The Washington Post’s editors were singularly unfortunate in their choice of weeks to publish their “Top Secret America” series, as it was quickly upstaged by Wikileaks. It’s just as well, as the content was pretty lame, and probably elicited many a sardonic scoff from the folks who work for the NSA and CIA. I’m certainly receptive to the serie’s central theme that “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe.” Unfortunately, the articles are written in the time-honored “expose” style with its insinuations that the reader is being let in on “confidential” information that, like the dead tree media itself, has become an anachronism since the invention of the Internet.
In the first article, entitled “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” for example, we are presented with this spine-tingling description of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center at Liberty Crossing in McLean:
Outside a gated subdivision of mansions in McLean, a line of cars idles every weekday morning as a new day in Top Secret America gets underway. The drivers wait patiently to turn left, then crawl up a hill and around a bend to a destination that is not on any public map and not announced by any street sign.
Liberty Crossing tries hard to hide from view. But in the winter, leafless trees can’t conceal a mountain of cement and windows the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of one another rising behind a grassy berm. One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.
Now, if Liberty Crossing “tries hard to hide from view,” it’s rather hard to divine how the second hit in a Google search of the words “Liberty Crossing Intelligence” could be the homepage of the National Counterterrorism Center itself, but it is. Apparently the folks at NCC are singularly inept at hiding. As for not being on any public maps, the first hit takes care of that problem by providing a satellite image of the campus and surrounding area. The “men in black” are, no doubt, some of the ubiquitous security guys the enterprising tourist can find at any number of the Defense, Intelligence, and other federal agencies in the Washington area, many of them a block or two from the mall. They don’t commonly “jump out of nowhere,” because, as I can confirm after having visited any number of secure facilities, they have no reason to hide. I doubt that it would ever occur to one of them to draw their weapon because someone took “one step too close without the right badge.”
The article treats us to the first of several implausible anecdotes that run through the entire series. For example, one of the Department of Defense’s “Super Users,” the upper echelon guys who supposedly have access to everything, is quoted as complaining because,
at his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with classified information would have been aware, he had merely to ask for a classified notebook. Such a “Super User” would surely have known this. I’ve been to many classified briefings, but never in a room I would consider “tiny.” Maybe he works for the wrong agency? As for the darkness, he probably wouldn’t have committed a security infraction by switching on the lights. He might not have seen the Powerpoint slides as clearly, though.
We are treated to more of the same in the remaining two articles. The next in the series, entitled “National Security Inc.,” focuses on the supposedly baleful influence of the many contractors supporting the nation’s Intelligence programs, all of them apparently just waiting for the opportunity to betray their country to promote the interests of the evil corporations that employ them. The authors never get around to explaining exactly why it would be in the best interests of the shareholders of these companies to supply government with a stream of traitors, nor does it attempt to enlighten us concerning the reasons that virtually all of the real traitors employed by federal intelligence agencies who have been exposed in recent years have not been contractors, but federal employees. I happen to be a contractor with a clearance myself, but it seems to me these questions are germane to the points at issue.
The authors claim that contractors are more expensive than federal employees. However, if that’s true, it’s only true on the basis of a head-to-head salary comparison. It doesn’t count the generous pensions and health care benefits that feds get when they retire, all of which must be paid for by the taxpayers in the same coin. It also doesn’t count the fact that, while feds who don’t pull their weight are almost impossible to fire, contractors can be and are dismissed at a word from the federal officials who support them. The author’s revelation that the firms providing contractors to government are actually in business to make a profit may be shocking to the editors of the Washington Post, but it hardly proves that contractors are more expensive or less effective than federal employees at performing their jobs.
The final article in the series, entitled “The Secrets Next Door,” is the most puerile of the lot, containing such silly stuff as,
Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by concrete cylinders, it is an access point to a government cable. “TS/SCI” whispers an official, the abbreviations for “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information” – and that means few people are allowed to know what information the cable transmits.
From this one can only assume that the official in question was grossly imposing on the author’s credulity. One Jeani Burns, “who lives in the Fort Meade cluster,” is quoted as saying about top-secret workers,
I can spot them. They have a haunted look, like they’re afraid someone is going to ask them something abot themselves.
Guess I’d better take a better look in the mirror to see if I can pick out that “haunted look.” Stuff like this does not leave one with a high opinion of the intellectual calibre of the rubes who still read the Wapo. That’s not to say the author’s should loose heart. They may score a Pulitzer yet. After all, they’ve been awarded for stuff that was a lot worse.
UPDATE: From Stewart Baker at The Volokh Conspiracy, “If there’s no big story to write, and the database puts readers to sleep, why did the Post spend scarce resources on these things at a time when newspapers are in desperate shape?” According to his theory, it was part of a complicated scheme to carve out market share. It seems to me Stewart is over-analyzing this. I suspect it’s more likely the editors at the WaPo are simply dinosaurs who haven’t noticed the meteor has landed.