Top Secret America

The Rise of the New American Security State

by Dana Priest and William Arkin

Top Secret America

Hardcover, 296 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $27.99 | purchase

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Book Summary

Describes the enormous, top-secret, invisible universe created by the government after 9/11 and describes why the system in place to keep us safe may actually be putting us in greater danger.

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Excerpt: 'Top Secret America'

Though she could barely walk anymore at age seventy-​six, Joy Whiteman remained calm as she fumbled to remove her new white tennis shoes, lift herself out of her wheelchair, and grab the side of the X-ray machine. She teetered slowly, in socks, through the security scanner at the Boise Airport in Idaho. Airport security guards folded her wheelchair and rolled it through the scanner, keeping an eye on the frail woman in a bright flowered jacket.

"Can you make it without pain?" a guard asked her.

"Oh, sure," she replied.

Whiteman followed instructions, lifted her hands above her head, emptied her pockets of crumpled pieces of paper, then apologized for having left her driver's license in her purse rather than having it in hand for the guards to examine with her plane ticket. The line slowed behind her. Some people sighed at the inconvenience. Others smiled in sympathy at the awkward sight. I grimaced. What were the odds that she was a terrorist?

But Whiteman didn't mind at all. "I have no problem with it. I don't want to blow up," she said when I asked about the hassle. "I could be carrying a gun or something."

"Yeah," her husband, Bill, 72, said. "These people are always one step ahead of us."

Whiteman's smile faded. "Last time, they wheeled me through without looking at the X-ray," she said. "I could have had a bomb or explosives."

A decade of terrorism warnings about possible attacks in the United States had convinced Whiteman that she had much to fear. Walking through a body scanner without her wheelchair was a small price to pay for safety. Never mind that no terrorist had ever fit her profile or been foiled walking through a security scanner. Never mind that the Department of Homeland Security, which was responsible for setting airport security policy, was ridiculed by people at every other intelligence agency because it hadn't learned to hone its focus and still saw threats everywhere.

The scene of Joy Whiteman holding herself up with the walls of the body scanner while a crew of security guards, paid by taxpayers, made sure she didn't fall, seemed a perfect metaphor for what has transpired in the United States over the past ten years. Having been given a steady diet of vague but terrifying information from national security officials about the possibility of dirty bombs, chemical weapons, biotoxins, exploding airliners, and suicide bombers, a nation of men and women like the Whitemans have shelled out hundreds of billions dollars to turn the machine of government over to defeating terrorism without ever really questioning what they were getting for their money. And even if they did want an answer to that question, they would not be given one, both because those same officials have decided it would gravely harm national security to share such classified information— and because the officials themselves don't actually know.

In the panic-​filled chaos of late 2001 through 2002, this dragnet approach to terrorism was understandable, given how little the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence agencies knew then about al-Qaeda. But in ten years, they have made vast strides in technical surveillance capabilities and intelligence analysis. They have killed so many al-Qaeda operatives that only hundreds are left in the world (in addition to the organization's post-​9/11 affiliates). The dragnet approach no longer makes much sense.

One reason America is stuck at Yellow Alert — "Significant Risk" of terrorist attack accompanied by no specific information — and stuck with such an enormous complex of organizations and agencies trying to defend the country is that being wrong is too costly for politicians in Washington. "Who wants to be the guy that says we don't need this anymore and then three weeks later something happens?" asked Obama national security adviser James Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps. "I don't think you can ever get it back" to a smaller size.

We believe the primary reason for this is that the government has still not engaged the American people in an honest conversation about terrorism and the appropriate U.S. response to it. We hope our book will promote one.

Many people in the intelligence community wish this book were not being published at all. Before publishing our initial series on Top Secret America in the Washington Post in July 2010, we showed the government a database of government organizations and private companies working at the top secret level, assembled over several years as part of our research. We described how the data had been culled from publicly available information, and asked to hear any national security concerns. After detailed discussions with most of the sixteen agencies of the intelligence community, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is supposed to lead those agencies, returned with a surprising request: don't publish the database. It might harm national security, we were told. The office declined to offer specifics and issued a warning to contractors about the impending publication of the series. The Post, meanwhile, had already begun to identify possible national security issues, and executive editor Marcus Brauchli ordered appropriate changes.

We are grateful to Little, Brown for allowing us to put this case before readers in much greater detail.

Despite all the unauthorized disclosures of classified information and programs in scores of articles since September 11, 2001, our military and intelligence sources cannot think of an instance in which security has been seriously damaged by the release of information. On the contrary, much harm has been done to the counterterrorism effort itself, and to the American economy and U.S. strategic goals, by allowing the government to operate in the dark, by continuing to dole out taxpayer money to programs that have no value and to employees, many of them private contractors, who are making no significant contribution to the country's safety. Allowing outsiders like us to signal shortcomings is one of the great protections the U.S. Constitution gives to the media.

