Tag Archives: The Washington Post

Court considers when police need warrants to track suspects through cellphones - The Washington Post 20160323

Court considers when police need warrants to track suspects through cellphones - The Washington Post 20160323

A federal appeals court on Wednesday considered how easily investigators should be able to track criminal suspects through their cellphones, becoming the latest front in the debate over how to balance public-safety interests with digital privacy.

The issue before a full panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Maryland and Virginia, was whether law enforcement officials need search warrants to pull cellphone records to trace the long-term movements of suspects.

The case, argued in Richmond, arose after investigators in Maryland obtained seven months of phone records to map the movements of two men later convicted in armed robberies around Baltimore.

[D.C. Court of Appeals considers constitutionality of cellphone-tracking technology]

Almost immediately Wednesday, questions from the bench centered on whether location information from cellphones is any different than records of banking transactions or landline phone calls.

Defense attorney Meghan S. Skelton said the government had essentially tracked the defendants’ every move, equating cellphone location data to “dragnet surveillance.” Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein countered that the information gleaned from cell towers was imprecise, unobtrusive and created by the wireless provider — not the government.

A divided three-judge panel of the court ruled in August that accessing the location information without a warrant for an “extended period” is unconstitutional because it allows law enforcement to trace a person’s daily travels and activities across public and private spaces.

Two other federal appellate courts — in Florida and New Orleans — concluded that warrants are not necessary.

[Justice Department: Agencies need warrants to use cellphone trackers]

The full spectrum of opinions was on display Wednesday from the 15 judges in the spirited hour-long discussion.

Judge James A. Wynn Jr. expressed disbelief about the length of time — 221 days — that investigators had collected records for suspect, Aaron Graham, to help place him near the scene of the robberies after his arrest.

“We all know where technology is going,” Wynn said. “They are going to be able to pinpoint your every move.”

Texting, calling, and checking email or the weather from a cellphone generally involves connecting with the closest communications tower. Wireless providers log and retain records showing which tower a phone used at the beginning and end of every call, and increasingly, for texts and data connections.

Decades-old rules allow authorities to obtain business or “third party” records with a court order.

Judge Paul V. Niemeyer pointed out that authorities already could obtain — without a warrant — even more precise details about a person’s travels by pulling records from credit card purchases and highway E-ZPass transponders.

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Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said the “third party” rules do not need to change because of technological advances, and that to do so would be “an audacious step” away from the court’s past practice.

Civil liberties groups and privacy advocates want investigators to have to get a warrant first for the tracking, because a warrant request requires that judge be presented with information to support the request that would meet the more rigorous gold standard of probable cause.

Judge Pamela A. Harris, the newest member of the court, noted that the Supreme Court has signaled that digital devices are different when it comes to 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Justices have expressed concern about privacy implications of technology such as cellphones that contain sensitive personal information, and are essentially appendages in people’s purses, pockets and hands.

If the full 4th Circuit upholds its panel’s decision, there would be a clear divide with the other courts — the type of split that often attracts the attention of the Supreme Court.

Mass surveillance silences minority opinions, according to study - The Washington Post 20160328

Mass surveillance silences minority opinions, according to study - The Washington Post 20160328

A new study shows that knowledge of government surveillance causes people to self-censor their dissenting opinions online. The research offers a sobering look at the oft-touted "democratizing" effect of social media and Internet access that bolsters minority opinion.

The study, published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, studied the effects of subtle reminders of mass surveillance on its subjects. The majority of participants reacted by suppressing opinions that they perceived to be in the minority. This research illustrates the silencing effect of participants’ dissenting opinions in the wake of widespread knowledge of government surveillance, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.

The “spiral of silence” is a well-researched phenomenon in which people suppress unpopular opinions to fit in and avoid social isolation. It has been looked at in the context of social media and the echo-chamber effect, in which we tailor our opinions to fit the online activity of our Facebook and Twitter friends. But this study adds a new layer by explicitly examining how government surveillance affects self-censorship.

Participants in the study were first surveyed about their political beliefs, personality traits and online activity, to create a psychological profile for each person. A random sample group was then subtly reminded of government surveillance, followed by everyone in the study being shown a neutral, fictional headline stating that U.S. airstrikes had targeted the Islamic State in Iraq. Subjects were then asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward the hypothetical news event, such as how they think most Americans would feel about it and whether they would publicly voice their opinion on the topic. The majority of those primed with surveillance information were less likely to speak out about their more nonconformist ideas, including those assessed as less likely to self-censor based on their psychological profile.

Elizabeth Stoycheff, lead researcher of the study and assistant professor at Wayne State University, is disturbed by her findings.

