little. All of these employees and contractors have their hand in the governments pocket, with what appears to be very little oversight...the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing? Looks a lot like welfare to me?? As a private sector worker, I'm envious of the benefits these people get...cost of living increases, pension, etc....these things no longer exist in the private sector! Urgh!

A: Bill Arkin
I'm a bit puzzled by your comment because most people seem to be telling us quite the opposite, that the private sector folks have quite the economic advantage, but maybe that's just the case in the Top Secret industry.

Q: Tea Party reaction?
Has the Tea Party weighed in yet? It seems that this expense is the big budget buster, not social spending.

A: Bill Arkin
I would say we have heard and seen interesting comments from all parties. This is the ultimate non-partisan issue: our national security.

Q: Is 2001 a valid baseline for comparisons?
You seem to take 9/11/2001 as the baseline for all your comparisons. Yet, 2001 may well have be an uncharacteristic low-point for classified programs, following on a decade after the cold war lacking in a perceived threat and in the implementation of vigorous de-classification policies during the 1990s. Wouldn't a more valid point of comparision been the 1980s? My memory of working in top-secret environments from the 1960s onward is that they were at least as chaotic and wasteful (and perhaps more so) as what you are presenting.

A: Dana Priest
we had a lot of trouble even getting comparison figures for 2001, so going back even further would have been very difficult. but i get your point, although i will point out the obvious: the enemy is very different and technology has made warfighting very different

Q: Eligiblity versus access
How many of the 900,000+ Top Secret clearance holders actually have acces to Top Secret. DOD adjudicates the investigation to the highest clearance level the investigation will support . A SSBI is adjudicated to level of TS or TS/SCI. the level of access is totally different. I have held a Top Secret eligibility for over 25 years but have never seen Top Secret info. Also it doesn't matter if you need a Secret clearance, Top Secret clearance or TS/SCI the adjudcation guidelines are the same! They are available on line

A: Bill Arkin
This is a very good question and one that Congress will undoubtedly ask in their comprehensive hearings on this subject! Seriously though, if people don't need TS clearances to do their jobs, then this is literally just the bling of varsity national security. Who knows the answer?

Q: National Security
Great series. One point: based on my 40 years in the US intelligence community, I think administration claims that so many details must be kept secret due to "national security" concerns is an induring myth. Everything doesn't have to be revealed, but knowing where government facilities are is of no use to terrorists...they have plenty of other targets. The last two presidents...if not three...have stated plainly that the Russians are not our enemies. The Chinese...what would they do with such information? People around the facilities certainly already know they're sensitive facilities from the security protection. US officials like to talk vaguely about "our enemies"...but are unable to state who exactly these vile "enemies" are who would use many of the details kept secret...and exactly how. It's only useful to keep Americans from knowing the extent of the money spent and the huge bureaucracy created. Just an observation.

A: Bill Arkin
There is a self-perpetuating element to this all, as I've said earlier. But thanks for your comment and for reading our series.

Q: Magnitude of the Threat
Do you think anyone will ever address the exact magnitude of the "threat" America is actually facing? Americans seem willing to spend any amount...hundreds of billions, prevent not just a terrorist act, but even EVERY attempt. Yet, fanatics/radicals have used acts of terror for at least 2,000 years and will for another 2,000 years, most likely. No country has EVER been able to stop all acts of terror, and we won't either. On the other hand, fanatics don't even have that much to gain from another attack...our overwhelming panic at even an attempt has given them an impact far beyond their wildest fantasies. When there IS another attack...or much more do we spend, or how much more secretive will our government become, and how many of our freedoms and liberties will be at further risk? All for the most powerful country to try to thwart a few thousand fanatics/radicals.

A: Dana Priest
Defense Sec Gates told me in an interview that he thought a more in-depth conversation on threats and risks should take place. you are right of course. the only way decrease threats to zero is to live in a police state bubble --not happening.

Q: Public Reaction - Top Secret America
Your series on Top Secret America has exposed a world of questions about political leadership, government spending, and national security. How do you hope the public will respond? What do you consider the most productive ways for us to voice our concerns?

A: Bill Arkin
I wish I had an easy answer here, but my guess is that, given what happened at the Clapper hearing yesterday that Congress has gotten the message. What they will do with it is our decision....

Q: Top Secret America Overseas?
I'm a colleague from the UK who's investigated this issue for the UK media. I was wondering had you examined the similar expansion of, for example, US public/private sector(s) Intelligence community in the UK or any other overseas countries? Your series is fantastic incidentally - really enjoying it.

A: Dana Priest
thank you...we did not look at foreign intel services in this piece. it's a fascinating topic. good luck and please send me what you find and I will post it ....Dana

Q: Cost of clearance
Were you able to obtain information on the cost of each TS/SCI clearance? Further, of those cleared TS/SCI, were you able to obtain data on how many have Full Scope Polygraphs, how many have CI Polygraphs, and how much those cost the taxpayer?

A: Bill Arkin
We've been told (and I think I've seen figures from OPM and the DSS) about the cost of a TS background investigation, about $6000.00. But I don't know if that's accurate or what the difference would be for each of the levels you describe. If anyone knows, email me at

Q: Budget totals
A DoD press release in Feb. put the 2011 requested defense budget at $708 billion; $549b base plus $159 for Iraq and Afghanistan. Is all this national security money you're writing about on top of that? What's the estimated total again, in a nutshell?

A: Dana Priest
some of it is included in that, much of it is not. the netshell is this: $75 billion for the 16 members of the intelligence community, plus billions and billions more in military intelligence programs---I think $100 b is a safe number, but that doesn't include all the domestic side.

Q: Lack of prescriptions -
Hello, a comment I've heard a lot is that this report lacks anything prescriptive, which is unusual given what I'd say is a frankly critical tone throughout the report. Surely if there are problems with America's intelligence or security apparatus, someone quotable has some suggestions about how to improve it. It seems none of that has been included. Any thoughts as to why? Thanks -

A: Dana Priest
that is really not the role of a reporter. editorial pages, pundits, administration officials yes. but not me.

Q: So you know...., I'm sure you realize a lot of us TSers are following the chat? Thanks for the workweek excitement!

A: Bill Arkin
We are so glad that you are following? But how do you get vanilla Internet access from inside the SCIF?

Q: The "Five Eye" allies
You mention in passing the "Five Eye" allies. Will you have more to say about this interesting alliance in the series?

A: Dana Priest
not in the series. maybe later? it's a longstanding alliance

Q: Top Secrest America
Great series and great reporting. What did you think when the new DNI chairman-to-be called the report "harsh"?

A: Bill Arkin
Well, I suppose I'm pleased that he noticed and thought anything about it. I'd still like to here from someone about what it is that was actually wrong with anything we wrote as opposed to the government's constant straw man responses to "myths" we never said.

Q: Reasons for Strategies and Locations
While we understand why it is important to learn about the number of private contractors working on top secret intelligence work and the corresponding waste and lack of effectiveness, why is it necessary to highlight where the top secret work is being done and to give away some of the strategies used by intellegence agencies to guard that intelligence?

