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

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