Jul 19, 2010

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin will be online Monday, July 19 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss their two-year investigation into the growth of the top secret world that the U.S. government created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Glad you could join us. We've had lots of reaction to the piece this morning. Hope everyone gets a chance to play around with the database. But for now--let's go. Bill and I will be answering separately and posting as we do. Cheers, Dana

Yes, this part of the Federal Government is big and getting bigger. One of the problems is that since the purpose of these entities isn't to make money there are no spreadsheets to help assess success as there are in private industry. Instead, there are fuzzy perceptions of public safety, and it takes just one failure to undercut those perceptions. And when failures occur, legislation invariably makes things bigger, not smaller. So how, exactly, does one determine when big becomes too big?

Dana here: you can't do if from the outside. You need to examine all programs, determine what's working, really working and what is not. A thorough review. Overlap is one sign that it has indeed gotten too big.  

Please make sure that people realize that the IC is not some autonomous cancer. Everything that is being done is being done in response to specific mandates of Congress. I also hope that it is well understood that the secrecy that permeates so much, and is an acknowledged constraint to communication and efficiency, is also a matter or law. Further since gaining and maintaining a clearance is non-negotiable job requirement, people are loath to do anything that might jeopardize this. The IC is a behemoth, but there are reasons for this and solutions are hard to come by.

Thanks for your comment.  Of course our series is not just about the intelligence community and that is the precise point we make.  The world of counter-terrorism includes uncoordinated and sometimes little known entities of  the military, intelligence community, homeland security, and even civil government.  No one is in charge of it all and Congress hardly has the resources to oversee it all.

One can imagine that over 1,000 entities producing analyses and data would produce more than 1,000,000 documents (electronic and paper) each year. In the project have you folks made an estimate of number of products? Can you imagine the information morass yet to come for those folks who will decide upon declassification when that time comes?

Dana: We tried. Got the number 50,000 for intel reports. Such a flood and so much of the same thing that some people don't bother to read. 

At what point do you think intelligence clearances and covert operations ceases to become an instrument of a representative democracy and more of a shadow government designed to circumvent bureacratic legal entanglements? At what point have we sold democratic ideals for the sake of expediency and to what extent does it become an instrument of a new class of robber barrons competing for millions of dollars in defense contracts under an umbrella of secrecy? Do you think that this is developing a new class of covertly wealthy Americans living both at home and abroad while those that remain to do business in the U.S. are suffering through a major economic recession?

I don't think that any of this is being done intentionally to create the end points you describe, but I completely agree that we need to ask these questions, perhaps more in the form of is our form of government really intending to put so much of our national security in the hands of profil making companies rather than public servants.

When did the idea for this project originate? And is there any significance to why your findings are being published now? Thank you.

A nice question.  Dana and I started working on this together in August 2008, realilzing that we were both struggling with the same question,  that we were looking at something but didn't quite know what.  Something had fundamentally changed since 9/11, we could see that.   It proved to be so big and so secret in its totality, frankly it has just taken us this long to wrap our collective arms and brains around it.

There is some irony here that might be lost on some. This series has been produced by coordinating information gained from the open literature. In the trade, this is called "Open Source Analysis" and, far more than the sexy secret stuff many envision, is where the bulk of the Intelligence Community spends its time. In other words, these reporters have done to the IC quite well what the IC routinely does to other countries and organizations.

You are right Irony, but it is also true that we conducted hundreds upon hundreds of interviews with sources and visited many locations.  So open source is certainly important,  and probably has far too little cachet in the "Top Secret" world of sexier sources.

Please include the salaries these top secret employees earned before they were hired by Booz Allen, SAIC, etc and the quarter million plus the taxpayer pays for them now. The numbers need lots of sunlight and will shock the nation.

ok, good idea. if anyone has more information on it, pls send it along to priestd@washpost.com

How much of this apparatus is needed? How much is the tendency obvious these days of providing employment from the public purse? What in your opinion is the best way to address this chaotic sector and have only those agencies and contracts in place that serve We, The People?

