Talking “Top Secret America”

by Joshua Foust on 7/19/2010 · 2 comments

The Washington Post put out this elaborate, two-year project called “Top Secret America.” The gist of it is, there’s a lot of contracting in the U.S. intelligence community, and we need to be painfully aware of what effect that has on the country. If that sounds weirdly familiar, that could be because this was the topic of a pretty engaging novel by RJ Hillhouse, called Outsourced, which I reviewed here a few years ago.

So did the Post discover anything new now, years after the problem became so high profile it was novelized? Not really, as I explain for PBS Need to Know:

There’s also the issue of how top-secret work is funded. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been funded through budget instruments called supplementals — yearly sums of money to cover the costs of the war (those costs include salaries, weapons, equipment, facilities, and a whole host of intelligence analysis work back in the U.S.). If an intelligence organization needs to expand its capabilities to support the wars, it cannot feasibly hire employees directly. Federal employees are difficult to fire, and the hiring process is so laborious, the effort hardly justifies the benefit — especially when the money might run out next year. When all you have to work with are supplementals, hiring contractors to do the work makes sense, since they can be let go easily if the project is defunded the next year…

Missing in “Top Secret America” is the sense that the demand for intelligence products has grown far more rapidly than its size. The normal response from Congress or the public to an “intelligence failure”— like the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmattab, has been to demand “more” intelligence, as if quantity was the problem. Priest and Arkin are the first to really lay out that what’s missing isn’t quantity, but quality — is the information any good, and if it’s so secret no one can read it, what good could it possibly be? Those are the intelligence failures we face — the system essentially choking on itself — not the inability to produce enough source materials.

Comments, as always, are greatly appreciated.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dilshod July 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Low-efficiency, ever-growing demands and questionable ways of work and, as a consequence, questionable results. Usual traits of intelligence.

michaelhancock July 19, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Seems like a solid analysis – nothing ground-shaking in what you say, but it’s a story that needs broader recognition, and I think you told it well. Thumbs up, muchacho.

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