Intelligence Failures In 'Top Secret America'

According to a Washington Post investigation, the U.S. intelligence world is sprawling and out-of-control. Nearly one million Americans hold top secret clearance at thousands of agencies across the country. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin say that makes it virtually impossible to oversee or assess.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In response to 9/11, no effort and no expense was spared to build up the capability to counter the threat of international terrorism. We're told that many plots have been broken up and attacks prevented by good intelligence work, but U.S. intelligence failed to connect the dots that could have prevented the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, the fizzled car bomb in Times Square and the shootings at Fort Hood.

Today, the Washington Post published the first of three articles that describe the enormous growth of national security organizations over the past nine years, an apparatus so vast it overwhelms itself with information with one answer for every problem: more.

Later in the hour, Sophia Nelson joins us on The Opinion Page to argue that black America needs a Tea Party movement of its own. But first, "Top Secret America."

If you've worked in the intelligence community since 9/11, call, give us your estimate of growth, capability and efficiency. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

William Arkin and Dana Priest - William Arkin is a national security reporter for the Washington Post, Dana Priest an investigative reporter. They conducted a two-year investigation. The report is called "Top Secret America." The series began today, and Bill Arkin is with us a studio at the post. We expect Dana Priest shortly. Bill, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. WILLIAM ARKIN (National Security Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And let's go back to that airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, an example, you write in your article, that shows both the good side - when U.S. intelligence picked up disturbing news from Yemen and responded to it quickly.

Mr. ARKIN: Well, I think the case of the underwear bomber in December, is a perfect example of how both the system works and doesn't work. We see an example here, of the vast apparatus of the U.S. intelligence community collecting bits of information in Yemen and elsewhere.

They had many hints that this was going on, but in the end, it just wasn't able to communicate that, to analyze it in such a way, to put it together, so that the Homeland Security apparatus or the law enforcement apparatus was able to actually interdict the person before he got on the plane.

And it wasn't until a passenger - a watchful passenger, noticed - that the attack was thwarted.

And I think that it not only shows then, therefore, how we really are, a decade later, in a situation where we haven't solved the problem of sharing information, of connecting the dots, of having all the various, disparate parts of the government work together. But also at the same time, all of the evidence leads us to believe that not enough is being done, either to oversee this apparatus or to reform it.

CONAN: And the sound of that door opening and closing signal the arrival of Dana Priest?

Ms. DANA PRIEST (Investigative Reporter, Washington Post): Hi there. It is.

CONAN: Good. Nice to have you with us.

And it was interesting. We're talking about the case of the underpants bomber, on Detroit, and how it illustrated both the good and bad side of what's been going on.

The way you described it in the article, the information was there, provided, but buried within a flood of information, and the people responsible for looking at it, well, nobody could figure out who was responsible for looking at it.

Ms. PRIEST: That's right. It's not just the flood, because certainly there's that sort of deluge of information all over, but really, the point here was the National Counterterrorism Center was set up specifically to be at the top of the heap, the best of the bunch.

And yet when it came to flushing out every clue down to its last potential, they dropped the ball. And they did that, not because, you know, they're bad people, they did it because they thought somebody else was probably doing it.

And so the size of the system has started to blur the responsibility within the system. And the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, said this point to Congress when he testified.

But that's sort of what's happened in other parts, too. Cybersecurity is one of them, where there's just way too many people in that mix, and nobody knows exactly who's in charge, and people aren't taking advantage of what others are doing in order to not repeat what they have already done, but to go deeper and further.

CONAN: And there are, for obvious reasons, a lot of people you talked to who asked that their names not be used, which you accepted, but there was one general, the former head of intelligence at CENTCOM, General Custer, who told you that he went up to that National Counterterrorism Center and said you guys - I've been in charge of, you know, running two wars, and you've never given me one scrap of information that's helped.

Ms. PRIEST: He was quite passionate in his interview with me about what he thought of Washington and this huge apparatus. And, you know, he even told me that story that you just said.

He needed all he could get, all the help he could get, and he found himself relying on his own people - which is fine if that's enough - but after all, there is this huge bureaucracy doing intelligence analysis in Washington, and he expected it to produce something, and it was very frustrating to him that it did not.

