Tag Archives: Dana Priest

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 - 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 priestd@washpost.com 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, trillions...to 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 attempt...how 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. www.eamonnoneill.com

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 william.arkin@washingtonpost.com

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....
.....so, 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: william.arkin@washingtonpost.com

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 more...it'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 - 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