The troubled Washington Post still has some punch. On Monday morning, it unveiled a series on the growing and expensive post-9/11 intelligence system. The opening paragraph of the opening article was a knockout:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
The story makes a critical point: This dark bureaucracy is beyond control. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the paper, “There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that—not just for the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense —is a challenge.” And senior Pentagon officials who have access to these programs—they’re called “Super Users”—told the Post they cannot keep up with all the secrets. One of them:
recounted that for 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.
“I wasn’t remembering any of it,” he said.
Bottom line: this gigantic black network of government agencies and private contractors is not coordinated. So there’s no way to know if the system is operating effectively. Retired Army Lt. General John Vines, who last year reviewed the Pentagon’s method for tracking its most sensitive programs, said of this system, “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.” The series notes that the various agencies and programs produce far too much redundant and overlapping intelligence that clogs the system—meaning important intelligence is either not produced or is lost in the wash. This was the precisely the problem with intelligence before 9/11. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars since then has not redressed this fundamental flaw.
This conclusion may not be a shocker. But the Post deserves kudos for seriously assessing what it calls the fourth branch of government—which the series dubs, “Top Secret America”—and for plodding through all the data. This is mainstream media reporting at its best. The Post unleashed two of its top reporters—Dana Priest and William Arkin—on this project for two years. They found not scandal, but something worse: an out-of-control system. It’s a mess—wasting money and time. (The series comes with impressive interactive features: a searchable map of Top Secret America, a searchable list of private contractors, a fun-to-play-with wire diagram of the “top secret network of government and its contractors.” But I wonder how many average readers will flock to these gee-whiz features.)
The big question is, will the Post‘s effort have an impact? The administration and the intelligence community were bracing themselves for the series. The issue is how to reorganize the already-reorganized intelligence system—especially when it seems no one is truly in charge.
A few days ago, former New York Times reporter Stephen Engelberg—now managing editor of ProPublica—wrote that reporters should be asking “fundamental questions” about the intelligence business. Particularly this one: “Is this sort of espionage in which nations try to recruit each other’s citizens really worth all the bother?” He was referring to the Russian spies (including flame-haired Anna Chapman) recently caught in the US. But Priest and Arkin have one-upped his challenge by asking: Is the expanding post-9/11 intelligence system functioning as it should? The answer is a clear “No.”