Part Two of Discussing Top Secret America

by Joshua Foust on 7/22/2010 · 2 comments

I wrote the second part of my discussion of Top Secret America over at the Columbia Journalism Review, where the critique seemed more appropriate. Overall, I give the series a “meh” and really wonder why it took two years to put together.

Priest and Arkin write that, near Ft. Meade, employees and contractors who work for the NSA can’t function in normal life: they walk around hunched over, unable to blend into a Borders book store, advertising their presence with drone-like haircuts and suits. In one particularly bizarre section, we learn that Jeanie Burns, the girlfriend of one long-time NSA employee, says her boyfriend won’t travel with her, doesn’t like to go out, and doesn’t do anything interesting. “I feel cheated,” she says.

Priest and Arkin never say why we should care. They don’t ask if we actually get good analysis from people so incapable of existing in normal social settings (we probably do for some things, like cryptology, but probably don’t for other things, like radicalizing cultural and social movements). Priest and Arkin said that, in bars near Ft. Meade, undercover agents circulate among the unwinding employees to make sure they don’t say anything untoward, but they don’t wonder why the NSA feels it necessary to flood bars with secret agents, or what possible effect it could have either on the analytic community—how could such severe paranoia not severely affect one’s quality of life?—or the broader residential community of Ft. Meade. They just say that it happens, and move on.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

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– 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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Michael July 23, 2010 at 11:51 pm

The series was good (66% good), except for the cockamaney third piece (do I have that order correct?) about Meade, which read as a caricature, more than anything else.

Nobody July 26, 2010 at 9:45 pm

They should have framed the series in the context of a convergence of domestic political realities similar to the Weimar Republic in early 20th century Germany.

Such hardline control of the thoughts and words of NSA employees is indicative of a fascistic groupthink taking over the US spyworld. Inevitably it is infecting the rest of the United States.

Only by paying attention to that sort of detail do you grasp the overall significance, and most journos aren’t prepared to do the slog now, or to read the tea leaves with sufficient humility, attention, and wisdom to place things in proper context.

The series is seriously important, and the anecdote significant.

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