CONAN: And Bill Arkin, there was another example, and this involved the Fort Hood shooter, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, who was acting strangely at Walter Reed, where he was a psychiatrist, and there was an Army intelligence unit not far up the road that was not looking, however, at people acting strangely within the United States Army, but doing things that seven other agencies and I'm probably being too low on that estimate were already doing?

Mr. ARKIN: You know, we use the 25-mile example because the premier military intelligence organization responsible for counterintelligence is at Fort Mead, Maryland. But the reality, Neal, is that even right there at Walter Reed, you know, his superiors, who were well-aware of many of his activities and many of his thoughts, really were not, you know, were not themselves able to input that information into a system that was methodical.

In a way, it's a really a better example, I think, of how a lack of direction and a lack of true mission, a sort of let's each of the individual agencies decide for themselves what their priorities are going to be. And so here we have a case of someone who is actually in the Army, who has pretty much given up all of his rights, civil rights, of scrutiny. You join the Army, and your expectation is that someone is going to be looking over your shoulder and looking at your loyalty to the country, and even more.

And yet even there, the system is not focused enough. It's not directed closely enough. It doesn't have its clear priorities set in such a way that they were able to catch this person.

CONAN: The wasn't there the job of director of national intelligence was, I thought, created to try to coordinate all these things, to make sure that everybody was working in concert, that there well, I guess, you know, some redundancies are valuable because you want to have A team and B team looking at the same data sometimes, but isn't that the DNI's job, Dana?

Ms. PRIEST: Well, it is the DNI's job, but the Congress didn't give him the authority to actually do that job in a way that I think most Americans think they did.

He doesn't have budget power over much of the Defense Department, which has two-thirds of all the intel that goes on within its department. And more than that, though, I mean, I think the DNI has made some progress in intelligence-sharing and standardizing certain practices and getting people to talk more together.

But at the same time, the system just got so much bigger, and it seems to have overwhelmed the progress that was being made. We'll have hearings tomorrow with Jim Clapper, the new nominee for that position, and I'm sure that, you know, this question of size and coordination will come up.

CONAN: Well, until and unless he is confirmed, the acting director of national intelligence, David Gompert, wrote a response to your piece today, saying that U.S. intelligence is achieving untold successes every day.

The fact that there were only a few high-profile terrorist attacks and attempts recently means they are doing a good job, that the picture you paint is not the intelligence community that we know, as he put it.

Ms. PRIEST: Well, first of all, we asked them to share with us anything they could, plots that were foiled that we could put in the paper because we didn't have many examples.

We said give us things, just in generalities. You know, they're always worried about giving away too much. And we didn't receive anything back. So if they're out there, and they happened, you know, we could not find out about them. And what's more, he just well, I'll leave it at that.

Mr. ARKIN: Neal, the reality is that when we saw Mr. Gompert's letter today, who said this is not the intelligence community I recognize, one of our sources quipped to us: well, isn't that the whole point of your series?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARKIN: And I think that that is indeed the problem. The director of national intelligence, is the director of national intelligence in name only. He doesn't really control many programs within the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security or within the law enforcement establishment. There is no one person in charge.

And all of our sources, even on the record, Neal, in our story today, Bob Gates, the secretary of defense; Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency; agreed with our basic premise that there was no one in charge and that at the same time, they were not able to really wrap their arms around the contractor problem in order to determine how many they had, let alone whether they were effective.

CONAN: We're going to get calls. We want to hear from people in the intelligence community, if you had the chance to see the article. Is this the intelligence community that you recognize? Give us some estimate of the growth and the effectiveness of these various agencies since 9/11, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But before we go to calls, we've got to take a break, but I also wanted to ask you about something called skiffs, and this is apparently the great competition within the agency ,is how much skiff space you've got.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PRIEST: Well, you know, personal ego comes into everything in the world, and it certainly comes into this realm, as well. It's sort of a competition between who has the biggest skiff, which is a sound - an eavesdropping-proof building.

If you want to deal with classified, top secret information, you have to have one of these buildings. It makes sure that nobody from the outside can penetrate it with any kind of technical means.

And I had various conversations with skiff builders who would tell me that one agency wouldn't let the other agencies see how much square footage they had in skiff space or what kind of skiff they had, in part because they wanted to protect it and make sure that nobody else got as good of material as they did or what have you.

