Inside Top Secret America
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In July, the Washington Post published the Top Secret America project -- a sweeping portrait of America’s heavily privatized military-corporate-intelligence establishment. Lead reporter Dana Priest calls it the “vast and hidden apparatus of the war on terror.”
Priest, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, described the project as the most challenging investigation of her career. She teamed up with national security journalist William Arkin and a team of about 20 Post staffers to create an “alternative geography” of a hidden world that has exploded since the attacks of 9/11. At last count, the official U.S. intelligence budget stood at $75 billion -- more than two and a half times what it was on September 10, 2001.
The remarkable three-part series ( I, II, III) and its intricate multimedia Web site attracted some initial praise, but just as quickly seemed to drop off the map. This article is an attempt to revisit some of the Priest and Arkin’s most shocking discoveries.
Top Secret America is based on hundreds of interviews with government officials, contractors and independent experts; satellite imagery; government contracts; property records; promotional materials from contractors; photo reconnaissance of suspected intelligence facilities, and more.
To give a sense of the physical layout of Top Secret America, Priest and Arkin plotted government and corporate secret locations on a map.
The reporters also compiled their data in the searchable Top Secret America database (TSA). They found 1,931 intelligence contracting firms doing work classified as “top secret,” for 1,271 government organizations at over 10,000 sites around the country. 533 of the contracting firms were founded after the 9/11 attacks.
About 110 contractors do about 90 percent of the top-secret work. The biggest of the big are household words: Booz Allen Hamilton, L-3 Communications, CSC, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and SAIC.
The TSA database doesn’t include firms that only do merely “secret” work because the reporters found too many to count.
Contractors make up nearly 30 percent of the workforce of America’s intelligence agencies. At the Department of Homeland Security the ratio of contractors to staffers is 50-50. The Post estimates that of the 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors.
The U.S. has become utterly dependent on contractors for basic national security and intelligence functions. The National Reconnaissance Office literally couldn’t launch satellites without contractors. Contractors do everything from recruiting spies to interrogating detainees to processing civil forfeitures in the war on drugs.
CIA director Leon Panetta admitted to the Post that dependence on contractors is a liability because the main duty of corporations "is to their shareholders, and that does present an inherent conflict." As Jeremy Scahill pointed out in the Nation, these reservations didn’t stop Panetta from approving a new $100 million contract with the scandal-plagued private security contractor formerly known as Blackwater.
Over 300 recruiting firms known as “body shops” specialize in hooking the federal government up with private contractors. Industry insiders told the Post they could charge nearly $50,000 per placement.
The higher the security clearance, the more money a contractor makes. Ironically many of these contractors are retired intelligence officers supplementing their federal pensions by moonlighting for the government. The Bush administration justified massive outsourcing by claiming that contractors were ultimately cheaper than federal employees. However, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates admitted to the Post that federal workers cost the government about 25 percent less than contractors.
The series briefly alludes to some high-profile misconduct by contractors including detainee torture at CIA black sites, Blackwater’s civilian-shooting spree, MZM’s bribes to a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee for CIA contracts, and the “lewd-partying scandal” that engulfed ArmorGroup guards at the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. The ArmorGroup guards were the national security geniuses who were busted with photographs they took of themselves taking vodka shots from their comrades’ butt cracks.