After two years of research, one of the world's remaining beacons of investigative journalism, The Washington Post, has started publishing a series that paints the most complete picture of the US’s counter-intelligence network after 9/11. The picture, built using only publicly available information, is far from pretty.
The Washington Post has begun publishing its eagerly – or fearfully, depending who you talk to – awaited in-depth examination of the top-secret counter-intelligence world the US government summoned into being in response to the 9/11 attacks. According to Post reporters, this covert world has become so big, cumbersome and secretive that today no one actually knows how much it costs, the number of people it employs or how many agencies and programmes do the work or overlap each other in their efforts. The Post concludes that the system the US put in place to keep the country safe in the future has now become so massive its effectiveness is impossible to determine. Monday’s story is the first in a three-part chronicle that is going to generate enormous controversy in the intelligence community.
Key findings include:
The Post’s investigation argues that, instead of there being a lack of resources, the real problem now is failure to focus. The Post says this was central in the Fort Hood shooting where 13 military personnel were killed, as well as in the Christmas Day airline bomb attempt that was only stopped when an airline passenger saw smoke rising from his fellow passenger.
In explaining the dimensions of the problem, the Post quotes defence secretary Robert Gates as saying, “There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that – not just for the Director of National Intelligence, but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defence – is a challenge.” Within a defence department that ultimately houses more than two-thirds of all intelligence programmes, only a few senior officials, the so-called “Super Users” even know about all of the Pentagon’s intelligence efforts. But not even they can really keep up. The Post quotes one such Super User who says, “I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything.” Others were blunter in their reactions to the overwhelming nature of the briefing processes. As he said, “I wasn’t remembering any of it.”
Retired Army Lieutenant General John Vines, the official who was given the task of reviewing how the Pentagon tracked its most sensitive programmes and information told the Post’s reporters, “I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities. The complexity of this system defies description.” He went on to explain, “Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste”. Or, in plain English: We can’t figure out what information will or will not make us safer.
The Post says its investigation took two years and drew heavily on government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking websites, additional records and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials. Moreover, 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.” Given a really good library and a really fast internet connection, you too can build one of these databases it seems – but only if you know what to look for.
Monday’s report describes the government’s role in this expanding enterprise, Tuesday’s will describe the government’s dependence on private contractors and Wednesday’s article will look closely at one top-secret community. The entire investigation is now available on a searchable database at http://www.washingtonpost.com/topsecretamerica. This website is almost certain to be one of the hottest websites in capital cities around the world and would have been invaluable to those low-lying Russian agents – the ones arrested a week or so ago – had they been more familiar with the internet and spent less time practicing their disappearing writing and dead-letter drops placed on the undersides of park benches.
Gates spoke with the Post during its investigation and, while he denied the system is too large or complex, let alone unfathomable, to be helpful, he did agree that, “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?’ ”. And CIA director Leon Panetta spoke on the coming budgetary crunch that may well afflict the system, saying, “Particularly with these deficits, we’re going to hit the wall. I want to be prepared for that. Frankly, I think everyone in intelligence ought to be doing that.” Or, again in plain English: This whole Rube Goldberg machine costs too much and we have to get a handle on it before it consumes us.
The first instalment of the Post’s series, “Top Secret America”, profiles the overall system and looks more closely at a variety of government installations that have sprouted like mushrooms in the wake of 9/11’s fertilising budget supplements. It is important to note that most of these are not part of the old-style secret world symbolised by those three formidable letters from the Cold War: CIA.
Rather, post-9/11, they are a mix of inter-agency groups and newly created special-purpose facilities. What they usually have in common is that they are placed inconspicuously across the landscape in mixed office parks and inconspicuously in parkland, or sited discreetly inside other facilities.
Wherever they are, they are busy, reports the Post. At the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, for example, the staff reviews more than 5,000 pieces of terrorist-related data daily as they try to keep an eye on world events.
Before World War II, then-secretary of state Henry Stimson had famously nixed a programme to penetrate Japanese, German and Italian diplomatic and military codes by admonishing his aides: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” That, of course, went by the board during the war and then in the Cold War too, but it was directed against enemy or would-be enemy nations. This new system isn’t even a version of president Dwight Eisenhower’s even-more famous “military-industrial complex” that arose with the production of nuclear weapons and delivery systems by private industry under contract to the US government to deter the Russians. Rather, this new nexus of activity is focused at defeating non-state, transnational violent extremists.
According to public sources, the current US intelligence budget totals some $75 billion – two-and-a-half times bigger than it was on 10 September 2001. But this probably leaves out many military activities and domestic counterterrorism programmes. Nonetheless, at least 20% of the total (whatever it ultimately is) is probably a refashioned mission aimed at the post-9/11 world.
The Post calculates that at least 263 organisations have been created or reorganised in response to 9/11. Each of these in turn needs analytical staff, administrative and logistical support, phone operators, secretaries, librarians, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even cafeteria workers and janitors with top-secret clearance. But with all this activity, the real challenge has been – and still is – how to co-ordinate the information, the analyses, the policy guidance, direction and management. Again, in plain English: how to control turf battles over power and resources.
Inevitably, perhaps, these databases are not totally integrated and the information river is not always effectively co-ordinated or crosschecked. One official profiled by the Post in its first article describes himself flipping nervously among four computer monitors lined up on his desk with six hard drives sitting at his feet.
The key for all these people and installations is the apex predator of intelligence facilities: access to a SCIF or sensitive compartmented information facility. For this new world of intelligence, a SCIF becomes a measure of top-dog-ness. Then there is all the other paraphernalia well known to viewers of 24, the Bourne films and others of their ilk. The stuff is the American top-secret intelligence equivalent of blue-light brigades. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Rudyard Kipling’s Kim this certainly isn’t.
Now it includes command centres, internal television networks, video walls, armoured SUVs and the personal security guards that are now the bling of national security. As one general told the Post, “You can’t find a four-star general without a security detail. Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, ‘If he has one, then I have to have one too.’ It’s become a status symbol.” Doesn’t that sound familiar to you from high school?
This growing empire of top secretness includes thousands of lower-paid analysts who now work in tandem with computer-shifted data and information. Apparently, no one knows precisely how many reports this veritable army of analysts generates – and they just keep coming. One senior official describes some of these sites as being like zombies; they keep on living, regardless of their utility. And, of course, much of this material simply rehashes what is already reported by, wait for it, the media.
Higher-up officials are then overwhelmed by a torrent of electronic texts like the 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… plus all the paper reports that arrive daily. Inevitably, this tsunami of information has generated a demand for a new publication like the online document, Intelligence Today, which attempts to “syncretise” the flow of material. Even so, this hasn’t been the answer. As CIA head Panetta admits, “Frankly, it hasn’t been brought together in a unified approach.”
This multi-layered, overlapping system obviously does generate useful material. The Post describes the effort in Yemen that brought together intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance as the way in which the system was intended to work. But, by the time the information hit the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis, it was buried in the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data reviewed each day.
As the Post describes it, “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.” The name of the Nigerian student who went to Yemen disappeared inside the vast bulk of data and reports.
Success generates a momentum for more support and a bigger budget, but, paradoxically, so does failure. Failure means still more help is needed. And so, coming soon is the newest facility, the $3.4 billion showcase of security, to be constructed on the very site of a former mental hospital in one of the poorer neighbourhoods in Washington. This building-up of the intelligence apparatus is a process that will not end any time soon.
By J Brooks Spector
To read the entire report go to the Washington Post. To read the Office of the National Director of Intelligence’s warning about disclosing data to outside individuals such as reporters, read it at the item from the Washington Times.