And one of my favorite quotes in there is from a three star general who has served a lot of time overseas and came to Washington for a tour, and said, you know, you can't go anywhere and find a four star general without his own security detail and entourage.

CONAN: We're talking with Washington Post reporters Dana Priests and Bill Arkin about their investigative series on the massive growth and questionable efficiency of our national security and intelligence systems, post-9/11.

The series is called "Top Secret America," three parts. It started today. Your calls after we come back from a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Almost as soon as the September the 11th attacks ended, the security and intelligence apparatuses in the United States began to grow and grow. And now, according to an article that appeared in the Washington Post today, the system has become a web so unwieldy it's hard to see if it is actually making us safer.

Dana Priest and William Arkin of the Washington Post are with us. They spent two years mapping out the sprawling geography of what they call "Top Secret America." Their series appears this week in the Post. You can find a link to the first article on our website, at npr.org.

We want to hear from you, if you've worked in the intelligence since 9/11, get your estimate of the growth capability and efficiency, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's start with John(ph), and John's with us on the line from Berkeley.

JOHN (Caller): Hi there. I had worked at a weapons lab right well, I was working there during 9/11 and for seven years after that. I have a DEUQ(ph) clearance, which is up to top secret.

I never use I'm a technical writer. I never edited or worked on anything top secret or confidential or even sensitive, I don't think. But the clearance cost about $3,000 and took two years to acquire by investigations into my past.

And I know that the DEUQ clearance expires, I believe, after eight years. So mine, you know, would have to be reinvestigated and only if I acquired a job that, you know, required one.

CONAN: Right.

JOHN: So in that sense, I think, you know, for me it was kind of a waste of money and time, although I'm happy to have it on my record because it kind of shows that I've been at least vetted thoroughly once, you know, for future jobs. Anyway...

CONAN: Presumably, you've done very many naughty things since then, but we can overlook that.

JOHN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: But one other thing is I do working at the weapons lab, I could take the whole hour talking about the inefficiency and bureaucracy there. It was just mind-numbing, you know, the waste.

CONAN: And did that noticeably increase after 9/11?

JOHN: Well, you know, I started only about nine months before 9/11. So I really couldn't say. But according to what I learned while being there, it didn't really make I think I was there just too short of a time to discern any before and after difference.

CONAN: All right, John, thanks very much. And we hope you that your resume does you well.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And it's interesting. One of the things we learn in this article, I think we probably knew it already, there are many levels of clearance, not just secret and you wrote in the piece that if you studied all the secret programs, the people who are cleared for secret, it was just too vast to even do it. But you did top secret. But there are levels above that, as well, including something called SAR.

Ms. PRIEST: SCI?

CONAN: Yes. Well, it was the special programs, of which...

Ms. PRIEST: Okay, the SAPs

CONAN: SAPs, oh, excuse me. I got my these acronyms are so hard to keep straight.

Ms. PRIEST: Well, you know, the further you get up, the theory is the fewer people, the fewer number of people see something or read into something. So SAPs, or special access programs, as they're called, are the Defense Department's most sensitive programs.

There are intelligence SAPs. There are technical SAPs. There are operational SAPs. And in the story, I talk on the record with General Clapper, who at the time was the head of the Office of Intelligence for the Secretary of Defense.

And we were talking about the role, the idea of visibility. Can you see into the SAP world and just, can you see all the SAPs that there are? Because I had been told by more than a couple people that this was an issue, that it was hard to get visibility on these very special programs.

And he came back and said there's only one entity in the universe that has visibility on all these SAPs, and that's god. And I said: Can I put that on the record? Because we were speaking on background. And he said: I don't know why not. Nobody's going to disagree with me.

So I thought that was a pretty credible quote from somebody who's been in the system a long time and understands the real problems.

CONAN: He may be asked about that tomorrow. We'll have to see. Let's get another caller in. This is Mike(ph), Mike on the line from Richmond.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, how are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MIKE: Thanks. Well, I, you know, like to share something. I just wanted to add, you know, I think that part of the issue here is that after 9/11, it's not like a whole new military industrial complex came into existence, you know what I mean?

These people who are running the intelligence community had been running it since our enemies were still very defined, not these kind of amorphous, nationless groups.