This is certainly the key question.  And we hope that we are creating enough of a foundation for all of us to find the answers.

Why was your article run on Monday and not Sunday? There are many more subscribers for the Sunday edition. Thanks.

Because many more people go to the website on Monday rather than Sunday and this project was designed from the start to be very rich on the web. You should play around with the database to see what I mean.

As an ordinary citizen will we make serious mistakes in our votes or support of candidates when we are missing critical information that has been classified TS? Is some of this TS data merely protecting purely private interests?

As citizens, we are all asked to make important national decision, as in our consent to go to war.  As such, this should certainly be informed consent.  Secrecy, or lack of government transparency in general, is certainly an impediment to achieving the American ideal.

I have just read "Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Explore the Myth of a Free Press" and would like to know how you were able to get the go ahead and support for your investigation into this hot topic? Thank you for your dedication.

Easy. I just asked and they said yes. The notion that we might be able to pull this off was attractive to them, although I have to say this was the most difficult thing I've ever worked on and several times during the two years I wonder whether we would be able to translate what we were seeing into journalism. editors here a committed to investigative work and certainly so are the reporters/

What were your objectives in writing and publishing this article and to what extent did you take operational and personal security and safety into consideration?

The objective was to describe this most important part of the US government, to analyze what we found, to point out the problems. We took operational and personal security into consideration at every step. Notice, for instance, that the story today gives you a sense of what things feel like but usually does not direct you to a specific place. Same with the datatbase. 

Great series -- much need coverage. Your intro used the same language as Trevor Paglen's Blank Spots on the Map, in terms of defining a secret geography for the U.S. top-secret infrastructure. Did his book contribute to your research, and especially to how you framed some of the issues?

I loved Paglen's book and its literary approach.  And any such work that delves into the hidden landscape is inspiration.  But as investigative journalists, we did our own work and collected our own data.  I think the extensive story and the online presentation at topsecretamerica.com shows that.

Considering the complexity of the topic, at what point do you feel as a writer that you got a grasp on how to approach it?

Sometimes I ask myself this question, even after 30 years in the business.  And there is never a clear answer.  But talking to enough people and seeing enough things with your own eyes, and a lot of editors and experts around sure helps.

I'm concerned that the "hidden world" will grow so out of control that it will threaten democracy. As we learned from the Nixon years, it's very tempting for leaders to use that type of apparatus against citizens, to stifle dissent or to harass political opponents. I remember NSA being accused of widespread monitoring of phone conversations as far back as the 1970s. And with the apparatus as unwieldy as you portray, it would seem to be much harder to enforce accountability to citizens. I can easily imagine lower-level managers or contractors abusing these powers for their own agendas.

Obviously that temptation is something we should all be vigilant about and one way for journalists to do that is to continue to try to  write about this world, eventhough it is difficult and eventhough there are prickly security questions involved. if we don't even try because it's tricky, we, as journalists, are abandoning our responsbility. And its a responsibility enshrined in the Constitution---that the free press has a role in checking government.

Why did you cripple your article with such abysmal formatting? I got to page 4 and then abandoned the rest. What a waste.

You should try it in the paper version, maybe that will work better for you.

Granted you're not a historian (unless you are?), but just wondering how the current status of secret information gathering by the federal government compares to other times in American history especially during the Cold War (although I dislike the term "Cold War" since it's a bit too broad)?

One thing is abundantly clear about the current intelligence system.  It dwarfs anything previously in terms of the amount of information collected and processed.  I heard someone in the military say once that ONE Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance mission today uses about the same bandwidth as was used during the entire 1991 Gulf War. 

I see no pratical reason for publishing this information. What in the hell are you folks trying to prove - that you are dumber than the New York TImes and the Pentagon Papers fiasco. You are going to get taken over the coals for this and deservedly. Jack C.

