Jul 20, 2010

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin discuss the second part of their two-year investigation into the growth of the top secret world that the U.S. government created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as public reaction and reaction from the intelligence community

thanks for joining us today. bill is doing a tele interview and will join us shortly. let's begin though. lots happening today..

Did wikileaks play a role in this investigation at all?

no! and i only took this question first because it's short. pls try to keep the questions short.....i see really, really long ones in the queue.

How did you get into the offices and conferences without 'Top-Secret' clearances? If I was a 'security' contractor and found a journalist in my offices, I'd make them disappear. So, how did you get access? Did you hire people from these mercenary companies to infiltrate each other?

ha. ha. You didn't need a clearance to get into the  Phoenix conference. I didn't go into any facility where 1-they didn't invite me, or 2-you needed a clearance. DOD allowed me into the national military command center. it was awesome. i met Eric Saar there.

I haven't had the time to read much of the article, but given the huge amount of 'secret' info, is there anyone (or organization) responsible for making sure that these are actually secrets worth keeping?

when you read it you will see there is no secret information in there, or very very little,,,,i have to run off for three mins to do a bloomberg spot....be right back

The last I heard, 10 years ago or more, the backlog for background investigations was 600,000. What is the backlog now?

i'm back. the backlog is shrunk considerably. i don't have the figures now but i think the wait is more like three months on average if you are in the defense department system. as you know, the nsa, cia and others have their own systems. 

The first article has the premise that "There are a lot of new people doing intelligence work, who work for companies rather than the U.S. Government. What reason do we have to believe that the U.S. Government and it's agencies are any more amenable to oversight and enforcement of laws than the contractors are?

because they fall under federal law and government regulation and their doings are relatively more accessible than those of private companies who are not. public companies must disclose some info to shareholders, but not private ones.

The data are fascinating, though I assume more details are not available because of the classification issues. But my question in: how many interns did it take to compile that database? How many man-hours of labor did that represent?

we did hold back many details, not because they were classified because, for all we know, they were not.  but for general public safety reasons.  Bill Arkin put together the data base....it took years.

What is The Washington Post's ad policy for this project? At present the project simultaneously investigates government contractors while promoting their ads. Addendum: If you are using a third party prone to ignoring context like DoubleClick (owned by Google), I have to wonder that you haven't taken a more active role in your advertising, especially in terms of this investigative report. For example, would you consider the following occurrence [screencap] to be a conflict of interest?  Thank you, @JSto

I don't have a clue about our advertising policies and i hope i never do.

I am a bit intimidated here. Being just a regular unemployed Joe, there is so much that I don't understand. That having been said. I AM PISSED OFF. I barely can afford to put food in the fridge yet my government is overlapping intelligence services to the tune of an amount of money that I cannot even fathom. If less than a fraction of a fraction of that money were given back to the people who paid their taxes year after year,(We just let them take it. They don't ask us they just take it and we say well NOTHING ) I want my money back! I am truly grateful for the great minds that produce systems to keep us safe. But we schmucks that have funded it are deciding now whether or not to pay the electric bill or the 8 year old car repair? The overlapping of services is unacceptable when we the people are funding it and are hungry. I always knew there were things done in secret for the security of the nation. But if potential great minds are not eating or being educated, because there isn't any money for it, then God help us all.

no reasons to be shy. i hate to say it, but wait until you see tomorrow' s story. it makes your point .

As I read this article, it does NOT necessarily say that the development of private contractors, or even our reliance upon them, is a bad thing. The mixture of public and private to create new and innovative ways to attack our problems appears necessary. How can this partnership become rationalized in the public interest, save money, and avoid waste and abuse? Are waste and abuse necessary components of public/private partnerships?

there definitely could be a balance. innovation is such the realm of the private sector as you say. the problem with the current situation is that the USG relies on contractors (paid double) to do the same work--not better work, not genius work, not groundbreaking work--but most the same work as government folks.

Hello everyone.  This is Bill Arkin.  I've just come out of the Studio doing an NPR interview with "Here and Now," but now I'm here.