You know, we have the whole, full force of a technologicalized First World bearing down on, what, you know, 800, 1,000 guys in caves? You know what I mean? We're not fighting the same kind of enemy. And personally, I used to work for an intel firm which, you know, we were part of a group that consulted with Dick Clarke for his book "Cyber War" that was just released.

You know, in my opinion, I feel that the establishment is still trying to chase the enemy the way we would chase Russians, you know what I mean?

CONAN: Bill Arkin, the national security apparatus was not small, as Mike points out, before 9/11, but I think you just hundreds of agencies that were either created or reorganized afterwards.

Mr. ARKIN: Well, there are very many fundamental ways in which the national security apparatus of the United States has changed since 9/11. It is fundamental, Neal.

First and foremost is the growth of ad hoc organizations, a whole new set of organizations superimposed upon existing agencies. And many of those new organizations are compartmented or work on their own or are not tied into the overall system, and that's one of the problems that we discovered.

The second is the enormous use of contractors in national security matters today. And this is not a question of contractors not existing before 9/11, but before 9/11, the contractors' main job in the national security establishment was to build equipment and maintain that technical equipment. And today, most of those contractors are engaged in the provision of services, that is they produce paper.

They're involved in policymaking. They're involved in war planning. They're involved in sitting in intelligence watch centers, et cetera. They are a literal augmentation of the U.S. government, and those are people who are not public servants. They are people who are working for profit companies.

The third major change is the concentration of activity in Washington, D.C., which we concentrate in on the second story and the third stories, which will come out tomorrow and Wednesday. And here, it really is phenomenal.

Washington has seen an explosion of building, an explosion of new agencies, an influx of people. Corporations have moved to Washington to be part of the system. And we really have fundamentally altered the landscape of the United States by virtue of putting so much emphasis and so much power behind the national security establishment that is located in the Washington area.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much. Here's an email from this is Gabriel(ph) in Kansas City: I had heard most of these different departments are privatized, and I think he's talking about contractors, which Bill Arkin talked about. Is that true? And if so, can you talk a little more about that?

I know tomorrow's article focuses on that, but Dana Priest, today's article pointed out not just doing the tasks that Bill Arkin was just talking about but all the air-conditioner repairmen, the landscapers, indeed the janitors, need top secret clearance.

Ms. PRIEST: Exactly. Once you start that ball rolling, you get a whole lot of other people come on board because once you make a site secure like that, anybody that goes in and out of it, anybody who cleans it, anybody who builds it, even, there are architects that need top secret clearances.

It just becomes a network, if you will, of support. And in fact, many, many companies that contract with the government do this sort of support for the government, providing them with janitors and all sorts of other gardeners, as you said, all sorts of other people.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph), and John's on the line with us from Miami.

JOHN (Caller): (Technical difficulties).

CONAN: John, your cell phone is betraying you. I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go, and I hope you call back because it looked like you had an interesting question.

In the meantime, let's see if we can go this is Andy(ph), Andy with us from Toledo.

ANDY (Caller): Hi there. Thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure.

ANDY: I'm former intelligence, what they call special intelligence business, worked with NSA, CIA and the DOD. And what struck me about the community was the incredible politicization and turf-building and turf control efforts. And I'm sure that hasn't changed.

And back in 1947, there was OSS and Army, all these various intelligence agencies whose efforts needed to be coordinated. Coordinated was vested in a new agency called the Central Intelligence Agency. And that was led by the director of central intelligence, whose job it was to coordinate all the intelligence work.

Now, instead of dealing with the very turf-sensitive environment there, we've installed a director of national intelligence to coordinate the work of the director of Central Intelligence and the other agencies. I'm frankly pessimistic, over.

CONAN: Well, the idea was, I think, as I recall the argument, Dana Priest, that the director of Central Intelligence had enough to do directing the Central Intelligence Agency, and that given all this growth that we needed somebody else and a new agency to overlook all this different agencies and do the work previously done by the director of Central Intelligence. But turf wars and hiding intelligence from somebody else was, again, not exactly unknown before the creation of the DNI.

Ms. PRIEST: No, it wasn't. But I think we've shown that it's not gotten a whole lot a better. I would say that information sharing has gotten better, that people come together more and produce reports and send them to other agencies and that sort of thing. That definitely has improved, but the turf battles for money in particular, I think, are very tense. People tend - maybe this is just the nature of bureaucracies, never do want to cut down and be smaller, always to want to grow.

