One of the biggest stories in North America at the moment is today’s Washington Post investigation on the explosion of intelligence services since 9/11. The sheer scale and cost involved is massive. Creating fear has never been more profitable. The outsourcing of government services is taking place across the world, including Australia and yet most of the mainstream media ignores the developments.
Governments can’t continue to keep claiming they are “keeping us safe” but spend more of our money on companies with little transparency. Targeting “terrorists” sounds sexy and keeps the tabloid papers happy (and many in the Murdoch press) but doesn’t address the ways in which this “threat” has been managed and exaggerated.
Figuring out exactly who’s cashing in on the post-9/11 boom in secret programs just got a whole lot easier.
U.S. spy agencies, the State Department, and the White House had a collective panic attack on Friday over an upcoming Washington Post expose on the intelligence-industrial complex. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin let it drop this morning.
It includes a searchable database cataloging what an estimated 854,000 employees and legions of contractors are apparently up to. Users can now to see just how much money these government agencies are spending and where those top secret contractors are located. Check out this nine-page list of agencies and contractors involved in air and satellite observations, for instance. No wonder it scares the crap out of Official Washington: it’s bound to provoke all sorts of questions — both from taxpayers wondering where their money goes, and from U.S. adversaries looking to penetrate America’s spy complex.
But this piece is about much more than dollars. It’s about what used to be called the Garrison State — the impact on society of a Praetorian class of war-focused elites. Priest and Arkin call it “Top Secret America” and it’s so big, and grown so fast, that it’s replicated the problem of disconnection within the intelligence agencies that facilitated America’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack. With too many analysts and too many capabilities documenting too much, with too few filters in place to sort out the useful stuff or discover hidden connections, the information overload is its own information blackout. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe,” a retired Army three-star general who recently assessed the system tells the reporters.
The Post — whose editorial page has been notably receptive to the growth of the security state over the years — explains in an editorial comment that it ran its constellation of websites by security officials to ensure that it wasn’t jeopardizing national security. In one instance, the editors deleted certain unspecified specific “data points” the project initially disclosed. And they further explain that most of what the project documents, like the locations of contractor and agency facilities, is already public information, distributed on company and agency websites. So it’s not as if the paper has put anyone in harm’s way. (Some of those overlapping contracts issued by the “263 organizations [that] have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11”³ might now be in danger, however.)
Still, in compiling all this information, there’s a risk that the Post provides a hostile foreign power looking to infiltrate the U.S. security apparatus now has an online yellow pages for sending out his resume. Ironically, the very nature of the phenomenon Priest and Arkin document might be enough to foil an infiltrator. Security agencies and their companies produce more information than anyone can consume, adding uncertain value to the amount of information already public. And the spigot — contained in congressional budgets that are either politically sacrosanct or entirely secret — doesn’t seem to be able to close. One impressed observer notes to the paper about a useless intel program scheduled for closure,… ”Like a zombie, it keeps on living.”
What’s missing from the story, however, is any assessment of the threat against which this vast and growing machinery is arrayed. The Post notes that 25 separate agencies have been set up to track terrorist financing, which admirably shows the overlapping and redundant nature of the post-9/11 ballooning of agencies and organizations targeting terrorism. But the article barely mentions that there are hardly any terrorists to track.
ThePost points out that among the recent, nuisance-level attacks by Muslim extremists – the Fort Hood shooter, the underwear bomber, the Times Square incident – the intelligence machine failed to detect or stop them. True. That’s an indictment of the counterterrorism machinery that has become a staple for critics of the outsize budgets and wasteful bureaucracy that has been created since 9/11.
The core problem, which thePost doesn’t address, is that Al Qaeda and its affiliates, its sympathizers, and even self-starting terrorist actors who aren’t part of Al Qaeda itself, are a tiny and manageable problem. Yet the apparatus that has been created is designed to meet nothing less than an existential threat.