Excellent work. I know that the Department of Home Land Security was the first government department to emerge post 9/11 but for the most part hasn't "Top Secret America" been known since President Eisenhower's Farewell Address? I'm also curious if you believe there is anything to be uncovered regarding the various Think Tanks and 501(c)3 non profit organizations like 'Project for A New American Century' for example, and their relationship, if any, with 'Top Secret America'.

I think this is a fabulous question and also one for us to ponder about the Military Industrial Complex.  What our investigation shows is that this is hardly an industrial complex anymore.  Of the 1931 companies doing this work, almost half are IT companies and the majority are providing "services" and not goods, that is, they are producing paper, so it's just not Eisenhower's MIC anymore, but it is something else.

Why is your map so confusing? Why not have the name of the company AND of the government office or agency clickable? We have all these blue and red dots, with NO IDEA what they are? Very confusing.

red are for contractors. blue are for gov orgs. we decided not to be explicit about what each gov dot is for security reasons. and we decided to move all dots to the closest city rather than the exact address, for the same. sorry. the exception are the headquarters, which are well known. i know that's frustrating but we were trying to strike a balance.

I have read some about Mr. Arkin. Is there an agenda in this project beyond the facts? A personal agenda by the writers?

I have read some about this guy too, and all I can say is that I don't decide what goes into the newspaper.  And thank goodness.  The series speaks for itself.  No one in government as far as I know is disputing anything about the merits of our story.   So, the answer is no, there is no "agenda" here other than informing the American public about where it's money is going.  I think we've struck a really good balance between information and our interest in the national security.

Your article today both hits and misses. It's true that contractors may be getting paid more than military or DoD Civilians. But many of us aren't doing it because of the money. We're retired military who want to keep helping. And, we bring a lot of knowledge that isn't present in the military or government civilian work force. When I retired becoming a DoD Civilian meant giving up a large percentage of my retired pay. That's not true now, but it made the decision to go to industry very easy. And look at the government hiring process. It's anything but easy and responsive as you point out. See anything of substance being done to fix that. A few years ago I offered to come back to the government but it was too hard to do. If you want to fix these problems make hiring easier and faster, keep salaries competitive and the government will get folks. Right now I have 20+ years of military experience and 15+ years as a contractor working for the military. Tell me how the government is going to replicate that?

you make good points. i referred briefly--and with CIA director Panetta's quote--to these issues. The byproduct of such great private sector salaries is the government can't compete to keep you in.  changing that (raising salaries) is always so political unless you are still in uniform.

Thus far, I've seen no mention of the cost of gaining a top-secret clearance for each person who has one. In 1986 or so, the cost was $60,000 (or so I was told) for a single investigation required to determine whether a person could receive that classification.

In this information age, the cost has certainly gone down (I think the figure is about $6000.00 per background investigation.   But it is also the case that the cost is double what it is for people to be granted a MERE secret clearance.  So spending double should be something that people look at closely.

This series is blurring the line for me between spy and journalist. What is the purpose of this "series"? What do I, a private citizen, gain from this knowledge? If anything, you leave me with a sense of insecurity. And about redundancy--isn't a lack of redundancy the reason we are having this BP problem? When the stakes are high, redundancy is good. I find the publication of this "research" irresponsible.

big difference. spies steal, cheat and bribe, among other things. we just looked at loads and loads of publicly available records, walked the streets of TopSecret America and talked to hundreds of people will to help because they, too, had some concerns. maybe you should read it again???

To me, this reads as a somewhat cynical indictment of federal contracting in general, but I'm not sure what's so new here. I'd like to draw a parallel to the space race, where an unprecedented amount of funding - too much for the government alone to spend - was successfully applied to the vision of putting a man on the moon. Nearly every piece of the moon rockets, including the Grumman-built lunar lander, was built by contractors under secrecy. So, in lieu of sharing quantifiable intelligence success metrics (which will never happen in public) instead of a very visible flag on the moon, how is what you're describing any different?

I for one am not personally pro- or anti-industry.  But I think that it is clear that when we speak of the private sector, the interests are in profit for the company and not efficiency for the government.  We have lots of people telling us this, including the Secretary of Defense and the CIA director -- on the record.

