Post Investigation: Top Secret America

Dec 20, 2010

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin will be online to chat about the latest installment in their Post investigation, Top Secret America.

This might be a bit of an oversimplification, but this is my general theory based on what I have read about our homeland security efforts. It seems good ideas are taken from key administrators and then created as easily as possibly in the implementation stage. We joke that we have homeland security according to the lowest bidder, but I think it is more than that. I believe we need to do more to scrutinize our efforts and assessing how much protection they actually are adding and redesigning to make our efforts more effective.

Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us. It's been a while. Measuring what works and what does not is a key question here. Does it really help to solicit tips from everywhere and then weed through them, or to have a more focused approach. In general the government has not done a good job evaluating the large number of programs out there. As money becomes tighter, this might happen more. We'll see. 

Are there laws that specifically authorize this intensive data-mining? Or are the authorities just doing this because they can? Are they violating any existing laws regarding privacy, probable cause etc.? Also, is there any way someone can see what the authorities have/think they have on him, the way they can review their own credit reports? How much of this cross-referenced data is simply wrong: confusion about similar names, changed addresses, warrants canceled, etc.? Anybody who reviews his own credit report finds factual errors; an error in police files could result in a false arrest or much worse.

The government will tell you that the Patriot Act and amendments to it, gives them the right to do all this. Civil liberties experts say they are chipping away at the Privacy Act inappropriately. Both sides will also differ on why, in fact, the "probably cause" bar has been lowered to do this kind of data collection. It's a debate about the legal interpretation of post 9/11 rules for the most part. 

Hello Dana. Are America's railroad enthusiasts, airplane watchers, model rocket builders, model airplane pilots, amateur radio operators, inventors, technology photographers, etc., now going to be placed into Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) files because they have a strong curiosity and enthusiasm for technology and infrastructure? I am a photographer myself and I have taken photos and movies of trains and aircraft over the years as have many other enthusiasts. So am I in one of these files? What is happening to our freedom and privacy? What will happen to American technology when people are scared away from technological interests, activities and hobbies?

Probably. this is an area thick with problems. my best advice is to carry some proof that you are a member of some kind of enthusiasts group and if you see a policeman or someone else watching you, go talk to him/her. Putting people like you in the database wastes everyone's time.

In your article, you mention two experts who claim that the majority of Muslims in the U.S. want to impose Sharia law. This seems wildly inaccurate and prejudicial. Given the political environment these days (Texas passing a law that Sharia law can't be considered in the courts, Rep. King wanting to hold hearings into Radicalization of Muslims in America) how much of this opinion is accurate and how much is inflammatory? I could see a lot of issues rising from this attitude and a lot of civil rights being violated.

We have only begun to see this strain of thinking. We will see much more of it.

What does the screening process entail for hiring the "trainers" considered inaccurate and counterproductive?

There is no screening process. State and local law enforcement can hire whomever they like really. The betters one are consulting with the FBI but that doesn't happen all the time, as you can see

I live in Berlin and I feel that I am always being watched. Today I was buying some sausage at the market hall and I swear there were cameras embedded in the cheese from south Germany. Is this historical paranoia or is the reach and technology of the government so vast that somewhere, in some database, there is a record of the fact that I did not in fact work today? Miss Priest, I've always counted on you and I can say that many other readers here in greater Europe do as well. Your dogged reporting is most appreciated.

Paranoia. Get back to work!

During your research did you come across any sensitive information that you decided not to publish? Thank you for taking the time to answer questions.

yes, one thing. 

If you compare the lifetime risk of dying in a: car accident 1 in 83. murder 1 in 210. walk across the street 1 in 625. drowning 1 in 1,100. 1 airline bomb/year 1 in 1300. struck by lightning 1 in 80,000. hit by asteroid 1 in 200,000. Then spending $85M to buy 500 airport full body scanners at $170,000 each is just crazy: Source.