“So many people I've talked with say they don't care about online surveillance because they don't break any laws and don't have anything to hide. And I find these rationales deeply troubling,” she said.

She said that participants who shared the “nothing to hide” belief, those who tended to support mass surveillance as necessary for national security, were the most likely to silence their minority opinions.

“The fact that the 'nothing to hide' individuals experience a significant chilling effect speaks to how online privacy is much bigger than the mere lawfulness of one's actions. It's about a fundamental human right to have control over one's self-presentation and image, in private, and now, in search histories and metadata,” she said.

Stoycheff is also concerned about the quietly oppressive behavior of self-censorship.

“It concerns me that surveillance seems to be enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups. And it is difficult to protect and extend the rights of these vulnerable populations when their voices aren't part of the discussion. Democracy thrives on a diversity of ideas, and self-censorship starves it,” she said. “Shifting this discussion so Americans understand that civil liberties are just as fundamental to the country's long-term well-being as thwarting very rare terrorist attacks is a necessary move.”

Stoycheff has written about the capacity of online sharing tools to inspire democratic change. But the results of this study have caused her views to change. "The adoption of surveillance techniques, by both the government and private sectors, undermines the Internet's ability to serve as a neutral platform for honest and open deliberation. It begins to strip away the Internet's ability to serve as a venue for all voices, instead catering only to the most dominant," she said. She received no outside funding for the research or publication of this study, she said.

Some related references

Glynn, J.C., Hayes, F.A. & Shanahan, J. (1997). “Perceived support for ones opinions sand willingness to speak out: A meta-analysis of survey studies on the ‘spiral of silence’” Public Opinion Quarterly 61 (3):452-463.

Glynn, J.C. & McLeod, J. (1984). “Public opinion du jour: An examination of the spiral of silence, “ Public Opinion Quarterly 48 (4):731-740.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion -- Our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1991). The theory of public opinion: The concept of the Spiral of Silence. In J. A. Anderson (Ed.),Communication Yearbook 14, 256-287. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Simpson, C. (1996). “Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s ‘spiral of silence’ and the historical context of communication theory.”Journal of Communication 46 (3):149-173.

Taylor, D.G. (1982). “Pluralistic ignorance and the spiral of silence: A formal analysis,” Public Opinion Quarterly 46(3):311-335. See also: Kennamer, J.D. (1990). “Self-serving biases in perceiving the opinions of others: Implications for the spiral of silence,” Communication Research 17 (3):393-404; Yassin Ahmed Lashin (1984). Testing the spiral of silence hypothesis: Toward an integrated theory of public opinion. Unpublished dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

UN human rights chief: Lives could be in danger if the FBI forces Apple to help unlock iPhone - The Washington Post 20160304

UN human rights chief: Lives could be in danger if the FBI forces Apple to help unlock iPhone - The Washington Post 20160304

The top human rights authority at the United Nations warned Friday that if the FBI succeeds in forcing Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, it could have “tremendous ramifications” around the world and “potentially [be] a gift to authoritarian regimes, as well as to criminal hackers.”

The statement came a day after a deluge of technology companies and other groups publicly backed Apple in the fight, and it echoed what many of these firms and groups said in arguing that the FBI’s demands could have a devastating impact on digital privacy going forward.

“In order to address a security-related issue related to encryption in one case, the authorities risk unlocking a Pandora’s Box that could have extremely damaging implications for the human rights of many millions of people, including their physical and financial security,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement Friday.

If the FBI prevails, Hussein argued, it would set a precedent that could make it impossible to fully protect privacy worldwide.

[Relatives of San Bernardino victims, tech groups take sides in FBI-Apple fight]

“Encryption tools are widely used around the world, including by human rights defenders, civil society, journalists, whistle-blowers and political dissidents facing persecution and harassment,” Hussein said.

Apple is fighting a judge’s order directing the company to help the FBI unlock an iPhone found after the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif. While the Justice Department and other law enforcement groups argue that the demands here are specific and focused on one investigation, Apple and other tech firms are arguing that an FBI victory here could be utilized in countless other cases.

The locked iPhone 5C belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tafsheen Malik, fatally shot 14 people and wounded 22 others during the attack. Both attackers, who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, were killed hours after the shooting, and investigators say they are still looking into whether the pair had any ties to groups or people operating overseas.

Federal authorities obtained a magistrate judge’s order directing Apple to write software that would disable a feature that deletes the data on the iPhone — which is owned by San Bernardino County and was given to Farook in his job as a health inspector — after 10 incorrect password attempts.