Dana and Bill, if you each could make one concrete change within the intelligence community, what would it be? Or is even this question the wrong way to approach the spiraling situation of our intelligence community?

Personal opinion?   Parsimony is the greatest route to effectiveness.   Freeze the budget, hell, find out the budget, and then start cutting.  The mission will continue to be fulfilled; the only thing the bureaucracy responds to is money.

Spending on "security" is especially difficult to control because there's an intrinsic "more is better" philosophy. Inevitably this just makes the ties between Congress and the contractors stronger. What kinds of institutions need be created to review security spending effectively and reduce duplication and waste? Obviously the created of the Department of Homeland Security and the office of the DNI has done nothing to corral this beast.

I don't think that there's a more is better philosophy, there's a less is worse philosophy.  That's an important distinction.  No one wants to be the first to cut a program if the results are going to be the inevitable terrorist attack (small scale or large), so there's little incentive to cut things.

Are there lobbying prohibitions or restrictions for contractors doing intelligence work? How can we (the public) be sure that contractors are not influencing policy?

well, this is difficult. while companies need to file lobbying records for most things they lobby congress and the executive branch about, if it's something in the classified intel annexes, then they don't.

Turns out that joke from yesterday's chat was copy and pasted from the twitter account of Ezra Klein.

@Neil_Irwin tweet

@ezraklein response

@Neil_Irwin response

Come on chatters! We expect you all to be original.

I recall that you quoted someone, in today's article, who said contractors cost 25% more than USG employees. Can you provide the average dollar figures for both? I assume the figures are all inclusive; including pensions, benefits, contractor overhead etc. Did you notice that when USG agencies hire contractors, they frequently pay for more qualified people than they actually get? By that I mean that the individuals who fill positions often don't have the skills and qualifications described in the job description, but both the contractor and the USG agency pretend they are fully qualified and the company gets paid the full price. Very profitable for the company. There are far more checks and balances in the hiring process for USG direct-hire positions than for hiring contractors, so agencies are not nearly as apt to have severely under-qualified people in direct-hire positions.

the average figure i've seen is 125,000 v 250,000 including benefits

Ms. Priest and Mr. Arkin: I'm sure you'll come under a tremendous amount of criticism for this series, mostly from people with vested interests in the form of money or power who feel threatened by it - but as someone inside the system you describe, who knows enough to know how refreshingly coherent this portrayal is - let me just say thank you. I feel proud to live in a country where this series can see the light of day, and am so pleased to see this in print. Sunshine is always the best disinfectant, and make no mistake, we're infected. The serious questions raised by these articles have been swept under the rug for too long. You, and the Post, should be proud of this series - especially since few journalists would have ever gotten the access to senior leadership that validates the painstaking research.

thank you...i'll just pass this along to readers

Your article hits on a good point: that Defense Contractors are "chasing the money." However, what would you have the government do? If a government agency can't find the skill-set they need with a current employee, and it is mission critical, what is the solution? The time and money spent to train the government employee may not be available, whereas a contractor can fill that gap right away; so it's a win-win. Look, if the mission succeeds, why does it matter whether the analyst is a private contractor, or a government employee?

If we were talking what had been built in 2002, I would be less concerned with the state of things.  There is no question that the government had to "surge" quickly after 9/11 and that it had to turn to the private sector for help.  But 10 years later, the same panic and ad hockery has continued virtually without regulation.  So "what" government should do is more about the American people taking a breather from 9/11 and reassessing.

I work for the private sector and analyze government contracts and spending as my daily job. There exists no public database of classified contracts, i.e. contracts whose existence is classified. There does exist a large database of non-classified contracts, the work under which requires security clearances. Would you please specify the data source(s) you used to build your "top secret contracts" database? If it is just FPDS, did you simply assume that any contract for an IC customer was classified at the TOP SECRET level? And if you used FPDS or one of its derivatives (USASpending.gov, etc.) then you are missing a huge world of "black" contracting. Thank you.

While we cannot go into our exact methodology, you are right, we are missing the truely black programs.