Obviously we disagree. This is exactly what newspapers should be doing everyday: holding government accountable for how they spend our money and what they get for it--without risking national security. This  is what we believe we've done. But welcome to America, where different opinions can be aired with civility.

You cited a few examples of top brass not having access to certain Top Secret information. Who determines who is granted access?

This is a great question.  Sometimes just the clearance itself connotes a "need to know," particularly in the networked world.  But in the compartmented world, specific billets are designated for access to information and in this way whoever owns the billet owns the information and thus the control.  I don't think that this is any specified way, and the evidence shows that again and again key people are left out of the loop on ... shall we say, matters of national security.

Aside from a general comment thanking you for this incredibly important work -- I look forward to reading the next installments -- I just have to send huge kudos to the computer wizards at the Post for the design and accessibility of the article. The color wheel of which agencies do what -- its ease of use and sortability -- is marvelous, for example. Really impressive work, computerized newspapers at their finest. Thank you.

thak you so much. they are such a great group to work with and they worked soooo hard.

I'm curious about why you found it necessary to give landmark info about the location of sites which were obviously aiming to be concealed or inconspicuous. It felt like gratuitous information that didn't add anything to the story, but could potentially jeopardize their security.

As the editor's note explains in the newspaper and online, we went through a months long process of confirming, fact-checking, and double-checking information and its potential harm even before we went through a months-long dialog with the government at the highest levels.   The balance we achieved I think is exactly right for this information age, enough information to convey the story and the bigness "at a granular level" as the editors say, but also information that could not do harm to the national security.

Downside of "Top Secret America": It's watching everything you do. Upside: It doesn't know what it's seeing.

ha ha

Knowing a little about some of the public contracting databases, how were you able to come up with so many companies and, even harder, match them to agencies on top secret contracts? I assume some of these were subcontractors where there is virtually no public info because, up until a recent rule change, the prime contractors were not required to let the government know who the subs were. How'd you guys do it?

Thanks for the compliment.  It took two years, but we were able to figure it out using hundreds of thousands of pieces of information.

Do you have any sense about the scale of expansion overseas? Are we experiencing similar growth in our intelligence community abroad?

Certainly Iraq and Afghanistan dominate in this area and most of the national security activity and contracting is also concentrated in those two countries, but there has also been an expansion into Africa (with the creation of Africa Command) and a greater intelligence and military presence in certain parts of the world.  It's not the Cold War, but the expansion is global, including inside the United States, where much of the most important work is done.

Wow! You just can't help raising the bar can you? :-) Thanks for this extremely important series (can't wait to read the rest). In addition to the seriousness of national security, how do you see the impact/interplay re: political realities and political theater? As an independent it simply adds to my growing deepening despair that the whole system really is now set up for enriching and empowering those with the 'secret keys' to the 'secret clubhouse' and very little is actually about we the people .. it's more of a byproduct. Those with the least power/money and resources will continue to be thrown under the bus by the rich and powerful, on every level. And the People with good intentions simply aren't competent and are very naive. That's how deep my cycnicism runs, mounting these past 25+ years with pure unadulterated disgust. And fear for our national well-being on many levels. That's part of what this article tells me. Too cynical? Again, thank you both for your historically important work on this and other issues!

I hope if I ever become cynical, I will leave for Hawaii or something. No, I'm not cynical. As long as the public can seriously debate  the issues, things can change. I believe journalists play a role in prompting serious discussion about serious issues....and, yes, nice to be back. I have never worked on anything as long as this.

While I'm sure this Live Chat counts and appreciate you both taking the time for it, is there is going to be much promotion for this article? Are you booked on any news programs? Sean Hannity? Rachel Maddow? Are you planning any interviews with other print publications?

I've been running from interview to interview since 5:30 a.m. CBS Evening News will have something tonight, as did NBC and ABC this morning. thanks for your interest.