Apple has fought the FBI’s order — in court, on Capitol Hill and through public statements — and this week, the company received the backing of dozens of other companies, groups and individuals.

Bruce Sewell, general counsel at Apple, before testifying on Capitol Hill this week. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
A ream of major tech companies — including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, Snapchat and Microsoft — signed on to court briefs that warned of “a dangerous precedent” for digital security if Apple was forced to act “against their will.” These calls were joined by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, several trade and policy groups and dozens of technologists, security researchers and cryptographers.

The Justice Department received the backing of relatives of some of the people killed in the San Bernardino attack as well as briefs of support from law enforcement groups representing officers in California and across the country.

Hussein said that the United Nations fully supported the FBI’s investigation into the “abominable crime,” but argued against viewing this as an isolated case.

He pointed back to a report his office released last year saying that strong encryption and digital privacy are important to human rights, stating: “It is neither fanciful nor an exaggeration to say that, without encryption tools, lives may be endangered.”

In trying to glean information on the locked iPhone, authorities could “end up enabling a multitude of other crimes all across the world, including in the United States,” he said.

Preliminary thoughts on the Apple iPhone order in the San Bernardino case (Part 1) - The Washington Post 20160218

Preliminary thoughts on the Apple iPhone order in the San Bernardino case (Part 1) - The Washington Post 20160218

A lot of people are talking about a court order in California requiring Apple to help the FBI disable features of the iPhone used by the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist/shooter Syed Farook. Apple chief executive Tim Cook released an unusual public statement vowing to fight the order. A lot of readers have asked me what I think about the situation.

My plan is to offer preliminary thoughts about the case in two posts. This first post will make three points: First, it’s too early to say who should win; second, this case involves an existing security vulnerability in older iPhones [but see update below]; and third, there are no Fourth Amendment issues in the case. In the next post, which I hope to write later today and post tomorrow, I’ll take on the application of the All Writs Act, the law that the government wants to use to compel Apple to help. Tomorrow’s post also will address some of the broader policy issues the San Bernardino case raises.

1. It’s too early to tell who should win. Let’s start with the bottom line: Should the government win or should Apple win? I think it’s too early to know. We are only at the beginning of what is likely to be a long legal process. All that has happened so far is that the government obtained a search warrant and then sought and obtained a separate ex parte order — that is, an order after the court heard only from one side — requiring Apple’s assistance. The order, obtained from a federal magistrate judge, is pretty tentative. It explicitly invites Apple to file legal objections to the proposed order before having to comply with it. (As a matter of due process, Apple has a legal right to a hearing to dispute the lawfulness of the order.) Apple’s objections haven’t been filed yet.

At this point, I think it’s too early to make strong conclusions about which side has the better argument. Partly that is because we don’t yet have adversarial briefing. We have the government’s application and the judge’s order, plus the public statement from Apple’s chief executive. But Apple hasn’t even made its case in court yet.

And importantly, there has been no fact-finding yet. The All Writs Act is very context-specific, with mushy standards such as whether the order would impose an “unreasonable burden” on the third-party. You can’t apply the law without knowing all the facts. And we don’t know the facts yet. There hasn’t been a decision, even just from the magistrate judge, about which side has the better legal argument. And however the magistrate judge ultimately rules, the losing side is guaranteed to seek further review. So this is probably an issue that will lead to a hearing and then will work its way from the magistrate judge to a district judge and then to the court of appeals. Ordinarily, that would take around two years.

Of course, some people have strong opinions already about which side has the better legal argument. But I don’t, at least not yet. I’ll go into more detail on that in tomorrow’s post.

2. The government wants Apple to exploit a security vulnerability built in to older iPhones. There’s a lot of public discussion about whether the order would require Apple to create a “backdoor” into the iPhone. I think it’s probably more accurate to say that this particular model phone, the iPhone 5C, has a built-in security weakness — depending on how you define the term, a kind of backdoor — already. The government’s order would require Apple to exploit the potential backdoor in Apple’s design. Importantly, though, Apple redesigned its phones after the iPhone 5C to close this potential backdoor [but see update below]. Later phones, starting with the iPhone 5S, have apparently eliminated this potential way in. As a result, the specifics of the order in the San Bernardino case probably only involve certain older iPhones.

Here’s some background. The order in this case does not require Apple to decrypt the phone for the government. The phone used the iOS9 operating system. Apple intentionally designed that operating system in a way that Apple can’t decrypt the phone even with a warrant. (That was the big issue back in 2014, when Apple introduced the earlier iOS8.) Instead, the order obtained in this case requires Apple to disable features on the phone that were designed to frustrate password-guessing as a way to break into the phone.