Calling the reaction to al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack a "war" ensured that the government could justify classifying everything associated with fighting it. Under President George Bush, journalists' efforts to figure out how the United States was waging this war against al-Qaeda were often criticized by senior administration leaders, members of Congress, cable television pundits, even the public. Many of those journalists hoped that would change under the presidency of Barack Obama. It is true the president and his cabinet members have not publicly disparaged the news media as much as his predecessor did. But behind the scenes, the situation is actually much worse. President Obama's Justice Department has taken a more aggressive tack against the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by pursuing more so-called leak investigations than the Bush administration. Recent indictments were issued against a former CIA employee who allegedly talked to book author James Risen, a New York Times reporter, about a botched attempt to slip faulty nuclear plans to Iran; and a former National Security Agency official, Thomas Drake, who helped a Baltimore Sun reporter detail the waste of billions of dollars at his agency. In early June 2011, the government was forced to offer Drake a deal because its lawyers said they did not want to reveal classified information related to the case in court. Drake accepted the prosecution's offer to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor of misusing a government computer to provide information to an unauthorized person. He is expected to serve no prison time. Then there is the case of former Justice Department official Thomas Tamm. In August 2007, eighteen FBI agents, some with their guns drawn, burst into his home with only his wife and children present, to raid his files during an investigation into his alleged role in helping the New York Times develop its seminal warrantless surveillance story in 2004. The government dropped his case nearly four years later, in April 2011, after Tamm's career had been ruined and he faced financial peril.

The Justice Department is also mulling an indictment on espionage charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing tens of thousands of pages of classified U.S. diplomatic cables and war-​related field reports, some of them allegedly provided by a young army private first class, who is also under arrest. Regardless of Assange's publicly stated bias against U.S. policies and the allegations against his personal behavior, this unprecedented trove of material has allowed reporters around the world to write some of the most insightful and revealing stories of our time. In some cases those revelations even fueled brave public protests against undemocratic, corrupt regimes, developments the U.S. government says it supports in the name of promoting democracy.

Congress has jumped on the secrecy bandwagon, too. Maryland senator Benjamin Cardin — whose state is home to the National Security Agency, the nation's eavesdroppers — introduced a bill in 2011 making it a felony to disclose classified information to an unauthorized person. This legislation expands considerably the current law that makes it illegal to disclose information on nuclear codes, cryptography, electronic intercepts, nuclear weapons designs, and the identities of covert agents. But most important, it places even greater power into the hands of the executive branch to just declare something classified rather than to have to demonstrate that harm would be done if the information were to be made public.

Had Cardin's law been on the books shortly after 9/11, newspapers would have had a much harder time publishing stories about the CIA's covert prisons and waterboarding and other harsh treatment of detainees. Journalists may have been kept from revealing that many of the captives held at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, turned out not to be terrorists at all; that U.S. Army soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison; that the National Security Agency was collecting communications of people living in the United States without the required permission; and even that in 2011 Pakistan had rounded up men in their country they believed had helped U.S. authorities find Osama bin Laden.

The laws under consideration also would have made it illegal for government employees to help reporters research articles in 2002 and 2003 about the weakness of evidence surrounding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction or, seven years later, the stunning admission by the key one-​time German intelligence source, code-​named Curveball, that his story was entirely fabricated.

Another piece of legislation now under consideration would criminalize the disclosure and publication of information about human intelligence — spies and informants. That law may have made it illegal for newspapers to have published articles about Canadian citizen Maher Arar, whom U.S. authorities turned over to the infamously inhumane Syrian police in 2002 after mistakenly deciding he was a terrorist. Or the CIA's bungled operation in Macedonia, where case officers mistook German citizen Khalid al-Masri for someone else and disappeared him for months, something that has cost him his sanity. He is a broken man today, one without even a public apology from the United States.

This book offers a counterproposal: that only more transparency and debate will make us safe from terrorism and the other serious challenges the United States faces. Terrorism is not just about indiscriminate violence. As its name suggests, it is about instilling paranoia and profound anxiety. It aims to disrupt economies and inspire government clampdowns. It is time to close the decade-​long chapter of fear, to confront the colossal sum of money that could have been saved or better spent, to remember what we are truly defending, and in doing so, to begin a new era of openness and better security against our enemies.

A Note on Methodology

Our investigation focused on top secret work because the staggering amount of work classified one rung below, at the secret level, was simply too large to accurately track. We conducted several hundred interviews with current and former military, defense, and intelligence officials and private contractors, and visited at least a hundred places where top secret work is carried out.

To create a database of organizations and private companies working with top secret clearances involved compiling hundreds of thousands of public records about government organizations and private-​sector companies over a period of two and a half years. These records included government documents, contracts and task orders, corporate and government job descriptions, property and budget records, corporate and social networking websites, corporate databases, and other material.

The people in this book are referred to by the title or rank they held when they were interviewed. Our reporting cannot be more fully described without breaking the promises of confidentiality requested by the vast majority of current and former officials who agreed to answer our questions and offer their observations and assessments of this hidden universe. Most of those who helped us did so with the knowledge that they were breaking some internal agency rule in doing so; they proceeded anyway because they wanted us to have a more complete picture of the inner workings of the post-9/11 world we sought to describe and because they, too, believe too much information is classified for no good reason. They spoke because they, too, were alarmed that one of the greatest secrets of Top Secret America is its disturbing dysfunction.

Our anonymous sources come in a couple of varieties: people interviewed with the approval of the government on the condition that they not be identified; people who agreed to explain things and give their assessments without official approval on the promise that they not be named. Some of the latter also requested that their military branch, agency, rank, and/or particular office be kept private. In most cases, anecdotes and other facts shared by anonymous sources were verified by at least one other person and often by several others. Many government offices were also contacted for comment and input. Most responded. A few declined.

We have carefully considered the national security implications of our work and have left out some information. The point of describing this overgrown jungle of top secret organizations and corporations is to enhance national security and the public's understanding of it.

Excerpted from Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William Arkin. Copyright 2011 by Dana Priest. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company.

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