This may be a reactionist response, but it is almost like providing information for other countries to target.

A: Bill Arkin
The editors here at the Washington Post, with much legal counsel, made the determination of the balance between giving a sense of the spread of all of this and at the same time preserve national security.

Q: presentation
I love the way you have conveyed the information. In this world of multimedia, tweets, online updates and short-form journalism, it is hard to present an in-depth piece like this. How did you decide how to present your coverage?

A: Dana Priest
first, it had to be simplified so people without expertise could understand it; needed to boil it down to specific conclusions that the facts supported; needed to be written in a way that, we hoped, would keep people reading; needed a web component that was even more in-depth because we wanted to show, as our little experience within this series, that web journalism does NOT mean opinionated blather. It can mean more journalism, presented in a different fashion.

Q: reading between the lines
I still agree withe yesterdays comment, "I want my money back!"

How soon can we expect our refund? Or an accurate accounting?

A: Bill Arkin
Well, I guess I see our series as the form to fill out, a foundation for the public to demand fiscal accountability even in the field of national security.

Q: Writing process
Great articles so far. Question: How do you guys co-write these pieces?

A: Dana Priest
On the general division of labor: Bill did the database, I put the stories together. That's a simplification because we spent hours and hours over the two years talking about database methodology, finding more organizations and corporations through our reporting, etc. Also, he had writing suggestions and contributions.

Q: Who has any answers?
Did any of the people in positions of power have suggestions for reducing the redundancy and waste that extends to "unmanageableness" of the Top Secret America?

If so, have they begun to implement their suggestions? It seems like many are dissatisfied with the effectiveness of Top Secret America, but few have done anything to improve things. Do you have any hope that things will improve?

A: Bill Arkin
One of the things we learned in reporting out this series and getting a sense of how things work is how, particularly in unregulated bureaucracies and in the private sector, there is little structural incentive to cooperate. In other words, Company A doesn't want to work with Company B; they both want to profit from what they have to offer. And government organization A doesn't even want government organization B to know what they are doing, let alone admit that maybe what they are doing is duplicative of something else.

Q: Over-classification
I think Bill brings up a great point early in today's chat: Top Secret isn't some ontological given for a certain set of facts.

Many or most people with TS clearances rarely touch anything much more than Secret. Furthermore, much that is classified is debatably really that vital. In a CYA world, it is easier to "over classify." I think the system that this great story exposes is what is often discussed in social science theory-real or most imagined external threats create large hierarchical structures of security embedded in regimes of secrecy. For better or worse.

A: Dana Priest
passing on for thoughts

Q: Numbers
You claim there are X number of government agencies and contractors performing TS work. However, how many of them are really a subset or superset of another TS organization? If you have Office A who reports to Office B who in turn reports to Office C, do you have 3 TS organizatons of just 3 flavors of one such organizaton?

A: Bill Arkin
We put together our database by looking at each entity and then tracking its subordination. Then for ease of digital presentation and explanation, we aggregated those organizations into 45 "top level" groupings. Even there, we combined many different agencies and commands. And the category "civil government" includes the lesser activities of the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, etc., all of whom have some TS cell tucked away somewhere. It is a lot of data to display, but I think we didn't "cheat" with the numbers to show bigness. It is big.

Q: Culture of Intelligence
Having grown up near Ft. Meade, I enjoyed today's segment. I understand that your focus is on the growth of the intelligence industry, but learning not to talk about what goes on is nothing new.

I learned from an early age that my father wasn't going to talk about what he did that day. And I had friends who knew not to ask why their father came home with a sunburn when he was supposed to have been in Missouri in February.

It has a big effect on the families as well as the culture of the area, and I think that is something that is often missed. I don't work in the security field, but having grown up around it I keep things close to my vest to this day.

A: Dana Priest
Thank you for your comment. I hope the fellow/gal who asked why day three was relevant is still on line out there somewhere....this is the reason.

Q: Investigative reporting
Do you feel this type of investigative reporting has becoming less popular in journalism in recent years? If so, what do you attribute this to?

A: Bill Arkin
First let me say that Dana Priest is the best! We were given the long leash to do this because she has produced in the past. There were many points along the way where we even doubted wrapping our arms around this system. But once we did, we had no trouble whatsoever getting the Washington Post to back us all the way, and continue to do so.

Q: Intelligence Community
With all these agencies, who is the final authority for granting top secret security clearances to these government workers? Is it the individual agency?

A: Dana Priest
it varies from agency to agency: DOD and some others use the Defense Security Service system. CIA and FBI have their own as do others. Standards are supposed to be similiar.

Q: Congressional Oversight
I asked this yesterday and hope you'll answer it today. Do you think the scenario you've described is more the product of the post-9/11 mentality of amorphous fear at an enemy we couldn't see, or more the result of failed Congressional oversight? Last night on the NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown made the latter point forcefully. What is your take on this issue?

A: Bill Arkin
Certainly Congress has a role to play and shares much of the responsibility, but my best guess is that the growth occured first as a result of panic and need and then now has been sustained a decade later by secrecy and bureaucracy.

Q: Scale and scope of investigation
Did the investigation began as an analysis of the ever-growing security bureaucracy or was it broader in scope? Was the goal of the investigation to expose the sheer volume of contractors and government waste or, more broadly, to shed light on the country's national security apparatus as a whole?

A: Bill Arkin
We began this project because we were both seeing something that we didn't know quite what is was: this new set of post 9/11 government organizations and companies. We thought that it was in totality one-tenth of the size we eventually found. That is both what took us so long and has been the difficulty in describing it. It is much more and much bigger than the intelligence community.

Q: Multiple Shifts
Think your reporting is excellent and accept a few of your premises about redundancy -- but if you factor in two wars and that nearly a third of our military is involved in direct conflict for nearly seven full years now that the need to increase the civilian force (both government and contract) would seem to be obvious. Someone needs to cover down on the work that many who are deployed previously conducted. That is one of the purposes of contracting the work out -- when the war is over (hopefully soon) and forces redeploy you can then downsize the workforce by eliminating contracts.

A: Dana Priest
you are definitely correct--but only up to a point. we did not include/count in our work all the tactic military intelligence people/units/organizations. yes, some of those are serviced by national-level capabiilties, but not always and not everyone.

Q: Internet Access in a SCIF
There's no issue with internet access for many TS'ers, even inside a SCIF. Can't have a cell phone, but Perez Hilton is fine.

A: Bill Arkin
I seem to remember a while back that some air force and army bases were not allowing people onto the internet -- or at least on to blogs -- from inside military networks. Anyone have any informatio on the situation today?

Q: Company ownership
Did you learn anything in your research about how many of the 1,931 companies are foreign-owned (parent company) or what percentage of the work is outsourced or conducted in U.S. by non-U.S. citizens?

QinetiQ, for example, is a UK Corp. And thanks, by the way, for this tremendous series--a real clarion call.