Specifically, the government knows that this particular phone had the iOS9 “auto erase” function turned on before the time of the attacks. Although no one can be sure, that feature was probably still on when the attacks occurred. Apple designed the auto-erase feature to thwart passcode-guessing. If someone guesses the passcode 10 times incorrectly, the phone permanently destroys the data in the phone needed to decrypt the phone. The government wants to keep guessing passcodes until it finds the right one — what is usually called a brute-force attack. But it can’t do that because of the features Apple designed, and that Farook apparently had on, to thwart passcode-guessing.

But there is another way in for this particular model phone. Apparently, Apple has the technical capability to send a software update to the phone that will disable the auto-erase function and some other similar features. Apple designed its system so that the update has to come from Apple, using its unique cryptographic signature, in order for it to work. The Apple software update could let the phone run with the passcode-guessing-frustrating features turned off. The FBI could then use a fast computer to guess passcodes to try to find the one that Farook used. That might allow the FBI to find the passcode quickly, or it might take them years. How long it might take just depends on what kind of passcode Farook used.

But here’s an interesting technical twist. It appears that Apple redesigned its later phones so Apple can’t send a software update to the phone without the user first entering in the passcode. Starting with the iPhone 5S, Apple designed the phones so that this feature is embedded in the hardware. The idea was for Apple to take away its own power to send a software update without the user’s authorization. If the phone Farook used had been an iPhone 5S or an iPhone 6, Apple probably would have been unable to disable the password-guessing features. (I say probably, because there is some speculation that it would still be possible.) But because this phone is an iPhone 5C, it’s at least technically possible for Apple to write a software update that will disable the features that Apple created — and Farook apparently used — to thwart password-guessing.

[UPDATE: It looks like the speculation that this is still possible for newer phones is correct. Apple has plans for future phones and software to no longer allow this, but that is a future plan rather than the current state of technology.]

The “backdoor,” if you want to call it that, is that Apple retains the technical ability to send a software update to the phone that would disable the optional password-guessing-thwarting functions that Farook probably used. Apple hasn’t written that software update, and it strongly opposes being required to write it.

3. There are no Fourth Amendment issues in the case. Some have speculated that it might violate the Fourth Amendment to require Apple to assist the government’s efforts to break into the phone. That’s not correct. The search here would comply with the Fourth Amendment for at least two independent reasons. Most obviously, the government has a search warrant. The assistance order is based on that; it seeks Apple’s help in carrying out the warrant that the government already has.

Second, even if the government didn’t have a warrant, the government has the consent of the phone owner. The phone in this case was owned by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, Farook’s employer. Farook used it, but the county owned it. The county has already consented to a search of the phone. Some have speculated that the people who communicated with Farook may have Fourth Amendment rights in their communications on the phone. Not so. When you send a communication to someone, you lose Fourth Amendment rights in the communication when the message arrives at its intended recipient. As a result, you have no Fourth Amendment rights in someone else’s phone just because you sent them messages. And even if you did have such rights, either the warrant or the phone owner’s valid consent — or here, both — would ordinarily trump them.

For these reasons, the legal issues in this case are not about the Fourth Amendment. Instead, they’re about the use of the All Writs Act to compel Apple to help the FBI so the FBI can try to guess the passcode to the phone. I’ll discuss the application of the All Writs Act, and the broader policy issues it raises, in my next post.

National Security Agency plans major reorganization - The Washington Post 20160202

National Security Agency plans major reorganization - The Washington Post 20160202

The National Security Agency, the largest electronic spy agency in the world, is undertaking a major reorganization, merging its offensive and defensive organizations in the hope of making them more adept at facing the digital threats of the 21st century, according to current and former officials.

In place of the Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance directorates, the organizations that historically have spied on foreign targets and defended classified networks against spying, the NSA is creating a Directorate of Operations that combines the operational elements of each.

“This traditional approach we have where we created these two cylinders of excellence and then built walls of granite between them really is not the way for us to do business,” said agency Director Michael S. Rogers, hinting at the reorganization — dubbed NSA21 — that is expected to be publicly rolled out this week.

“We’ve gotta be flat,” he told an audience at the Atlantic Council last month. “We’ve gotta be agile.”

Some lawmakers who have been briefed on the broad parameters consider restructuring a smart thing to do because an increasing amount of intelligence and threat activity is coursing through global computer networks.

“When it comes to cyber in particular, the line between collection capabilities and our own vulnerabilities — between the acquisition of signals intelligence and the assurance of our own information — is virtually nonexistent,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “What is a vulnerability to be patched at home is often a potential collection opportunity abroad and vice versa.”