And then, when you put in there the profit motive of corporations - not to criticize that, that's, you know, the American way. But when it's in a closed system that no one can see, that people can't judge and say, well, hey, you know, you gave that contract away for so much more money and it's a sole source contract. It just makes - it makes it harder to make sure the system is doing the right thing. And companies have a motive also to grow, not to shrink.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PRIEST: And so, you've got these two - not - these two dynamics moving the system into being bigger. Nobody in Congress will say enough. It's not politically correct to say, are you sure we need to spend that much? In fact, that's always the solution for a problem is this - is to throw more money at it.

CONAN: Yeah. Bill Arkin, you describe that, again, going back to the case of the underpants bomber in Detroit, that the solution proposed was, well, we need more analysts. We need to add more to the hundreds and thousands that we've already got.

Mr. ARKIN: Indeed. I think, Neal, that we've seen in all the evidence that we've collected and all of the interviews that we've done and the extensive material which we've put online at topsecretamerica.com, that this is a system of tremendous duplication. And it so much so that for the intelligence community or for U.S. government officials to argue at this point that these are necessary redundancies is really ridiculous.

I mean, we have found just pockets of the same exact work being done in a wide variety of agencies. And why is that work done? Because that's what's hot. And when something gets hot, when it's of national importance, when it gets the interest of Congress, then the money flows.

And so, if a counter IED is countering improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan and Iraq becomes the hot issue, I'm not saying that we shouldn't solve the problem. But what the reality is, is that the bureaucracy and the private sector respond with a vengeance, building their own intelligence, building their own capabilities, building their own investigators, building their own networks, building their own organizations because that's where the money is going.

And the day-to-day intelligence suffers as these new ad hoc organizations are created. And we saw examples of that again and again and again where people would say to us, well, such and such is hot and so therefore we have to now take what we're doing and rename it something else in order to get enough money to do what we want to do.

CONAN: William Arkin, national security reporter for The Washington Post. Also with us, Dana Priest, investigative reporter for The Washington Post -together, authors of the series "Top Secret America" which began today and runs in the paper tomorrow and Wednesday as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Joya(ph), Joya with us from San Francisco.

JOYA (Caller): Oh, yes. Hello. I'm calling because I work for an aerospace nondefense company. And recently, they posted an announcement explaining that The Washington Post articles were to be published. And then the next thing the announcement said was that it discouraged employees from reading the piece in The Washington Post before even mentioning that if we received any questions from the media that we should direct them to our management.

And I found that rather disconcerting that they were discouraging us from reading the articles. And I agree entirely with the authors. I used to work for an international lab and also for a defense company. And they don't want - even the employees don't know exactly where the money comes from and what contract is being charged to. So it really boils down to the money. Thank you.

CONAN: Dana Priest, I guess, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Ms. PRIEST: Oh, well, I guess not. I mean, we certainly didn't (unintelligible) or think would we get this. But I haven't heard that one before, that they ask you not to even read it. Of course, we'd love to see what that was and my email is priestd@washpost.com. The government has put out other alerts, saying that the story was coming. There is all - a lot of rumor yesterday that it would be just about contractors and would shake Washington and this sort of thing, which is a little unusual. Our contractor story runs tomorrow, though, and it's...

CONAN: And you hope to shake Washington.

Ms. PRIEST: Well, it's another large look at this world.

CONAN: Bill Arkin, can you give us a hint of what's going to be in the paper tomorrow?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, we - today, we've looked at the apparatus of the government, the sort of what drives top secret America. Obviously, all of these companies are working for government clients. It's the government that grants top secret clearances. The company can't just invent itself and say it's top secret.

So today, we wanted to give an overview of "Top Secret America," its size and its scope: 1,271 government entities that we have classified in 45 different groupings and 1,931 private sector companies in America that do top-secret work for these government organizations. And tomorrow, we'll go into some greater detail about those companies and highlight one in particular that has become one of the powerhouses of the so-called services sector, General Dynamics.

CONAN: Bill Arkin, Dana Priest, thanks very much for your time today. And good luck with the other two pieces.

Mr. ARKIN: Thank you very much, Neal.

Ms. PRIEST: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page, Sophia Nelson joins us to argue that black America needs a Tea Party movement of its own. Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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