A: Bill Arkin
Thanks for the compliment. In the case where the company is foreign owned, we try to show that, and in some cases where a company is incorporated overseas (e.g., Accenture) we try to show that as well. But I think the overall number, without querying the database directly, is less than one percent. AND I know a lot of effort is spent on what is called "foreign ownership" control and security, particularly when the U.S. company (such as BAE) is such a large player in the TS market.

Q: Reaction
What do you think of the initail reaction to your articles? Is it what you expected? Any surprises?

A: Dana Priest
the interest has been amazing. most of the debate has been thougf
Q: Secret Prisons: Reprise II
Ms. Priest, those examples are not all qualitiatively the same as your pieces on CIA prisons. Some of those other pieces exposed issues and questionable practices that hurt *Americans* (e.g., PTSD among troops, your great series a few years ago on military medicine, armor for soldiers on the front lines).

Those pieces I have no problem with. But the primary beneficiary of the prisons articles (and Blackwater for that matter) were America's enemies, or at least our competitors.

A: Dana Priest
i wholeheartedly disagree., obviously

Q: Cost difference between contractors and employees
How much are we over-spending based on the cost difference between contracted employees versus government employees? I've heard that a contracted intelligence analyst costs the government in the range of $200,000 annually versus less than half that for an employee.

A: Bill Arkin
This is one of these Washington questions that makes my computer sizzle. I think that there is no clear answer, given public financing of government and military health care, pensions, etc. I would love a clear explanation from someone about what a contractor versus a government employee costs...

Q: Why reveal locations?
I understand your premise that the intelligence maize is complex but what was to gain by revealing locations that could without a doubt expose these people to danger?

A: Dana Priest
We really don't "reveal" many locations. Only at the headquarters level of a company or gov org can you go all the way down on the map. this is also usually available on the company's and government's website. for all others, which is the vast majority, you can only go to a city, and for the government, we don't say which government orgs the dots represent (again, except for the headquarters)

Q: Classified Info in the Series
Is there any classified information in your published series or in the presentations, or is everything in the public domain (even if scattered)?

A: Bill Arkin
This is a good question, but also requires a clarification. The government decides what is "classified," not the Washington Post. On the other hand, a free press in a free society exercises its own judgment about matters of public interest and the national security implications. If every time the government cried national security and "classified" the news media saluted, there would be little news. The most important standard is "harm." Whether something if published, even if the government considers it classified, that it won't do harm to either people or programs. Nothing the government told us made us think that we had crossed that line in the final product.

Q: Clearances for All
There may only be 1-2 "things" about a program that are classified TS....however, if 1000 people have access to that information, you need 1000 people with TS clearances.

A: Bill Arkin
True, but then we need to ask whether it needs to be TS and whether everyone needs to have access.

Q: 108 Committees and Subcommittees for HLS alone
Don't you believe that all these members of Congress overseeing these organizations is in part what leads to overspending?

It seems that Congress has help create this mess by allowing essentially every member of Congress to get in on the spending.

A: Dana Priest
congress is indeed a large part of the problem

Q: Pre 9/11
My brother was hired after 6 years in Army intelligence by the company that manufactured the project he worked on. He ended up in the same tent with the same group of guys, but instead of E-5 pay he received a huge signing bonus and a low six figure salary. This was 1996.

He and his wife both work for another large company that has an entire division of ex-intel folks from all over the world. They started with this well-known brand name in 1999. Should I let him know he's a trend setter?

A: Bill Arkin
You should let him know how to get in contact with us.

I'm glad there's someplace in America where introverts reign. How does the intel community feel about INFPs? I'm getting a little tired of journalism. Seriously, great job on the series.

A: Dana Priest
yes, and mathematicians rule!

Q: Future of the OFDI
Is the office of the Director of National Intelligence really a viable position, in your opinion, given the power politics played by the individual agency heads and the compartmentalization of information they probably use to maintain their power?

A: Bill Arkin
As currently constituted, and with the current legislation, the evidence seems to suggest it is "just" another institution. But I guess we'll see whether Clapper can do a better job of both taming it and giving it power, not an easy balance.

Q: Needle in a haystack
I think people are focusing too much on the "are things duplicated" issue. The real issue -- as discussed in the first article -- is the sheer volume of information that is being collected. There's no possible way to sort through that information in any coherent manner, which is why the Fort Hood shooter and the attmpted airplane bomber slipped through the cracks. Forgive the analogy, but if trying to uncover a terrorist plot is like trying to find a needle in the haystack, the best answer to finding it isn't always to add more hay.

A: Bill Arkin
Thanks for your comment. I couldn't agree more.

Q: Fusion Centers
I wondered if you investigation into Top Secret America would include the drive by DHS to establish intelligence Fusion Centers between State and Federal law enforcement. Is this an effort to make a major expansion of the intelligence community or will this turn out to be a small part of the entire structure?

A: Bill Arkin
If you know some specific about this area, I'd love to hear from you:

We are interested in continuing our journalism in this area.

Q: Future of TSA
What would you tell a college graduate who is about to enter the IC? Do you expect that there will be budget cuts/layoffs/reorganization? Should he/she reconsider?

A: Dana Priest
nah, not any time soon

Q: Tradeoffs
Since the terrorist threat is never going to completely dissipate from the world landscape, what sort of trade offs are we as Americans willing to make between what it will take to protect our country and our assets around the world versus the opportunity cost of not spending as much money on other national priorities?

A: Dana Priest
this is the kind of question i'd like to probe in a deeper why on our site's "blog." and is there any way to quantify it?

Q: Demand for top secret security clearances
Dana, Bill: Do you anticipate the demand for workers with top secret clearances will continue to rise? If so, is there any reliable estimate on how big the national security behemoth will become? Are there any limits?

A: Bill Arkin
I see lots of questions in the queue about the job prospects, and I imagine in these hard economic times, it's an interesting concern. But the questions themselves sort of point to the problem to me, which is, should this be a "job" or is it public service?

Q: This is the gal who asked why day 3 was relevant
Oddly, I too have a parent with these clearances who will NOT talk to us about his day (for the same reason.) I understand that some of the policies are invasive and the culture is sometimes something out of a bad spy flick, but these workers (all the hundreds that I know of, anyway) choose to work in this field. They are also very proud of the work that they do. They do not see this close-mouthness as a sacrifice, and I know of no instance where it caused family problems...any more, anyway, than the lawyer or Wall Street banker who worked so hard they never saw their kids. Ergo, while I thought today's segment was interesting, I still don't really see how it was newsworthy.

A: Dana Priest
okay, others differ. i've heard about the "family problems" this does cause sometimes, the lack of trust when the children finally learn the truth; the hard time parents have final explaining a little's complicated and delicate.

Q: Private contractors
I thought the most groundbreaking and interesting part was part 2, about private contractor's roles in national security. The rest, I thought was more like the other poster stated "a day in the life of TS." I would have like to seen part 2 a lot more in depth. I do think that the ever increasing role of private companies in national security work is a very important topic and something that needs to be addressed. Is this something that we want happening? Our national security, intelligence analysis, etc, being farmed out to private companies? Much less actual operations? Remember Blackwater and other companies in Iraq; the Northrop Grumman owned and operated plane that was shot down performing actual anti-drug air raids in Colombia for the US Govt? I hope this is something you will be investigating further in the future.