Your article seems like a blatant attempt at another Pulitzer...lots of opinion sprinkled in with information sliced and diced to seem sensationalistic. The competitive nature of the intelligence community is nothing new to the government. In face, it's the very nature of politics, funding practices, and pork. So why tear apart this function, created to protect and defend? And why publish locations of intelligence operations? Why not just hand a map to our enemies?

We don't publish locations of intelligence operations. We don't even write in detail about intelligence operations. Maybe you should re-read it again.

Who would you say is the member(s) of Congress who most supports this massive surveillance? Who would be on the opposite side and being more against the massive and inefficient system of surveillance? PS Hope you're getting a lot of postive feedback

To me, this is not quite the right question.  It seems to me that while Washington and Congress is awash with special interests, the reality is that absent a clear national security strategy for fighting terrorism, the default is politics, which is to say, that where the bases, projects, emphasis, contracts, etc., get located and where the money goes, is a matter of horse trading and power relationships rather than one that is methodical.  Having said that, there is no denying the fact that the Washngton DC area has been the major beneficiary for the growth since 9/11.  Stay turned for parts 2 and 3 of the series to see this.

Short of another catastrophe - how do we test the information sharing with all of these groups? Is this another case of the $500 hammer?

There are certainly endless cases of $500 hammers, but in this world it is more the problem of $500 million networks.  This is an information-dominated system we have today and there is no question that there is tremendous duplication and expense being "wasted" in this realm.   That's today's gold-plating.

During your extensive research and interviews, did you find any evidence of domestic, and therefore illegal, C.I.A. operations?


So is there an estimate of how much money this all costs?

You know, in the end, we were not able to put a total pricetag to Top Secret America, so opaque is the spending and activity.  The official intelligence budget is $75 billion, but I suspect that actual spending, once one incorporates all elements of the military, homeland security, and civil government is closer to double that amount.

Is there a possibility in the future of one person being in charge of all agencies?

not really in charge-in charge, but managing in a more effective way than is right now being done. There will be much debate about the role of the Director of National Intelligence--whose hearing is tomorrow. DefSec Robert Gates see the position like a committee chairman. he can't tell members how to vote, but he can try to cajole and manage them into a consensus. it's worth mulling over.

Thank you once again for your investigative work. Of those private companies included in your report, are there many comparable to Halliburton, KBR off-shore entities with little accountability?

One of the ironic details we uncovered in our investigation is that many of the "household" named contractors like Halliburton and KBR do little if any Top Secret work.  That should also give you a sense of how small this sector is in comparison to the overall defense sector, but also how much "unclassified" and just secret work is done.

Have attacks been prevented at all because of this top-secret program?

I certainly would hope so. We asked the director of national intelligence for examples that were not already in the media. we received none.

Good Afternoon, Is there anyway for us, regular people, to find out what information the government has about us, why, and what they are doing with it?

Thanks for your question.  By us regular people, if you mean all of us, I think the answer is that we have built a system with the capacity to collect vast amounts of information, and it could be directed (and has been) to evil uses, if we the people are not vigilent.  But do I personally believe that the government surveilled Citizen A on a regular basis?  I don't.

What would be the ideal reaction by the fed to your providing of transparency into TS-America? I.e., is transparency the goal, or could it be to warn, in the likeness of Eisenhower, of the looming security-industrial complex?

Transparency itself is not the goal. The goal is to figure out whether the system is working as it should and to make it better. I cannot get so far inside that I would see these answers. Because this is a classified world, we have to rely on people with appropriate clearances to get that detailed information.

For every one guy that tries to set his pants on fire in a plane, don't you suppose there are 50 threats that didn't materialize because all that intelligence, all those intercepts, all those analysts and all that communication is working? What would you cut back on? Surely money and numbers of people alone aren't an indication that the programs need changing.

