Shadow Government

A failing grade for 'Top Secret America'

I've just finished Dana Priest and William Arkin's "Top Secret America," The Washington Post's two-year, three-part "investigation" into U.S. classified activities. If one of my graduate students handed this in as a term paper, I'd have a hard time giving it a passing grade. Now, I can be a tough grader, but I'm also a fair one, and I always explain why I give the grades that I do, so here goes:

First, the authors have, at best, a weak thesis. That's actually giving them the benefit of the doubt, because the series as a whole doesn't really have a thesis. Instead, it is a series of strung-together facts and assertions. Many of these facts are misleading. For example, the authors point to the fact that large numbers of Americans hold top-secret security clearances, but fail to distinguish between those who are genuinely involved in intelligence work and those who require the clearances for other reasons -- such as maintaining classified computer equipment or, for that matter, serving as janitors or food service workers in organizations that do classified work. Similarly, they point to the large number of contractors involved in top-secret work without differentiating those who actually perform analysis and those who develop hardware and software.

Second, the authors fail to provide context. They make much of the fact that the U.S. intelligence community consists of many organizations with overlapping jurisdiction. True enough. But what they fail to point out is that this has been a key design feature of the U.S. intelligence community since its founding in the wake of World War II. The architects of the U.S. intelligence system wanted different eyes to look at the same data from diverse perspectives because they wanted to avoid another surprise attack like Pearl Harbor. It is worth remembering that intelligence is not primarily about efficiency, but effectiveness. It can be expensive, even wasteful; the real criterion for judging it is its track record.

In emphasizing the growth of the intelligence community since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the authors are at the same time accurate and misleading. They accurately note that the size of intelligence agencies grew rapidly after 9/11, but that's like saying that the scale of U.S. warship construction ballooned in the months after Pearl Harbor. It's true but misses the larger point: Islamist extremist terrorists have killed thousands of Americans and would like nothing better than to kill thousands more. Intelligence provides both the first line of defense and a powerful offensive weapon against our enemies.

Although beginning the story with 9/11 makes a certain amount of sense, in doing so Priest and Arkin miss an important dimension of the story. During the 1990s the size of the U.S. intelligence community declined significantly because both the Clinton administration and leaders in Congress believed that we were headed for a more peaceful world.  Indeed, the Clinton administration made trimming the size of the intelligence community a priority through its Reinventing Government initiative. Many intelligence analysts took offers of early retirement and became contractors -- contractors that the U.S. government hired back after 9/11. A good deal of the post-9/11 intelligence buildup thus involved trying to buy back capacity and capability that had been eliminated during the 1990s.

Third, the authors haven't familiarized themselves with the relevant literature, particularly that on surprise attack. The closest the series comes to having a thesis comes in part one, in which Priest and Arkin assert that the growth of the U.S. intelligence community led to the Fort Hood shootings and the so-called underwear bomber. However, their own evidence undercuts their assertion. In the case of Fort Hood, they note that the commander of the Army unit that was supposed to be monitoring threats within the service unilaterally decided to turn the unit's attention to other topics. 

In the case of the underwear bomber, Priest and Arkin string together facts with retrospective clarity in a way that rarely happens in intelligence organizations large or small.   Surprise attacks happen when intelligence organizations fail to detect, in the words of the intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter, the signals of attack against the noise of irrelevant or misleading information.  To do so, it pays to have an organization that is large and diverse. 

Of course, this isn't a graduate school term paper. It is a work of journalism. And that leads me to what is for me the most damning indictment of all. Priest and Arkin have spent two years trying to expose all manner of classified government activities. Arkin has in fact made a career of it. The database they have assembled details not only organizations involved in counterterrorism work, but also those working in unrelated fields such as Air Force technical intelligence. In so doing, they have made it easier for America's enemies to defeat U.S. efforts to ferret out their secrets and have thereby made it more rather than less likely that the United States will be surprised by a future adversary. Openness has its place, but so does secrecy.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Two and a half cheers for Obama on South Korea

Washington is demonstrating strong support for its South Korean ally after the tragic murder by North Korea of 46 ROK sailors. Secretaries Gates and Clinton are visiting Seoul in the first ever U.S.-ROK "2 plus 2" meeting (a reference to the regular meetings between the Secretaries of State and Defense and their Japanese counterparts). The leaders issued a joint statement calling for the "complete and verifiable" denuclearization of North Korea and they finalized details for major joint exercises to be conducted next week.

The exercises will include up to 8,000 sailors, airmen, and marines. The massive USS George Washington carrier strike group will be involved, as will F-22s (by far the most capable aircraft ever made -- I am sure the South Koreans and Japanese wish we had produced more of them) and air and missile defense assets, including Aegis-equipped destroyers, and other anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

All of this is welcome. Less promising is an unnecessary concession to China. The first exercises, which include the George Washington, are not being held anywhere near the site where the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, was sunk by the North. Administration officials protest that they never said the carrier would exercise in the Yellow Sea, so there is no concession at all. But that is beside the point. The Chinese clearly did not want a massive show of force near their coastline. The answer should have been "too bad."

This concession is a mistake for two reasons. First, the Chinese have made the crisis worse by protecting the North Koreans from tough responses to their war-like behavior. Second, the Chinese are increasingly trying to change the rules of maritime behavior. The U.S. Navy is well within its rights to exercise in the Yellow Sea. China's resistance comes at the same time that it is trying to restrict lawful U.S. operations in other parts of its Exclusive Economic Zone. We certainly need not always be tough on the Chinese (leave them alone on climate change, for example -- they need to grow). But when China acts irresponsibly, our instinct should not be to reassure them. To the contrary, we should demonstrate that there are costs for irresponsible behavior, including allied exercises right off their coast. If Beijing wants such exercises to stop it should control its North Korean ally.

In addition, Washington should not talk about "a return to the Six Party Talks." After the murder of South Korean sailors, a return to talks seems rather disconsonant. North Korea has pretty well demonstrated its lack of interest in any talks that do not involve the other parties offering one-sided concessions to it and recognizing it as a nuclear state. Rather, South Korea, the United States, and Japan should talk about a vision for a unified Korea under ROK rule. China should be invited to join such talks, but the allies should set the agenda.

Because a unified Korea under South Korean rule is a long-term goal, the allies should discuss measures to deter North Korean provocations, ways in which South Korea and Japan can improve ties and operate more closely together, and contingency planning for a North Korean collapse.

In short, the visit by secretaries Gates and Clinton to South Korea is an important and deft alliance management move. But there is no reason to placate a China that should be controlling its dangerous ally.

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