What’s Secret in ‘Top Secret America?’

The Washington Post didn't really tell us anything new

Editor’s note: At the time this article was published, Joshua Foust was employed by Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor.

Here’s a neat exercise: with the obvious exception of some interviews with corporate and agency spokesman, and a bizarre interview with a girlfriend in a bar, try to find something in The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” that isn’t on Google.

You won’t find much. Some contractors seem to have more money than they know what to do with? Written about in 2005 in Mother Jones.* There’s been a massive build up of secret facilities? The Washington Post itself covered that last year as well, when it noted all the secret buildings and communications infrastructure in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia made it difficult to expand the Metro. Sometimes intelligence analysts can be jerks to their girlfriends? Well…

Indeed, it is truly remarkable how little new information “Top Secret America” presents. The last entry in the three-part series, “The Secrets Next Door,” discusses what the NSA does in its massive sprawl of buildings in Ft. Meade, MD: cryptology, eavesdropping, linguistics, and so on. It sounds scary, but that’s all publicly available on the NSA website. You don’t need special access to see, as the paper points out in “National Security, Inc.,” that the entirety of the Dulles Toll Road is lined with military and intelligence contractors—as journalist Tim Shorrock has noted, you can drive around in your car, unrestricted, and see all of these buildings. Authors Dana Priest and Bill Arkin make a point to remind readers that they aren’t posting addresses or identifying buildings of any agencies… but even the supposedly secret Liberty Crossing, which houses the National Counterterrorism Center and the Director of National Security, is easily found in Google Maps based on their description (you can even see the entrance to the facility in Street View).

The Post has made it very clear that they are performing a public service in providing all of this information, and in one sense they are: their work has made public information about the intelligence community (IC) much more accessible for regular people who wish to understand it. But so what? The series lacks the context, scope, and inquisitive spirit necessary to help people better understand what this information means, and how alarmed they should be by it all.

Priest and Arkin have written in their stories that agencies have grown out of control… and that could easily be true, but where is the line? Is the NSA an acceptably-sized organization with 10,000 employees, but not with 10,001? They state that contracting firms routinely perform jobs that are “inherently governmental functions,” to borrow the legal term. Only Priest and Arkin never define what they think that term means (it’s legally somewhat nebulous), nor do they provide examples of contractors performing said un-contractable work.

Let’s look at the sheer size of the IC. No one could possibly deny it has grown enormously in the last eight years. I noted earlier this week that the IC’s growth didn’t happen in a vacuum: it took place at the behest of Congress and the public, demanding “more” intelligence to counter the global counter-terror threat. The use of contractors has grown because the IC’s mission has expanded tremendously, but the ease of hiring permanent employees has not.

It is healthy to question why these two dynamics are at play. Why do we demand the IC perform more tasks, then restrict its ability to hire employees, then complain when it contracts out work to compensate? Is it even appropriate to give the IC such an expanded mission? If so, how can we modify how the community as a whole functions to reduce waste?

Priest and Arkin ask none of these questions. In fact, it’s not clear what they were asking. In the piece about intelligence contractors, we hear some eye-popping stories: cleared contractors can fetch $50,000 finders’ fees, some companies reward their employees with BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and signing bonuses of $15,000, and so on. But there’s no indication such practices are widespread: Priest and Arkin simply say such things are “common,” and cite “industry insiders” as their source.

Let’s unpack that $15,000 signing bonus. Priest and Arkin say it was for a group of software developers hired at Raytheon, a large firm that provides missile technology and computer security systems to the government. According to Glassdoor.com, a software development engineer at Microsoft can expect bonuses of up to $45,000 in a single year, when cash and stock bonuses are accounted for. A one-time $15,000 bonus merely for joining a company is relatively paltry in comparison, however enormous it might seem on its own.

Private companies are not the only members of the intelligence community that offer surprising perks to their employees. The CIA recently emerged from a lawsuit against a onetime recruit who billed the agency for $13,500 in moving expenses but then declined to take the job. A federal judge ruled the CIA’s lawyers committed fraud in the lawsuit, and instructed the CIA’s general counsel to “initiate an investigation into the actions that took place in this matter and whether there exists a pattern and practice of abuse by the CIA with respect to debt collection.” Yet few complain about suspicions that the CIA routinely hassles and defrauds young college graduates.

You wouldn’t learn these things from “Top Secret America.” That’s because much of it is written without context—there is outrage there, but Priest and Arkin never say what we should be outraged about. The growth of the intelligence contracting universe is indeed worrying, but not for the reasons Priest and Arkin state: it’s not the size that matters, but how manageable it is. They say it is unmanageable, but don’t say how or why (there are hints, as when Vice Adm. David Dorsett, the Director of Naval Intelligence, reveals he was able to convert only one single contractor to a government position over the course of an entire year, but Priest and Arkin don’t follow through on what that means).

Priest and Arkin write that, near Ft. Meade, employees and contractors who work for the TSA can’t function in normal life: they walk around hunched over, unable to blend into a Borders book store, advertising their presence with drone-like haircuts and suits. In one particularly bizarre section, we learn that Jeanie Burns, the girlfriend of one long-time NSA employee, says her boyfriend won’t travel with her, doesn’t like to go out, and doesn’t do anything interesting. “I feel cheated,” she says.

Priest and Arkin never say why we should care. They don’t ask if we actually get good analysis from people so incapable of existing in normal social settings (we probably do for some things, like cryptology, but probably don’t for other things, like radicalizing cultural and social movements). Priest and Arkin said that, in bars near Ft. Meade, undercover agents circulate among the unwinding employees to make sure they don’t say anything untoward, but they don’t wonder why the NSA feels it necessary to flood bars with secret agents, or what possible effect it could have either on the analytic community—how could such severe paranoia not severely affect one’s quality of life?—or the broader residential community of Ft. Meade. They just say that it happens, and move on.

There are other worrying aspects to the proliferation of contractors in the IC: often, the contractors don’t play well with the government employees. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said, “You want somebody who’s really in it for a career because they’re passionate about it and because they care about the country and not just because of the money.” As if contractors only care about paychecks and government employees only care about passion and patriotism. The statement could easily be reversed: IC software developers, as one example, work for far less than their peers in Silicon Valley because they are passionate and care about the country, while government employees prefer the job security and greater comp. time. Either statement essentializes and trivializes the real dynamics at play between contractors and “govvies,” as they’re often called.

“I hear the contractors complaining about the govt employees who can’t be fired, get fat benefits and don’t do any work,” someone asked Priest on the Post’s comment page.” I hear the govt employees complaining about the overpaid contractors who perpetuate padded contracts rather than finish anything. What did your reporting find?”

“We did not dig into that in this series but thanks for your thoughts,” Priest wrote back. That essentially summarizes what “Top Secret America” does: it kind of highlights what’s going on, but doesn’t say why it matters. It is outrage without focus, public service without purpose. While “Top Secret America” gives us a sense of the scale of the Intelligence Community, it doesn’t help us understand why it’s a problem, how it became a problem, or even what regular people could possibly do about it.

Correction: In the second paragraph, this article originally stated that Tim Shorrock’s Mother Jones article about intelligence contractors ran one year ago. In fact, it ran in 2005. The relevant sentence has been revised, and we regret the error.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at Registan.net.