Philip Mudd, the former CIA and FBI official quoted in the story makes the same case. And he prefers to call terrorists, criminals. And to deflate the entire conversation so as not to make them feel so powerful and not to egg us all on to overreact every time something almost-but doesn't, happen.

You mentioned Pennsylvania briefly in your article, but that caused real outrage here a few months ago. To the governor's credit, he put an end to the reports immediately, and the state police and attorney general both said the info was worthless (one example: bombing of a local train line in India was linked to an upcoming upgrade of train tracks in PA!!!!). I hope other states' investigative newspapers take on the state/local homeland security monitoring -- it seems like any form of peaceful protest is now suspect.

I agree. Newspapers have been digging up instances of state police abuse in this area for several years now. I hope that continues because it seems the only way to bring it out into the open. We're hoping that the online state-heavy emphasis to this story will prompt journalists who have written such stories to post them on our facebook site.

Why are we spending tens of billions on intelligence and survellience yet almost all the alleged terrorist attacks that are being uncovered are FBI set-ups where the suspect has no bomb or terrorist training and the FBI informant was the instigator? The most recent threat to the Metro system was based on Facebook posts. Maybe we should just skip the billion dollar NRO satellites and just pay people to read Facebook.

I would bet you that money it's already happening.

How come you didn't name/identify the agencies and their locations? Will be useful since I'm looking for a job. Thanks

did you check online? lots of info there, and city-state locations

I wonder if Americans' displeasure with the government accumulating so much information about them in secret (though accumulating info about OTHER people in secret might be okay) leads some to feel more sympathetic to the massive leaks by WikiLeaks. Though the documents leaked by WikiLeaks don't have to do with domestic intelligence, and were leaked on a wholesale basis (i.e., no selective examination of what should be made public and what shouldn't, just a wholesale release of 250,000 documents without examination of each one), mightn't some people just say "everything should be public"? I still don't detect any widespread move to repeal the Patriot Act, as long as it's used only against other people, not you and me (well, at least not me).

Don't know if there's a correlation. I do know, from personal experience, that government officials sometimes feel more willing to talk when the internal review process doesn't work at all, and when whatever it is they are concerned about seems, to them at least, to be a big deal.

Is the current government hysteria over terrorism equivalent to the 1950s hysteria over Communists everywhere? Will it ever end?

People have made the comparison. But I think there's another factor here that wasn't present in the 1950s: The public's expectation that the government can, and must, stop the next attack at all cost. Even if it's a tiny one and no one gets hurt.  This means the government has to do everything possible, which is a lot. Because we have never had a rational discussion about this, about the risks versus costs, this paradym remains and government officials have nightmares of being called to testify in congress when something goes amiss.

The Nashville Tennessean did an article on "experts" making lots of money, including payments from government, for - essentially - spreading fear about Muslims. To what extent does the federal government rely on these outside consultants on terrorism matters?

Thank you. Can you post this also on our Facebook page? The feds are supposed to know better and I think, for the most part, they do. Although sometimes I wonder about the FBI. I think there is a range of opinion at the bureau, once you leave the counterterrorism section. The problem is at the state and local level.

In Sept 2010, it was reported that the National Geospatial Agency would complete its move out of Sangamore Rd in Bethesda before Sept 30, 2011 and that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was approved by the U.S. Army in June 2009 to relocate to the Sangamore Road base, according to a memo released by U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr.'s office in May (2010). The office, headquartered in Tysons Corner, Va., has not committed to moving to Bethesda and will not make a decision until a feasibility study is completed, said spokesman Michael Birmingham. That study is due later this fall, he said. Was the study completed? Has a decision been made? Will part of Liberty Crossing move? Will Sangamore become an intelligence community campus?

Sorry I don't know the answer to this. Maybe someone reading will know. If you are out there, come chat.

It seems our security network gets a little more extensive every year, even when no new major terror attacks succeed, and the trend doesn't seem to have stopped when the presidency changed hands. I'm not aware of any cases of a new security program being rolled back after it got started. And the 'war on terror' doesn't seem like something which can ever possibly end, since the abstract threat of 'there are bad people in the world' will always be there. Plus it already seems that there are now whole DHS-centered industries out there lobbying for more security for its own sake. Where will this leave the country in 10, 20, 30 years? Is an ever-expanding surveillance state inevitable?

