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Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

A decade of terrorism warnings about possible attacks in the United States has convinced us that we have much to fear.

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One reason America is stuck at Yellow Alert — “Significant Risk” of terrorist attack accompanied by no specific information — and stuck with such an enormous complex of organizations and agencies trying to defend the country is that being wrong is too costly for politicians in Washington. “Who wants to be the guy that says we don’t need this anymore and then three weeks later something happens?” asked Obama national security adviser James Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps. “I don’t think you can ever get it back” to a smaller size.

We believe the primary reason for this is that the government has still not engaged the American people in an honest conversation about terrorism and the appropriate U.S. response to it. We hope our book will promote one.

Many people in the intelligence community wish this book were not being published at all. Before publishing our initial series on Top Secret America in the Washington Post in July 2010, we showed the government a database of government organizations and private companies working at the top secret level, assembled over several years as part of our research. We described how the data had been culled from publicly available information, and asked to hear any national security concerns. After detailed discussions with most of the sixteen agencies of the intelligence community, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is supposed to lead those agencies, returned with a surprising request: don’t publish the database. It might harm national security, we were told. The office declined to offer specifics and issued a warning to contractors about the impending publication of the series. The Post, meanwhile, had already begun to identify possible national security issues, and executive editor Marcus Brauchli ordered appropriate changes.

We are grateful to Little, Brown for allowing us to put this case before readers in much greater detail.

Despite all the unauthorized disclosures of classified information and programs in scores of articles since September 11, 2001, our military and intelligence sources cannot think of an instance in which security has been seriously damaged by the release of information. On the contrary, much harm has been done to the counterterrorism effort itself, and to the American economy and U.S. strategic goals, by allowing the government to operate in the dark, by continuing to dole out taxpayer money to programs that have no value and to employees, many of them private contractors, who are making no significant contribution to the country’s safety. Allowing outsiders like us to signal shortcomings is one of the great protections the U.S. Constitution gives to the media.

Calling the reaction to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack a “war” ensured that the government could justify classifying everything associated with fighting it. Under President George Bush, journalists’ efforts to figure out how the United States was waging this war against al-Qaeda were often criticized by senior administration leaders, members of Congress, cable television pundits, even the public. Many of those journalists hoped that would change under the presidency of Barack Obama. It is true the president and his cabinet members have not publicly disparaged the news media as much as his predecessor did. But behind the scenes, the situation is actually much worse. President Obama’s Justice Department has taken a more aggressive tack against the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by pursuing more so-called leak investigations than the Bush administration. Recent indictments were issued against a former CIA employee who allegedly talked to book author James Risen, a New York Times reporter, about a botched attempt to slip faulty nuclear plans to Iran; and a former National Security Agency official, Thomas Drake, who helped a Baltimore Sun reporter detail the waste of billions of dollars at his agency. In early June 2011, the government was forced to offer Drake a deal because its lawyers said they did not want to reveal classified information related to the case in court. Drake accepted the prosecution’s offer to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor of misusing a government computer to provide information to an unauthorized person. He is expected to serve no prison time. Then there is the case of former Justice Department official Thomas Tamm. In August 2007, eighteen FBI agents, some with their guns drawn, burst into his home with only his wife and children present, to raid his files during an investigation into his alleged role in helping the New York Times develop its seminal warrantless surveillance story in 2004. The government dropped his case nearly four years later, in April 2011, after Tamm’s career had been ruined and he faced financial peril.

 
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