A: Bill Arkin
I would have liked to have seen all parts displayed in more depth. My God, they only gave us 12 pages of the entire newspaper on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday! Seriously though, I think there is a lot of good reporting out there on this subject and lots a good books. So it want more, more is out there.

Q: This is the "intelligence revolution"
Instead of the Industrial Revolution, we have the "Intelligence Revolution". Appears that this is the only thing keeping the local economy surrounding DC thriving. Do you agree?

A: Bill Arkin
It is the federal government that is the client my friend, and that is something we have control over.

Q: Access
How difficult was it to gain access to these suburban sites? Did you and/or photographers run into trouble getting close to these locations?

A: Dana Priest
we really didn't "gain access" in the sense of getting through the door---with some exceptions. as you can see from the third piece, i got to ride around in a counterintelligence agent's vehicle surveillance class. it was a blast. i've been into dozens of other government locations, mostly military, some intel. but we spent an awful lots of time just driving around buildings, trying to figure out how to describe the unusual landscape in the clusters.

Dana Priest
I have to run out to do another tv interview. I'll leave Bill to sign off for good. please keep an eye out on our website and come back soon. Thanks, Dana

Bill Arkin
Thanks so much everyone for tuning in today! I'm off to do another radio interview. Thanks for being readers of the Washington Post!

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America Part 3: The Secrets Next Door - The Washington Post 20100721

Priest, Dana and Arkin, WM - Top Secret America Part 3: The Secrets Next Door - The Washington Post 20100721

The brick warehouse is not just a warehouse. Drive through the gate and around back, and there, hidden away, is someone's personal security detail: a fleet of black SUVs that have been armored up to withstand explosions and gunfire.

Along the main street, the signs in the median aren't advertising homes for sale; they're inviting employees with top-secret security clearances to a job fair at Cafe Joe, which is anything but a typical lunch spot.

The new gunmetal-colored office building is really a kind of hotel where businesses can rent eavesdrop-proof rooms.

Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by concrete cylinders, it is an access point to a government cable. "TS/SCI," whispers an official, the abbreviations for "top secret" and "sensitive compartmented information" - and that means few people are allowed to know what information the cable transmits.

All of these places exist just outside Washington in what amounts to the capital of an alternative geography of the United States, one defined by the concentration of top-secret government organizations and the companies that do work for them. This Fort Meade cluster is the largest of a dozen such clusters across the United States that are the nerve centers of Top Secret America and its 854,000 workers.

Other locations include Dulles-Chantilly, Denver-Aurora and Tampa. All of them are under-the-radar versions of traditional military towns: economically dependent on the federal budget and culturally defined by their unique work.

The difference, of course, is that the military is not a secret culture. In the clusters of Top Secret America, a company lanyard attached to a digital smart card is often the only clue to a job location. Work is not discussed. Neither are deployments. Debate about the role of intelligence in protecting the country occurs only when something goes wrong and the government investigates, or when an unauthorized disclosure of classified information turns into news.

The existence of these clusters is so little known that most people don't realize when they're nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade's, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.

Once this happens, it means that ground zero - the National Security Agency - is close by. But it's not easy to tell where. 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.

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In our back yards

Many Americans don't realize that top-secret work could be happening right next door.
Launch Photo Gallery »

Beyond all those obstacles loom huge buildings with row after row of opaque, blast-resistant windows, and behind those are an estimated 30,000 people, many of them reading, listening to and analyzing an endless flood of intercepted conversations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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. As massive as that might seem, documents indicate that the NSA is only going to get bigger: 10,000 more workers over the next 15 years; $2 billion to pay for just the first phase of expansion; an overall increase in size that will bring its building space throughout the Fort Meade cluster to nearly 14 million square feet.

The NSA headquarters sits on the Fort Meade Army base, which hosts 80 government tenants in all, including several large intelligence organizations.

Together, they inject $10 billion from paychecks and contracts into the region's economy every year - a figure that helps explain the rest of the Fort Meade cluster, which fans out about 10 miles in every direction.


Just beyond the NSA perimeter, the companies that thrive off the agency and other nearby intelligence organizations begin. In some parts of the cluster, they occupy entire neighborhoods. In others, they make up mile-long business parks connected to the NSA campus by a private roadway guarded by forbidding yellow "Warning" signs.

The largest of these is the National Business Park - 285 tucked-away acres of wide, angular glass towers that go on for blocks. The occupants of these buildings are contractors, and in their more publicly known locations, they purposely understate their presence. But in the National Business Park, a place where only other contractors would have reason to go, their office signs are huge, glowing at night in bright red, yellow and blue: Booz Allen Hamilton, L-3 Communications, CSC,Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, SAIC.

More than 250 companies - 13 percent of all the firms in Top Secret America - have a presence in the Fort Meade cluster. Some have multiple offices, such as Northrop Grumman, which has 19, and SAIC, which has 11. In all, there are 681 locations in the Fort Meade cluster where businesses conduct top-secret work.

Inside the locations are employees who must submit to strict, intrusive rules. They take lie-detector tests routinely, sign nondisclosure forms and file lengthy reports whenever they travel overseas. They are coached on how to deal with nosy neighbors and curious friends. Some are trained to assume false identities.

If they drink too much, borrow too much money or socialize with citizens from certain countries, they can lose their security clearances, and a clearance is the passport to a job for life at the NSA and its sister intelligence organizations.

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The role of private contractors

As Top Secret America has grown, the government has become more dependent on contractors with matching security clearances.
Launch Photo Gallery »

Chances are they excel at math: To do what it does, the NSA relies on the largest number of mathematicians in the world. It needs linguists and technology experts, as well as cryptologists, known as "crippies." Many know themselves as ISTJ, which stands for "Introverted with Sensing, Thinking and Judging," a basket of personality traits identified on the Myers-Briggs personality test and prevalent in the Fort Meade cluster.

The old joke: "How can you tell the extrovert at NSA? He's the one looking at someone else's shoes."

"These are some of the most brilliant people in the world," said Ken Ulman, executive of Howard County, one of six counties in NSA's geographic sphere of influence. "They demand good schools and a high quality of life."

The schools, indeed, are among the best, and some are adopting a curriculum this fall that will teach students as young as 10 what kind of lifestyle it takes to get a security clearance and what kind of behavior would disqualify them.

Outside one school is the jarring sight of yellow school buses lined up across from a building where personnel from the "Five Eye" allies - the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - share top-secret information about the entire world.

The buses deliver children to neighborhoods that are among the wealthiest in the country; affluence is another attribute of Top Secret America. Six of the 10 richest counties in the United States, according to Census Bureau data, are in these clusters.

