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Book Review: Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William Arkin

Published by Little, Brown and Company (2011)
Reviewed by Rabea Benhalim
Friday, June 22, 2012 at 9:20 PM

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State details the institutional expansion of national security in America post-9/11.  The book documents unbridled spending, duplicative organizations, bureaucratic in-fighting and turf wars, and lack of inter- and intra-group communication within government over the course of the last decade.  The book’s summary message? “More isn’t always better.”

Better or not, however, there is definitely more – and more and more.  The reader is left with the distinct impression that Congress’s solution to national security problems has been to just throw more money at them.  This spending has caused both the expansion of agencies existing pre-9/11 and the creation of new agencies post-9/11.  It is this expanded landscape of institutional actors that constitutes what the authors call “Top Secret America.”  Congress ladled out this spending with very little evaluation of the existing pre-9/11 system and similarly little analysis of national security needs post-9/11.  Veteran Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin observe that the only coherently identified needs were, first, greater inter-agency collaboration and communication and, second, mass gathering of all available information.  The authors are skeptical that this was enough on which to base such a massive expansion of bureaucracy.

Moreover, they are critical of what they see as Congress’s overly broad attempts to address national security problems by creating new bureaucratic structures, on the one hand, and its absence in regulating these organizations, on the other.  This is particularly so of cutting edge, pivotal institutions, such as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – the key player, in conjunction with the CIA, in the conduct of America’s emerging form of covert (and semi-covert) operations against non-state terrorists.  In this, Top Secret America implicitly brings together a critique of the inefficient use of resources by a failure of Congressional supervision together with a genuinely normative critique of a failure of oversight in how those resources are used and to what ends in counterterrorism.  In short, Congress has essentially abdicated its role by either handing down overly broad mandates or functionally no regulation of those mandates at all.  It is not only the executive, it turns out, that, since 9/11, has expanded executive power.  Congress has done so, ironically, through its power of the purse.

This expansion, the authors explain, has particularly overflowed into agencies’ expanded use of private security contractors.  The use of private security contractors has a peculiar mismatch in perceptions.  Agencies seem to be operating under the belief that working with the private sector will help control spending – they offer fiscal flexibility and, over the long run, lower cost than the hiring of masses of permanent government workers.  Priest and Arkin make a compelling argument that the reverse is true.  This is partly because contractors are expensive and much more expensive than agencies seem to perceive.  Nor are the efficiency problems with contractors limited to the financial drain they pose.  Contractors also cause a brain drain out of government, as contractors can offer much more money to experienced government employees than the government.  Perhaps most importantly, according to Priest and Arkin, whereas a government employee’s motivation is at least partly to serve the country – it is obvious that in the US military, especially, motives beyond a salary are almost always at work – a contractor’s motivation is, unsurprisingly, to make more money.  Individual actors – ex-military special forces, for example – might reasonably believe that they are just as motivated by service to country as they were in the US government, but the corporation for which they work is not; it responds to profit motives and its shareholders.  Contractors as a whole have an obligation to maximize their revenues – they are incentivized to expand the need for national security services and not merely provide them.

That is on the side of throwing more money at the problem and creating more bureaucratic institutions of national security, public and private.  The belief that more information is better has had its own effects – in particular triggering mass hiring and development of new technologies that have, so far at least, increased the amount of information without especially having increased the quality of its processing and use, at least as Priest and Arkin see it.  More data is gathered, but with the increase in quantity, the analytic quality of the information has deteriorated. Mass hiring done to gather all this data has resulted has more analysts, but they typically are inexperienced and poorly skilled.  The analyses emerging from these analysts’ efforts are often so broad – platitudinous, even – as to often be of no value, and indeed a liability.  The sheer volume presented makes it easy for key pieces of information to be lost in the sea of data.  The information is not only overly broad – at times the data, or the conclusions drawn from it, flat-out incorrect.  “Poison pens” deliberately planted by terrorists being presented as legitimate intelligence are not unknown. The danger of poison pens, of course, is not only the waste of federal resources to follow them, but that they may obfuscate actual terrorist plans.

This expanded information has also affected local government.  On the one hand, federal funds earmarked to tackle terrorism are now being used to combat traffic violations and local crime – essentially a new federal subsidy for what local police already do, by diversion.  But the expansion of Top Secret America into the local level has also meant developing methods by which citizens report on each other.  That’s a civil liberties issue, but even from an institutional counterterrorism standpoint, this reporting has added to the ocean of information officials must try and wade through, with pieces as mundane as an individual taking pictures of ferries being added into the pool.

The intelligence produced by Top Secret America is not only overly broad in its transmission but is often not communicated well either inter- or intra-agency.  The poor communication is in large part attributable to failures in the classification of information.  The regulation of who may and may not see pieces of information lacks coordination and logical organization.  Thus, critical pieces of information may not reach those who would best be able to act upon it.  Even when the information reaches key decision makers, they may not know whom they can coordinate action with, as they don’t know who else has access to the same information.

The authors further demonstrate the absurdity of the classification system by repeatedly presenting a compelling picture of the ease with which an individual with no security clearance may access classified information.  Classifying vast amounts of unnecessary information invites government employees and officials to treat it cavalierly.  And yet, while the degree of secrecy presents redundancy and a lack of communication, the system isn’t secure.  Priest and Arkin call into question the very need for secrecy in many instances, arguing that the system of secrecy has become antiquated and thus a liability to national security.  One has to note, however, that journalists have a professional incentive to disfavor government secrecy; governmental authorities’ interests run the opposite way, of course, but Priest and Arkin are better on the ineffectiveness of the secrecy system, not on the proper balance between secrecy and openness.

The dangers of Top Secret America are not limited to the possibility that the system may miss a threat – Top Secret America policies, in the book’s view, are helping create new terrorists.  For instance, the authors document Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) activities that have directly resulted in increased Al Qaeda recruitment.  The JSOC in particular, the authors argue, has lacked any oversight and evaluation of the efficacy of its actions.  The authors highlight the ways in which the JSOC lacks the problems of other organizations, such as its ability to take quick, decisive actions, but they also argue that its unregulated, wild-west attitude poses a serious threat to strategic policy goals.

The books greatest failure lies in its lack of recommendations for fixing the state of affairs, at which the authors hint, but never directly state – and thus avoids having to take responsibility for counterarguments and skepticism that surely would be pressed against proposals they would make.  The book superbly details the faults in Top Secret America, but begs the question, what in the current system works?  And what should be done in place of the things that apparently don’t work?  Has the system kept America safe, at least in some important respects? The work does not purport to be an academic or policy oriented work; its aims are descriptive, not prescriptive, a journalistic account of the failures of the system.

Still, the book is overall a success.  Priest and Arkin present an impressive breadth of information and organize it into an effective argument that the current regime of national security counterterrorism requires far too much and yields far too little.  For the most part (and with the notable exception of private security contractors, about whom they are skeptical at best), the members of Top Secret America are well-intentioned people seeking to keep America safe in myriad ways.  But though they can see many of the fundamental flaws, they don’t speak out because while it is easy to add a program, a policy, or a new actor, proving that it won’t work means proving a negative and, who knows – maybe it does have some effectiveness in conjunction with other programs of which any individual agent knows little.  For that matter, there is also fear of career reprisal, or they believe they lack the ability to create any change.  Herein lies the greatest danger of Top Secret America – those most intimately involved are keenly aware of the problems, but they don’t possess the ability to fix the system and thus actually secure the nation’s security.

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