It isn't just a surplus of funding and a sluggish procurement system that encourages a dependence on contractors. With many agencies, and especially the military, federal employees are expected to rotate positions every two years or so. Contractors provide technical expertise that comes from sticking with an area for many years, as well as continuity and "corporate memory."

passing this along as a good thought

After reading the article it seems that you are criticizing this "niche" industry for growth during a recession, as if that's necessarily a bad thing. The largest criticism the public has about government these days is the lack of job creation: yet here you are presenting a scenario that paints the opposite picture; a beacon of job creation. Hundreds of thousands of professionals given new jobs who have families to feed. Why is this painted in such a negative light within your article?

I don't think that counter-terrorism was meant to be a jobs program. 

I'm all for national security, but when those who are entrusted to safeguard it have an incentive to have things be just the way they are  or even can benefit from inflating the nature of the threat, there is something wrong.

The map is engaging, but difficult to extract information from... Specifically, if I zoom to a location and see government or company locations it would be informative for the user if they could ID a site to obtain the details. Is your group under some restrictions when it comes to disseminating this information?

see above. we are not "under restrictions" by someone else. we choose what it was prudent to publish.  

Hello, I was curious about the blacklash from other journalists who say that they and others have basically done the same story years ago. They being upset because there is no mention of their work and even if you didn't use their research, you can't deny you weren't the first to take up this subject. Also why did it take the Washington Post so long to write this story? It's not exactly "news" if this has been going on for close to a decade as well as not advancing the story beyond that was already printed in other publications.

I've seen some of this criticism.   There is no doubt that other journalists have been writing about this as well;  indeed Dana and I have been writing about this for years.   But what's been done here, a two-year long investigation and a comprehensive look at the entire government national security structure since 9/11, that's not been done before.   (And I welcome more reporting on matters of national security.  Really)

Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Dana Priest? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for detainees and curse the Marines; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that their deaths, while tragic, probably saved lives and that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use them as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man or woman who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said "thank you," and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post. I guarantee your "moderators" won't post this.

oh why not....

You don't talk about the resentments in the offices where contractors and govt employees are side-by-side. I hear the contractors complaining about the govt employees who can't be fired, get fat benefits and don't do any work. I hear the govt employees complaining about the overpaid contractors who perpetuate padded contracts rather than finish anything. What did your reporting find?

we did not dig into that in this series but thanks for your thoughts 

I think maybe you all wouldn't be so critical if you realized (or had the clearance to know!) that there are many successes in the community and all you have done is shown ignorance. Contractors are a necessity. You claim that they are more expensive then government employees. I could agree with you if your statistic is based on one year. However, contractors do not get gov't pensions and are not able to keep positions if entirely incompetent (like gov't). The tax payer ends up putting more money toward a gov't employee than a contractor over long term. Contractors are necessary.

I don't think we see that contractors aren't necessary.  In fact, I don't think we draw any judgments whatsoever in the articles.  The data speaks for itself: This is the way it is.   Whether they are cheaper, even in this year terms, is open to debate.  And certainly HOW we want to govern ourselves and preserve our national security isn't a matter of money; we should pay whatever is necessary.  The question is whether it is necessary, and whether it is being done most efficiently.

How many agencies/activities do you think have opened files on you since your work on 'Top Secret America" began? What are your reactions?

for what? many many government officials have known for over a year the subjects we have been probing. many many government agencies hosted my visit. I've toured and been given briefings by at least 20 intel units, most of them in the dod. 

Thanks so much everyone for joining us today!   Sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions.  See you tomorrow and see you at topsecretamerica.com

Bill Arkin

Is there any chance this pseudo-industry, an unregulated intelligence community, is already (or will become) too big to let fail? That would mean that it's in our economic interest to be continually at war.

well we certainly don't want the intel community to fail. we want it to get better.

Last time I checked cutting funding to the IC gave us this thing called 9-11. I rather have too much spending than not enough.

another viewpoint

Are you getting interest from congressional oversight committees on using this data for some serious reorganization/cutbacks?

yes, but they only get what we publish for readers

thanks for joining us. come back tomorrow.

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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