Loudoun County, ranked as the wealthiest county in the country, helps supply the workforce of the nearby National Reconnaissance Office headquarters, which manages spy satellites. Fairfax County, the second-wealthiest, is home to the NRO, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Arlington County, ranked ninth, hosts the Pentagon and major intelligence agencies. Montgomery County, ranked 10th, is home to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. And Howard County, ranked third, is home to 8,000 NSA employees.

"If this were a Chrysler plant, we'd be talking Chrysler in the bowling alley, Chrysler in the council meetings, Chrysler, Chrysler, Chrysler," said Kent Menser, a Defense Department employee helping Howard County adjust to the growth of nearby Fort Meade. "People who are not in the workforce of NSA don't fully appreciate the impact of it on their lives."


The impact of the NSA and other secretive organizations in this cluster is not just monetary. It shades even the flow of traffic one particular day as a white van pulls out of a parking lot and into midday traffic.

That white van is followed by five others just like it.

Job fair

Help wanted: professionals with security clearances

Recruiters for companies that hold government contracts meet with job seekers who have security clearances at a Targeted Job Fairs event in McLean, Va. Launch Video »

Inside each one, two government agents in training at the secretive Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy are trying not to get lost as they careen around local roads practicing "discreet surveillance" - in this case, following a teacher in the role of a spy. The real job of these agents from the Army, U.S. Customs and other government agencies is to identify foreign spies and terrorists targeting their organizations, to locate the spies within and to gather evidence to take action against them.

But on this day, they are trainees connected to one another by radios and specially labeled street maps. Some 4,000 federal and military agents attend counterintelligence classes in the Fort Meade cluster every year, moving, as these agents are, past unsuspecting residents going about their business.

The agent riding shotgun in one white van holds the maps on her lap as she frantically moves yellow stickies around, trying to keep tabs on the other vans and the suspect, or "rabbit," as he is called.

Other agents gun their engines and race 60 mph, trying to keep up with the rabbit while alerting one another to the presence of local police, who don't know that the vans weaving in and out of traffic are driven by federal agents.

Suddenly, the rabbit moves a full block ahead of the closest van, passes through a yellow light, then drives out of sight as the agents get stuck at a red light.

Green light.

"Go!" an agent yells in vain through the windshield as the light changes and the car in front of her pokes along. "Move! Move! Move!"

"We lost him," her partner groans as they do their best to catch up.

Finally, the agents end their surveillance on foot at a Borders bookstore in Columbia where the rabbit has reappeared. Six men in polo shirts and various shades of khaki pants scan the magazine racks and slowly walk the aisles.

Their instructor cringes. "The hardest part is the demeanor," he confides, watching as the agents follow the rabbit in the store, filled with women in shifts and children in flip-flops. "Some of them just can't relax enough to get the demeanor right. . . . They should be acting like they're browsing, but they are looking over the top of a book and never move."

Throughout the cluster are examples of how the hidden world and the public one intersect. A Quiznos sandwich shop in the cluster has the familiarity of any other restaurant in the national chain, except for the line that begins forming at 11 a.m. Those waiting wear the Oakley sunglasses favored by people who have worked in Afghanistan or Iraq. Their shoes are boots, the color of desert sand. Forty percent of the NSA's workforce is active-duty military, and this Quiznos is not far away from one of their work sites.

Bill Brown, left, and Jerome James tend to James's property in suburban Maryland, which abuts a secure building. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount / The Washington Post)  |  Launch Photo Gallery »

In another part of the cluster, Jerome James, one of its residents, is talking about the building that has sprung up just beyond his back yard. "It used to be all farmland, then they just started digging one day," he says. "I don't know what they do up there, but it doesn't bother me. I don't worry about it."

The building, sealed off behind fencing and Jersey barriers, is larger than a football field. It has no identifying sign. It does have an address, but Google Maps doesn't recognize it. Type it in, and another address is displayed, every time. "6700," it says.

No street name.

Just 6700.


Inside such a building might be Justin Walsh, who spends hours each day on a ladder, peering into the false ceilings of the largest companies in Top Secret America. Walsh is a Defense Department industrial security specialist, and every cluster has a version of him, whether it's Fort Meade; or the underground maze of buildings at Crystal City in Arlington, near the Pentagon; or the high-tech business parks around the National Aerospace Intelligence Center in Dayton, Ohio.

When he's not on his ladder, Walsh is tinkering with a copy machine to make sure it cannot reproduce the secrets stored in its memory. He's testing the degausser, a giant magnet that erases data from classified hard drives. He's dissecting the alarm system, its fiber-optic cable and the encryption it uses to send signals to the control room.

The government regulates everything in Top Secret America: the gauge of steel in a fence, the grade of paper bag to haul away classified documents, the thickness of walls and the height of raised soundproof floors.

In the Washington area, there are 4,000 corporate offices that handle classified information, 25 percent more than last year, according to Walsh's supervisor, and on any given day Walsh's team has 220 buildings in its inspection pipeline. All existing buildings have things that need to be checked, and the new buildings have to be gone over from top to bottom before the NSA will allow their occupants to even connect to the agency via telephone.

Soon, there will be one more in the Fort Meade cluster: a new, four-story building, going up near a quiet gated community of upscale townhouses, that its builder boasts can withstand a car bomb. Dennis Lane says his engineers have drilled more bolts into each steel beam than is the norm to make the structure less likely to buckle were the unthinkable to happen.

Lane, senior vice president of Ryan Commercial real estate, has become something of a snoop himself when it comes to the NSA. At 55, he has lived and worked in its shadow all his life and has schooled himself on its growing presence in his community. He collects business intelligence using his own network of informants, executives like himself hoping to making a killing off an organization many of his neighbors don't know a thing about.

He notices when the NSA or a different secretive government organization leases another building, hires more contractors and expands its outreach to the local business community. He's been following construction projects, job migrations, corporate moves. He knows that local planners are estimating that 10,000 more jobs will come with an expanded NSA and an additional 52,000 from other intelligence units moving to the Fort Meade post.

Lane was up on all the gossip months before it was announced that the next giant military command, U.S. Cyber Command, would be run by the same four-star general who heads the NSA. "This whole cyber thing is going to be big," he says. "A cyber command could eat up all the building inventory out there."

Lane knows this because he has witnessed the post-9/11 growth of the NSA, which now ingests 1.7 billion pieces of intercepted communications every 24 hours: e-mails, bulletin board postings, instant messages, IP addresses, phone numbers, telephone calls and cellphone conversations.

In her own way, Jeani Burns has witnessed this, too.

Burns, a businesswoman in the Fort Meade cluster, is having a drink one night after work and gesturing toward some men standing in another part of the bar.

"I can spot them," she says. The suit. The haircut. The demeanor. "They have a haunted look, like they're afraid someone is going to ask them something about themselves."

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An alternative geography

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the top-secret world created to respond to the terrorist attacks has grown into an unwieldy enterprise spread over 10,000 U.S. locations.
Launch Photo Gallery »

Undercover agents come in here, too, she whispers, to watch the same people, "to make sure no one is saying too much."

