Why Top Secret America should be a Pulitzer candidate

Last week, I promised to offer a few reactions to the Washington Post series on "Top Secret America," which deserves to be on everybody’s short list for the Pulitzer Prize. In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncovered the vast expansion of the U.S. "intelligence" industry since 9/11, and ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
David Burnett/Newsmakers
David Burnett/Newsmakers
David Burnett/Newsmakers

Last week, I promised to offer a few reactions to the Washington Post series on "Top Secret America," which deserves to be on everybody's short list for the Pulitzer Prize. In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncovered the vast expansion of the U.S. "intelligence" industry since 9/11, and suggest that this largely-unknown array of secret agencies and private contractors is expensive, frequently unaccountable, often dysfunctional, and nearly impossible to rein in.

Talk about previously "unknown unknowns!"

My first thought, of course, was "Osama wins again!" It's hardly a fresh insight to observe that we've done more damage to ourselves since 9/11 than Osama and his murderous band of misguided criminals ever did, and the Post article suggests that this bloated bureaucratic excess is yet another self-inflicted wound. Not only have we spent billions of dollars that might have been devoted to more constructive purposes, but we seem to have created an intelligence system that may be even less effective than the imperfect one we had before. I can't decide if it's just the intelligence equivalent of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," or maybe a real-world manifestation of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Either way, it ain't good.

Last week, I promised to offer a few reactions to the Washington Post series on "Top Secret America," which deserves to be on everybody’s short list for the Pulitzer Prize. In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncovered the vast expansion of the U.S. "intelligence" industry since 9/11, and suggest that this largely-unknown array of secret agencies and private contractors is expensive, frequently unaccountable, often dysfunctional, and nearly impossible to rein in.

Talk about previously "unknown unknowns!"

My first thought, of course, was "Osama wins again!" It’s hardly a fresh insight to observe that we’ve done more damage to ourselves since 9/11 than Osama and his murderous band of misguided criminals ever did, and the Post article suggests that this bloated bureaucratic excess is yet another self-inflicted wound. Not only have we spent billions of dollars that might have been devoted to more constructive purposes, but we seem to have created an intelligence system that may be even less effective than the imperfect one we had before. I can’t decide if it’s just the intelligence equivalent of the "Sorcerer’s Apprentice," or maybe a real-world manifestation of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Either way, it ain’t good.

One problem, of course, is that the very nature of top-secret agencies makes it very difficult to hold them accountable. If you don’t know how much they actually cost and you don’t know exactly what they are collecting, analyzing, or doing, then there’s no way to do a proper cost-benefit analysis. Although it is our taxes that fund these agencies and our own security that is ultimately at stake, these super-secret agencies are basically saying to all of us: "Trust me!" Some of you may think Congressional oversight is sufficient to deal with this problem, but the track record in the past is disheartening, and Priest and Arkin’s account isn’t reassuring about the current state of affairs. On the contrary, they suggest that the people in charge of these various agencies have at-best imperfect knowledge of what they are actually doing, which makes it hard to believe that the designated Congressional watchdogs are doing their jobs either.

To make matters worse, the system they depict gives the participants (and especially those private contractors) an obvious incentive to hype threats, both to cover their bureaucratic tails and to justify their own existence and profits. Nobody wants to be caught downplaying a possible danger (which would be embarrassing later on), and suggesting that a potential threat might not be that serious is a good way to get your budget cut. As one of the sources quoted by Priest and Arkin put it, the post-9/11 intelligence maze has become a "self-licking ice cream cone," and the overall effect will be to make the world’s most powerful and secure country even more paranoid than before. And when everyone in the system has an incentive to maximize dangers, the whole apparatus gets drowned in more data than it can absorb and assess.

The larger problem, it seems to me, is trying to get better intelligence by throwing billions of dollars at the problem and by recruiting thousands of new analysts is like trying to write Shakespeare by putting a million chimpanzees at computer keyboards and letting them type forever. One of them might eventually produce a decent sonnet, but mostly you’ll get a lot of gibberish that nobody has time to read, vet, or evaluate.

It isn’t the volume of data that we collect that matters, it is the insight, knowledge, analytical ability, and good judgment of the people who are assessing it. I would rather have a relatively small number of very smart, well-trained, and independent-minded people working on critical intelligence problems than hundreds or thousands of inexperienced and poorly-trained "analysts" who were mostly looking to make a buck.

And you may rest assured this problem isn’t going to go away. Conservatives have long complained that government agencies are virtually impossible to kill once they are established (a position for which I have some sympathy), and that means that we are going to be wrestling with this unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth for decades to come. Indeed, as noted above, getting it under control is likely to be even more difficult with other government agencies, because those in charge can classify the information needed to evaluate them properly and thus keep it out of the public eye.

Finally, we shouldn’t lose sight of the taproot of this whole problem. The expansion of "Top Secret America" was a direct response to the 9/11 attacks. As the 9/11 Commission Report and other independent studies have confirmed, the motivation for those attacks was al Qaeda’s anger at America’s entire Middle East policy, including our intimate ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the stationing of U.S. air and ground forces in the Gulf as part of "dual containment," and our unconditional support for Israel. To say this does not excuse what Obama bin Laden and his murderous associates did, of course, it just reminds us that the money we have spent, are spending, and will continue to spend on "Top Secret America" is part of the price we pay for those policies. Some Americans undoubtedly think the price is worth it and that these policies shouldn’t change. Others disagree, and believe that a different approach would help marginalize terrorist organizations, undermine their recruiting ability, and allow the United States to gradually rebuild a positive relationship with many of these societies. Whatever position you take on that issue, the one thing you shouldn’t do is deny that there is a price for our current approach. Thanks to Priest and Arkin, we now know that it’s even bigger than we thought.

Postscript: The Priest and Arkin series also reminds us why we need a large and profitable mainstream media industry. Many bloggers (including me) are quick to criticize mainstream media organizations for their various shortcomings, but we shouldn’t forget that this sort of investigative journalism takes time and money and there are few if any bloggers who could have produced something similar to the Post series. If these organizations succumb to market forces and are not replaced by news organizations with an ethos that prizes truth and sufficient resources to ferret it out, our ability to know what is really going on in the world will be diminished and the informed debate that is essential to democracy will be further imperiled.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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