A couple of things have been shelved--like a multi-billion stealth satellite program that never worked-- but overall, I think you are right, and are stating the correct reasons--none of which have to do with hard-nosed national security. If nothing else, commercially available technology is driving us towards a surveillance state.

Your article said that there were some cases, like in Colorado, where fusion centers claim to have actually identified potential terrrorists. Is this widely accepted? Are there many of these cases? Were they examples of identification that only the fusion centers were responsible for?

Colorado helped with Zazi, the Afghan-born resident who wanted to bomb New York. The FBI says they were helpful although they also say it wasn't unique information they produced, and that the bureau probably would have come up with it soon anyway. DHS gave me a list of successes. There were not many related to terrorism. Some of them related to everyday crimes.

I'm not a religious person, however, I feel the Beast metaphor applies. We have created an infrastructure which empowers people at the community level to use covert lethal means on unsuspecting targets. What is to stop them from acting in personal revenge? What about solutions to business competition? It isn't a good thing in my opinion.

I think you are going too far: "covert lethal means" means assassinating people. I don't see that at all.

In your article, you mention two experts who claim that the majority of Muslims in the U.S. want to impose Sharia law. This seems wildly inaccurate and prejudicial. Given the political environment these days (Texas passing a law that Sharia law can't be considered in the courts, Rep. King wanting to hold hearings into Radicalization of Muslims in America) how much of this opinion is accurate and how much is inflammatory? I could see a lot of issues rising from this attitude and a lot of civil rights being violated.

I thought I answered this but it's still in the queue: Neither the FBI, nor intelligence experts believe this view is true. I expect, though, to see the argument surface more and more. I sat in on the legal proceeding in Murfreesboro , Tenn, where several residents were asking a judge to stop a local Muslim community from expanding their mosque and school house. It was like watching the Scopes Monkey trial (also in Tenn) on evolution. One of the complainants' main arguments was that Islam is not a religion. (Hello? Tell that to Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. Really now)

Could the information infrastructure and profiling ultimately overwhelm the bill of rights? On a personal note, I was visited by an agent doing a background check on my son for his job. I did not feel comfortable, and regret not seeking council before agreeing to the interview. I've been able to piece together a few things. My son was not even aware of the background check. After a few months he was edged out of the firm. Then offered a new job, and after a few months edged from that firm. Then again, and again. They must have found something, but we have no idea what. And it seems they have a system whereby as soon as he is employed, it sends some kind of report to the employer. But it is all hidden from us. At least this offers an explanation, but it is only our theory. He has since deleted all social accounts on the internet. We figure maybe a "friend" was the problem. But how does one even begin to parse something like this?

hopefully he was having a background check for a security clearance, not for something less than that. You could try to find out by appealing, if, in fact, he was denied a clearance. Otherwise, not sure. Good luck. His instinct about social media is a good one.

The question becomes how do we stop it? This country bears no resemblance to the open and democratic society I knew before 9-11. All the values we held dear in 1999 when I came for a Hill internship have been turned on their head in the name of security theater. How can we stop these abuses and get these dollars re-directed into Social Security and Medicare, where they were supposed to have been going all along?

I'm not at all this pessimistic  but I think people need to pay attention to what the government is doing. So does the media, and we aren't doing enough of that these days.


Time is up. Thanks for joining me. Dana

In This Chat
Dana Priest
Investigative reporter Dana Priest has been The Washington Post's intelligence, Pentagon and health-care reporter. She has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for public service for "The Other Walter Reed" and the 2006 Pulitzer for beat reporting for her work on CIA secret prisons and counterterrorism operations overseas. She is author of the 2003 book, "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military, (W.W. Norton).
Bill Arkin
William Arkin is a journalist, blogger, and former United States Army soldier.
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