Burns would know - she's been living with one of those secretive men for 20 years. He used to work at the NSA. Now he's one of its contractors. He's been to war. She doesn't know where. He does something important. She doesn't know what.

She says she fell for him two decades ago and has had a life of adjustments ever since. When they go out with other people, she says, she calls ahead with cautions: "Don't ask him stuff." Sometimes people get it, but when they don't, "it's a pain. We just didn't go out with them again."

She describes him as "an observer. I'm the interloper," she says. "It bothers me he never takes me traveling, never thinks of anything exciting to do. . . . I feel cheated."

But she also says: "I really respect him for what's he's done. He's spent his whole life so we can keep our way of living, and he doesn't get any public recognition."

Outside the bar, meanwhile, the cluster hums along. At night, in the confines of the National Business Park, office lights remain on here and there. The 140-room Marriott Courtyard is sold out, as usual, with guests such as the man checking in who says only that he's "with the military."

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Anti-Deception Technologies

From avatars and lasers to thermal cameras and fidget meters, this multimedia gallery takes a look at some of the latest technologies being developed by the government and private companies to thwart terrorists. Launch Gallery »

And inside the NSA, the mathematicians, the linguists, the techies and the crippies are flowing in and out. The ones leaving descend in elevators to the first floor. Each is carrying a plastic bar-coded box. Inside is a door key that rattles as they walk. To those who work here, it's the sound of a shift change.

As employees just starting their shifts push the turnstiles forward, those who are leaving push their identity badges into the mouth of the key machine. A door opens. They drop their key box in, then go out through the turnstiles. They drive out slowly through the barriers and gates protecting the NSA, passing a steady stream of cars headed in. It's almost midnight in the Fort Meade cluster, the capital of Top Secret America, a sleepless place growing larger every day.

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Q and A 04 - The Washington Post 20101220

Priest, Dana and Arkin, Bill - Top Secret America - Q and A 04 - The Washington Post 20101220

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin will be online to chat about the latest installment in their Post investigation, Top Secret America.

Q: General observations
This might be a bit of an oversimplification, but this is my general theory based on what I have read about our homeland security efforts. It seems good ideas are taken from key administrators and then created as easily as possibly in the implementation stage. We joke that we have homeland security according to the lowest bidder, but I think it is more than that. I believe we need to do more to scrutinize our efforts and assessing how much protection they actually are adding and redesigning to make our efforts more effective.

A: Dana Priest
Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us. It's been a while. Measuring what works and what does not is a key question here. Does it really help to solicit tips from everywhere and then weed through them, or to have a more focused approach. In general the government has not done a good job evaluating the large number of programs out there. As money becomes tighter, this might happen more. We'll see.

Q: Who says this is OK?
Are there laws that specifically authorize this intensive data-mining? Or are the authorities just doing this because they can? Are they violating any existing laws regarding privacy, probable cause etc.? Also, is there any way someone can see what the authorities have/think they have on him, the way they can review their own credit reports? How much of this cross-referenced data is simply wrong: confusion about similar names, changed addresses, warrants canceled, etc.? Anybody who reviews his own credit report finds factual errors; an error in police files could result in a false arrest or much worse.

A: Dana Priest
The government will tell you that the Patriot Act and amendments to it, gives them the right to do all this. Civil liberties experts say they are chipping away at the Privacy Act inappropriately. Both sides will also differ on why, in fact, the "probably cause" bar has been lowered to do this kind of data collection. It's a debate about the legal interpretation of post 9/11 rules for the most part.

Q: Monitoring America's Technical Hobbyists
Hello Dana. Are America's railroad enthusiasts, airplane watchers, model rocket builders, model airplane pilots, amateur radio operators, inventors, technology photographers, etc., now going to be placed into Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) files because they have a strong curiosity and enthusiasm for technology and infrastructure? I am a photographer myself and I have taken photos and movies of trains and aircraft over the years as have many other enthusiasts. So am I in one of these files? What is happening to our freedom and privacy? What will happen to American technology when people are scared away from technological interests, activities and hobbies?

A: Dana Priest
Probably. this is an area thick with problems. my best advice is to carry some proof that you are a member of some kind of enthusiasts group and if you see a policeman or someone else watching you, go talk to him/her. Putting people like you in the database wastes everyone's time.

Q: Suspecting the muslim community?
In your article, you mention two experts who claim that the majority of Muslims in the U.S. want to impose Sharia law. This seems wildly inaccurate and prejudicial. Given the political environment these days (Texas passing a law that Sharia law can't be considered in the courts, Rep. King wanting to hold hearings into Radicalization of Muslims in America) how much of this opinion is accurate and how much is inflammatory? I could see a lot of issues rising from this attitude and a lot of civil rights being violated.

A: Dana Priest
We have only begun to see this strain of thinking. We will see much more of it.
Q: Trainers
What does the screening process entail for hiring the "trainers" considered inaccurate and counterproductive?

A: Dana Priest
There is no screening process. State and local law enforcement can hire whomever they like really. The betters one are consulting with the FBI but that doesn't happen all the time, as you can see

Q: german sausage
I live in Berlin and I feel that I am always being watched. Today I was buying some sausage at the market hall and I swear there were cameras embedded in the cheese from south Germany. Is this historical paranoia or is the reach and technology of the government so vast that somewhere, in some database, there is a record of the fact that I did not in fact work today? Miss Priest, I've always counted on you and I can say that many other readers here in greater Europe do as well. Your dogged reporting is most appreciated.

A: Dana Priest
Paranoia. Get back to work!

Q: Censoring
During your research did you come across any sensitive information that you decided not to publish? Thank you for taking the time to answer questions.

A: Dana Priest
yes, one thing.

Q: Most of this stuff is irrational fear
If you compare the lifetime risk of dying in A: car accident 1 in 83. murder 1 in 210. walk across the street 1 in 625. drowning 1 in 1,100. 1 airline bomb/year 1 in 1300. struck by lightning 1 in 80,000. hit by asteroid 1 in 200,000. Then spending $85M to buy 500 airport full body scanners at $170,000 each is just crazy: Source.

A: Dana Priest
Philip Mudd, the former CIA and FBI official quoted in the story makes the same case. And he prefers to call terrorists, criminals. And to deflate the entire conversation so as not to make them feel so powerful and not to egg us all on to overreact every time something almost-but doesn't, happen.

You mentioned Pennsylvania briefly in your article, but that caused real outrage here a few months ago. To the governor's credit, he put an end to the reports immediately, and the state police and attorney general both said the info was worthless (one example: bombing of a local train line in India was linked to an upcoming upgrade of train tracks in PA!!!!). I hope other states' investigative newspapers take on the state/local homeland security monitoring -- it seems like any form of peaceful protest is now suspect.

A: Dana Priest
I agree. Newspapers have been digging up instances of state police abuse in this area for several years now. I hope that continues because it seems the only way to bring it out into the open. We're hoping that the online state-heavy emphasis to this story will prompt journalists who have written such stories to post them on our facebook site.