Thisis a terrific question, and I hope the answer is yes.   But also at the same time, it isn't just a matter of stopping individuals.  That's the work of security guards and airplane screeners.  We're talking about a far larger problem, of understanding the truth correctly and then finding the most effective (and least costly) way of responding.

The reporting in today's article is impressive. But the length of the article -- it took me 20 minutes to read -- seems excessive for a weekday edition of the paper. Why couldn't today's piece have been four separate articles (on topics such as lack of coordination among agencies, lack of control, and budgetary impact) with an overview piece on the front page? You seem to be engaging in the same practice of burying your readers in minutiae that you criticize in your article!

interesting point. we'll i guess you could wait to finish it in pieces. we wanted to give you a fuller context though. we tried hard to make the writing smooth so it didn't take even longer---now we hope you'll spend you evening playing around in the database where there is even more fun to be had.

Since the intelligence community has a long history of running amok and being reigned in by congressional oversight, do you think the "fourth branch" sort of moves thru cyclical expansion & contraction cycles? Do you detect any interest on the part of Congress to get involved at this time?

Congress just doesn't have the resources to deal with this problem in a comprehensive way.  There are many things that need to be improved in order for Congress to fulfill its obligation to oversee the Executive Branch, but secrecy is certainly the biggest impediment, not just for Congress, but for the news media and the public.  That is why we concentrated on the "most" secret part of the government's work.

Would your work have been possible during the Bush/Cheney administration?

certainly. not much as changed in the national security arena. although, i have to say i don't think donald rumsfeld would have been as open to the implicit criticism as secretary gates was.

Just a comment. It's rather mind boggling when you think that we spent trillions of dollars to bankrupt and bring down the Soviet Union, but Al Quaeda is doing the same thing to us for peanuts!

one of the striking observations we heard that is not in the stories is the concern that our reaction to every near-miss feeds into the enemies' hands. it's worth thinking about.

How do you know most documents go unread?

What we said in the story today is that most intelligence reports -- of which there are thousands daily -- go unread.  We have been told this again and again by our sources and we have seen it again and again in each new potential terorist event.   Everyone is clear: There is just too much information and not enough analysis.

Is the President even able to find out about all of these projects? With subordinates not being able to brief their bosses, can a SAP run-amok do damage with no oversight from even the highest levels?

theoretically yes. the prez can only ask about something he knows to ask about. that's why he needs to rely on staff to bring things to his attention. hence the staff need to have visibility on these sensitive programs.

Intel scholars have been blasting dysfunctional "fire alarm" oversight of the community for decades. When you say something had "fundamentally changed" after 9/11, do you have something in mind beyond the sheer scale?

What has fundamentally changed?  I would say three things:  First, the shift to so many contractors being engaged in matters of national security.  Second, the concentration of power and activity in the United States (rather than overseas) and particularly in the Washington area.  And third, the proliferation of super secrecy and compartmented programs.

Do you realize that a possible impact of your article is the reduction in jobs for both government and private contractors? Do you believe that in today's economy, that cutting jobs in the intelligence and engineering fields that support these efforts is a positive outcome? Out of the 850,000+ employees with clearances at the TS level, how much money do you think goes back into the economy in the form of domestic/commercial consumption?

i don't think this was meant to be a jobs program.

WP has obviously made significant investment in bringing this story to its pages, but how will it make a difference? Will the WP be doing regular follow-up stories on the issue of bringing real responsibility and focus withing the IC community, while at same time reducing redundancy and therefore cost?

A great question.  We've spent two years on this, and the Washington Post has put a lot of resources into it.  This is a question of national security; I'm confident that the Post will not only stick with the story, but I look at new hires at the Washington Post in the national security field, like Greg Miller (from the LA Times) or Greg Jaffe (from the Wall Street Journal) to really demonstrate the Post's commitment to serious journalism, even in these difficult financial times.