But there have been rumblings of discontent within the NSA, which is based at Fort Meade, Md., as some fear a loss of influence or stature.

Some advocates for the comparatively small Information Assurance Directorate, which has about 3,000 people, fear that its ability to work with industry on cybersecurity issues will be undermined if it is viewed as part of the much larger “sigint” collection arm, which has about eight times as many personnel. The latter spies on overseas targets by hacking into computer networks, collecting satellite signals and capturing radio waves.
“The NSA21 initiative will ensure the National Security Agency continues to be the preeminent signals intelligence and information assurance organization in the world,” said Jonathan Freed, director of strategic communications at the NSA. “These core missions are critical as we position NSA to face complex and evolving threats to the nation. Out of respect for our workforce, we cannot comment on any details or speculation before the plan is announced.”

The change comes about a year after the CIA did its own revamping, ending divisions that have been in place for decades and creating new centers that team analysts with operators. The NSA’s new directorate of operations also will place analysts with operators.

[CIA plans major reorganization and a focus on digital espionage]

Rogers in a speech in December characterized the change as “among the most comprehensive” at the NSA since the late 1990s. He began the effort about a year ago, giving a team of employees from across the agency what he called the “director’s charge.” Among the major questions they were asked were: How can the agency better innovate?
And how “do we inculcate collaboration and integration” in operations?

For instance, said one former U.S. official familiar with the plan, both information assurance and foreign intelligence gathering rely on similar processes for data analysis and depend on each other. “But the challenge is they are very much two different cultures,” the official said. “Unless you’ve worked on both sides of the house, you don’t inherently trust each other.”

The Information Assurance Directorate (IAD) seeks to build relationships with private-sector companies and help find vulnerabilities in software — most of which officials say wind up being disclosed. It issues software guidance and tests the security of systems to help strengthen their defenses.

But the other side of the house at NSA, which looks for vulnerabilities that can be exploited to hack a foreign network, is much more secretive.
“You have this kind of clash between the closed environment of the sigint mission and the need of the information assurance team to be out there in the public and be seen as part of the solution,” said a second former official. “I think that’s going to be a hard trick to pull off.”

Richard George, a former technical director for the IAD, said he saw how techniques that the defense side developed have helped the offense and vice versa. “It’s got to be really useful to have those groups closer together where they’ll be sharing ideas and techniques more frequently,” said George, now a senior cyber adviser at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab.

Former NSA director Michael V. Hayden undertook one of the other major reorganizations, creating the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID) in 2000 by merging two directorates — Operations and Technology. He said he opted not to fold in the IAD,. “From the outside perspective,” he said, “I needed an organization that was, and was seen to be, committed to defense.”

At the time, he added, IAD needed to be strengthened and adapted to the cyber age. “Keeping it separate allowed me more direct visibility into that,” he said. “That said, as the cyber mission matured, the operational and technological aspects of the SID and IAD missions merged more and more.”

By 2005, as cyber threats were growing, Hayden decided to create a new organization that would enable the agency to leverage the intelligence it was getting from spying on overseas networks to help it defend against intrusions into the government’s classified networks. The National Threat Operations Center (NTOC) was an experiment in combining offense and defense. “It was wildly successful,” the first former official said.

NTOC dispelled the myth, the official said, that one person cannot operate under two sets of legal authorities — offensive and defensive. “I can actually sit at my desk and one minute be using sigint data and authorities . . . and the next minute I could be using IA data and authorities and my mission is not changing,” the official said. “You need checks and balances. You need to know what authority you’re using at any given time, but it’s possible.”
Still, some congressional aides briefed on the broad outlines of the plan have expressed concern about mixing funding for intelligence activities and funding for cybersecurity activities.

One area where the sigint side is ahead of information assurance is in using big data analytic tools to manipulate large volumes of information quickly. “What we want to do is take advantage of that knowledge, to apply it as needed to the IA analysis,” the first former official said.

Under the reorganization plan, there also will be separate directorates of Capabilities and of Research.

“One of the fundamental tenets you’ll see us outline as we try to position NSA for . . . the environment I think we’re going to see five, 10 years from now is a much more integrated approach to doing business,” Rogers said at the Atlantic Council. “I don’t like these stovepipes of SID and IAD. I love the expertise. And I love when we work together. But I want the integration to be at a much lower level, and much more foundational.”

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 washingtonpost.com/topsecretamerica.

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 priestd@washpost.com


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 topsecretamerica.com 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 spot....be 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 base....it 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 (USASpending.gov, 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 topsecretamerica.com

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.

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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 »


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 "SETimes.com: 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."

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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 »


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.