Q: real threats or just talk?
Why are we spending tens of billions on intelligence and survellience yet almost all the alleged terrorist attacks that are being uncovered are FBI set-ups where the suspect has no bomb or terrorist training and the FBI informant was the instigator? The most recent threat to the Metro system was based on Facebook posts. Maybe we should just skip the billion dollar NRO satellites and just pay people to read Facebook.

A: Dana Priest
I would bet you that money it's already happening.

Q: Names of agencies
How come you didn't name/identify the agencies and their locations? Will be useful since I'm looking for a job. Thanks

A: Dana Priest
did you check online? lots of info there, and city-state locations

Rocci Fisch
Top Secret America

Q: Leadingto sympathy for WikiLeaks?
I wonder if Americans' displeasure with the government accumulating so much information about them in secret (though accumulating info about OTHER people in secret might be okay) leads some to feel more sympathetic to the massive leaks by WikiLeaks. Though the documents leaked by WikiLeaks don't have to do with domestic intelligence, and were leaked on a wholesale basis (i.e., no selective examination of what should be made public and what shouldn't, just a wholesale release of 250,000 documents without examination of each one), mightn't some people just say "everything should be public"? I still don't detect any widespread move to repeal the Patriot Act, as long as it's used only against other people, not you and me (well, at least not me).

A: Dana Priest
Don't know if there's a correlation. I do know, from personal experience, that government officials sometimes feel more willing to talk when the internal review process doesn't work at all, and when whatever it is they are concerned about seems, to them at least, to be a big deal.

Q: A repeat of McCarthyism?
Is the current government hysteria over terrorism equivalent to the 1950s hysteria over Communists everywhere? Will it ever end?

A: Dana Priest
People have made the comparison. But I think there's another factor here that wasn't present in the 1950s: The public's expectation that the government can, and must, stop the next attack at all cost. Even if it's a tiny one and no one gets hurt. This means the government has to do everything possible, which is a lot. Because we have never had a rational discussion about this, about the risks versus costs, this paradym remains and government officials have nightmares of being called to testify in congress when something goes amiss.

Q: "Experts"
The Nashville Tennessean did an article on "experts" making lots of money, including payments from government, for - essentially - spreading fear about Muslims. To what extent does the federal government rely on these outside consultants on terrorism matters?

A: Dana Priest
Thank you. Can you post this also on our Facebook page? The feds are supposed to know better and I think, for the most part, they do. Although sometimes I wonder about the FBI. I think there is a range of opinion at the bureau, once you leave the counterterrorism section. The problem is at the state and local level.

Q: NGA, ODNI, icc?
In Sept 2010, it was reported that the National Geospatial Agency would complete its move out of Sangamore Rd in Bethesda before Sept 30, 2011 and that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was approved by the U.S. Army in June 2009 to relocate to the Sangamore Road base, according to a memo released by U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr.'s office in May (2010). The office, headquartered in Tysons Corner, Va., has not committed to moving to Bethesda and will not make a decision until a feasibility study is completed, said spokesman Michael Birmingham. That study is due later this fall, he said. Was the study completed? Has a decision been made? Will part of Liberty Crossing move? Will Sangamore become an intelligence community campus?

A: Dana Priest
Sorry I don't know the answer to this. Maybe someone reading will know. If you are out there, come chat.

Q: Unstoppable?
It seems our security network gets a little more extensive every year, even when no new major terror attacks succeed, and the trend doesn't seem to have stopped when the presidency changed hands. I'm not aware of any cases of a new security program being rolled back after it got started. And the 'war on terror' doesn't seem like something which can ever possibly end, since the abstract threat of 'there are bad people in the world' will always be there. Plus it already seems that there are now whole DHS-centered industries out there lobbying for more security for its own sake. Where will this leave the country in 10, 20, 30 years? Is an ever-expanding surveillance state inevitable?

A: Dana Priest
A couple of things have been shelved--like a multi-billion stealth satellite program that never worked-- but overall, I think you are right, and are stating the correct reasons--none of which have to do with hard-nosed national security. If nothing else, commercially available technology is driving us towards a surveillance state.

Q: Anacostia
Your article said that there were some cases, like in Colorado, where fusion centers claim to have actually identified potential terrrorists. Is this widely accepted? Are there many of these cases? Were they examples of identification that only the fusion centers were responsible for?

A: Dana Priest
Colorado helped with Zazi, the Afghan-born resident who wanted to bomb New York. The FBI says they were helpful although they also say it wasn't unique information they produced, and that the bureau probably would have come up with it soon anyway. DHS gave me a list of successes. There were not many related to terrorism. Some of them related to everyday crimes.

Q: It is the Beast
I'm not a religious person, however, I feel the Beast metaphor applies. We have created an infrastructure which empowers people at the community level to use covert lethal means on unsuspecting targets. What is to stop them from acting in personal revenge? What about solutions to business competition? It isn't a good thing in my opinion.

A: Dana Priest
I think you are going too far: "covert lethal means" means assassinating people. I don't see that at all.

Q: Suspecting the muslim community?
In your article, you mention two experts who claim that the majority of Muslims in the U.S. want to impose Sharia law. This seems wildly inaccurate and prejudicial. Given the political environment these days (Texas passing a law that Sharia law can't be considered in the courts, Rep. King wanting to hold hearings into Radicalization of Muslims in America) how much of this opinion is accurate and how much is inflammatory? I could see a lot of issues rising from this attitude and a lot of civil rights being violated.

A: Dana Priest
I thought I answered this but it's still in the queue: Neither the FBI, nor intelligence experts believe this view is true. I expect, though, to see the argument surface more and more. I sat in on the legal proceeding in Murfreesboro , Tenn, where several residents were asking a judge to stop a local Muslim community from expanding their mosque and school house. It was like watching the Scopes Monkey trial (also in Tenn) on evolution. One of the complainants' main arguments was that Islam is not a religion. (Hello? Tell that to Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. Really now)

Q: Information Age Gone Wrong
Could the information infrastructure and profiling ultimately overwhelm the bill of rights? On a personal note, I was visited by an agent doing a background check on my son for his job. I did not feel comfortable, and regret not seeking council before agreeing to the interview. I've been able to piece together a few things. My son was not even aware of the background check. After a few months he was edged out of the firm. Then offered a new job, and after a few months edged from that firm. Then again, and again. They must have found something, but we have no idea what. And it seems they have a system whereby as soon as he is employed, it sends some kind of report to the employer. But it is all hidden from us. At least this offers an explanation, but it is only our theory. He has since deleted all social accounts on the internet. We figure maybe a "friend" was the problem. But how does one even begin to parse something like this?

A: Dana Priest
hopefully he was having a background check for a security clearance, not for something less than that. You could try to find out by appealing, if, in fact, he was denied a clearance. Otherwise, not sure. Good luck. His instinct about social media is a good one.