Great article, and looking forward to the rest in the series. But what can We, the People do to help combat this problem? It seems so out of our control that simply voting for someone else isn't enough. What can we do to demand accountability and results to help this?

talk to your representatives. write letters to the editor. raise the general dialogue to a thoughtful, in-depth one. can't help you any more than that.

I know the article just appeared today, but has there been any Congressional reaction and might there be hearings soon to examine some of the issues and concerns your articles are raising?

i haven't been following the reaction much. apparently, though, james Clapper's confirmation hearing for the postion of the top intelligence manager is tomorrow. so it could come up then.

IN the end, so much of our society is all about money. How can the DNI really gain control of this huge and inefficient intelligence community and the contractors that suppport it if the DNI in fact does not control the purse strings?

well, i can't.

Having lived in Washington and worked around the business side of the industry, I have never understood why we have so many seperate intelligence agencies. There is a massive amount of duplication of effort to say the least that could be eliminated by consolidating the agences to a more manageable level. Thoughts??

Ah, why do we have so many cars?  It is to some extinct part of the American character.  But in the same organizations to have so many?  We call it the "bling" of national security and sometimes I get the impression that activities are little more than that.

How did you get The Post to fork over the funding for this project? Better yet, where did the funding come from?

they signed on right away, although no one knew it would take so long, me included. the funding came from the washington post co., where all our funding comes from.

First, thank you. I don't believe readers thank journalists enough for writing well-researched articles. How long did this series take to research and, in general, how much work did it take to get all this information?

it took two years of work by two full time reporters who got frustrated at times by how difficult this was, but also by the sheer volume of things out there that we were finding. 

What's the point of hiding Liberty Crossing? Everyone knows where the CIA Headquarters, the NSA Headquarters, the Pentagon, and the DIA Headquarters is located. Hiding the DNI location just seems wrong, as does its use of a political concept (Liberty) in its title. The CIA Headquarter is just the George Bush Center, the NSA Headquarters is Ft. Meade, and the Pentagon is the Pentagon. Liberty Crossing sounds like it contains a political message (but at least they aren't putting it on the graves of soldiers as they are with Operation Iraqi Freedom).

We did not hide Liberty Crossing.  We speak of it being an officially "undisclosed" location.  But we did have a very deliberate internal discussion, and much back and forth with the government, about whether there was any danger associated in describing any individual location.  In the end, I'm confident that the Post struck a comfortable balance between information the public and not jeopardizing public safety (or interests).

Great article but who is in charge of all this secrecy? I mean who it at the top?

The President. And he's got a lot of other things to do.

Is there a breaking point? You've mentioned the unwieldy nature of this whole expansion. Is there something that could suddenly reverse it? What's the likelihood of anything changing? I haven't finished reading the article yet but wanted to ask while I could.

I'll just say, Nothing Says the Same.

Who are the type of people who work in "Top Secret America"? Just bland Ivy League-types like the old Cold War guys or another breed?

This is a great question and we try, in the third part of the series, to answer this question about the "culture" of Top Secret America.  But I'm afraid we've barely touched the surface of this question.  Ivy Leagers  of yesteryear, no?  But what drives the workers outside of government?  I'm not sure.

Can you say something about the Frontline documentary which will air on PBS in October? I noticed at the end of the video there is an email address & phone number for people to provide information for more reporting. What areas do you most want to explore further?

I have the Frontline producer, Mike Kirk, here with me now. Mike? We are determined to tell the story that has been published today and add narrative elements that will vividly take viewers inside Top Secret America.  If you know about important events that have happened, critical decisions taken or refused, we are interested.

thank you mike. (he types slowly doesn't he?)


we have to run now. hope you join us on our blog...which is up now, and will go up with original material on thursday, after everything runs.

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 has been a columnist and reporter with The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com since 1998. He has been working on the subject of government secrecy and national security affairs for over 30 years. He has authored or coauthored more than a dozen books about the U.S. military and national security.
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