Q: Privacy, the 4th Amendment, Traditional Values
The question becomes how do we stop it? This country bears no resemblance to the open and democratic society I knew before 9-11. All the values we held dear in 1999 when I came for a Hill internship have been turned on their head in the name of security theater. How can we stop these abuses and get these dollars re-directed into Social Security and Medicare, where they were supposed to have been going all along?

A: Dana Priest
I'm not at all this pessimistic but I think people need to pay attention to what the government is doing. So does the media, and we aren't doing enough of that these days.

Time is up. Thanks for joining me. Dana

Michael Morell: ‘It’s all back in Snowden’s lap’ - Politico 20151118

‘It’s all back in Snowden’s lap’ - Politico 20151118

Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell on how the NSA leaker’s revelations might have led to the Paris attacks.

Michael Morell, the former acting head of the CIA, says the Paris attacks have exposed how freely the Islamic State was able to operate in a chastened environment in which intelligence gathering was partly shut down after Edward Snowden’s exposure of National Security Agency surveillance in 2013. Now, Morell says, the need for greater security is on everyone’s mind — especially since the terrorist group has threatened an attack on the U.S. In his recently published book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From Al Qa’ida to ISIS, Morell accuses Snowden of aiding in the rise of the Islamic State. In an interview on Tuesday with Politico Magazine National Editor Michael Hirsh, Morell elaborates on the damage he believes the leaker has done.

Michael Hirsh: How did the Snowden revelations help the Islamic State, and did they somehow lead to the Paris attacks?

Michael Morell: First, ISIS went to school on how we were collecting intelligence on terrorist organizations by using telecommunications technologies. And when they learned that from the Snowden disclosures, they were able to adapt to it and essentially go silent … And so, part of their rise was understanding what our capabilities were, adjusting to them so we couldn’t see them. No doubt in my mind. And the people who say otherwise are just trying to defend Edward Snowden.

Two — and much more damaging: The Snowden disclosures created this perception that people’s privacy was being put at significant risk. It wasn’t only the Snowden disclosures about [Section] 215 [of the PATRIOT Act, allowing for the mass collection of telephone metadata] that created that, it was the media’s handling of it. The media went to the darkest corner of the room, the CNNs and the FOXes etc. of the world, those people who have a 24/7 news cycle. In those early days, if you were watching CNN, they were saying the NSA is listening to your phone calls. It’s reading your emails. When you call your grandma in Arkansas, the NSA knows. All total bulls–t. They made the public more concerned about the privacy issue than the legitimate facts should have done. And so, the result of that was everything you’ve seen. The constraining of 215. The IT companies building encryption without keys. That is all, at the end of the day, back in Snowden’s lap, in my view.

As far as Paris goes, we don’t know for sure yet how these guys communicate among themselves and how they communicated back to the ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria, but I’m fairly confident we’re going to learn they used these encrypted communication applications that have commercial encryption and are extremely difficult for companies to break — and which the companies have made the decision not to produce a key for. Even if the government goes to them with a warrant, they can’t give them anything because they don’t have a key. These companies made these decisions about encryption when they were finding it very difficult to sell their products overseas because the Snowden disclosures created the impression that the U.S. government was inside this hardware and software produced by them. They needed to do something to deal with the perception.

Hirsh: And did this reduction in our intelligence capability open the way to the attacks in Paris?

Morell: Here’s what I do. I listen to what U.S. officials say, and I’m able to read between the lines based on my experience. I think I’m seeing an attack that was conceived, planned an organized from Raqqa, from the ISIS leadership. i think I see a Mohammad Atta-like character in this guy who’s still at large. The kind of mastermind. You put all that together and what this is at the end of the day is the first ISIS-directed attack in the West. They’ve had directed attacks elsewhere, in Kuwait for example, and every day in Iraq. This is the first one outside the region … That’s what makes this so significant. What [CIA Director] John Brennan said yesterday is really important. He said we know they have other attacks in the pipeline. We also know that nine to 12 months ago, they made a decision to build an attack capability in western Europe, and what we saw in Paris was the first manifestation of that.

We also know that they would like to conduct attacks here. So I don’t know if they’ve started to build that capability here or how far along it is. But I’m convinced they will develop that here unless they’re severely degraded. So how does Snowden play into all that? I think that it shows they communicated among themselves in a way we couldn’t see.

Hirsh: But absent the Snowden disclosures, if all these methods had not been exposed, do you think that U.S. intelligence would have detected the plotting that led to the Paris attacks?

Morell: Don’t know. But it certainly would have given us a fighting chance.

Hirsh: Does Edward Snowden have blood on his hands?

Morell: To be fair, do I believe he contributed to the rise of ISIS? Yes. Would they have gotten there without the help he provided them? Probably. Would they have been able to conduct this attack in Paris without him? Maybe. So the honest answer is I don’t know.

Hirsh: You say we need to ‘severely degrade’ ISIS in order to prevent an attack on the U.S. What do you mean by that?

Morell: I’d say two things. This strategy, this policy, is not achieving its aims. I don’t see how anyone could come to any other conclusion. Here’s the two things that have to happen:

You have to take away their safe haven. One of the lessons we’ve learned from the last 25 years of terrorism is that groups that have safe havens are able to develop external attack capabilities in a way that groups that don’t have safe havens are not. So we need to find a way to squeeze them significantly in their safe haven. Taking away territory that really matters to them is really, really important because it prevents them from focusing on external attacks.

The other thing we‘ve learned from the last 20 years of counterterrorism is the significant value you get from removing leadership from the battlefield in degrading the organization. You have to have a military and intelligence approach to removing leadership that results in rapid frequent removals from the battlefield. It’s got to be one, two a week, not just one or two every three or four months.

Hirsh: At his news conference on Monday, President Barack Obama challenged his critics to say specifically what they would do differently from what he’s already doing. If you’re not going to send a lot of troops — and no one is really advocating that — what would you do differently?

Morell: I think it’s a false choice. I do not think the president is saying that, but I think it’s a false choice between what we’re doing today and U.S. boots on the ground during the fighting. That’s how it’s being painted, but there is actually a significant spectrum between those two options, and I think there’s a lot of room to go to right on that spectrum without getting to U.S. boots on the ground. One example: I see significant value in putting a much larger number of U.S. special forces guys on the ground very close, if not in front lines, whether with the Kurds or Iraqis, etc.— to both provide advice and to call much more precision airstrikes.

Hirsh: We’re not doing that already?

Morell: I don’t think so, not in large numbers. And I don’t think they’re that close to the battlefield.

And as far as planning goes, the key question in the situation room should be: If the Paris attacks happened here, what would we do? We shouldn’t wait for an attack to happen before we start asking that question and answering it.

Hirsh: Do you really think ISIS intends to attack the United States? Isn’t that just braggadocio? Why are they talking about it if they really intend to do it?

Morell: Because there’s one great lesson from history we need to keep on re-learning. It is that sometimes your adversaries tell you exactly what they’re going to do. How many times did [Osama] bin Laden say prior to 9/11 that he was coming after the U.S.? ISIS made clear that when they established their caliphate in Iraq and Syria, they were coming after the United States too.