washington post top secret america story Washington Post Launches Top Secret America

The project in their own words:

“Top Secret America” is a project nearly two years in the making that describes the huge national security buildup in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

When it comes to national security, all too often no expense is spared and few questions are asked – with the result an enterprise so massive that nobody in government has a full understanding of it. It is, as Dana Priest and William M. Arkin have found, ubiquitous, often inefficient and mostly invisible to the people it is meant to protect and who fund it.

The articles in this series and an online database at topsecretamerica.com depict the scope and complexity of the government’s national security program through interactive maps and other graphics. Every data point on the Web site is substantiated by at least two public records.

Because of the nature of this project, we allowed government officials to see the Web site several months ago and asked them to tell us of any specific concerns. They offered none at that time. As the project evolved, we shared the Web site’s revised capabilities. Again, we asked for specific concerns. One government body objected to certain data points on the site and explained why; we removed those items. Another agency objected that the entire Web site could pose a national security risk but declined to offer specific comments.

I suspect the hype around a bunch of open source intelligence framed in spooky videos and flashy graphics is a little overblown. I’ve had little success digging through the site on my own (more on that below) so it’s difficult to say. I’ll be surprised if any significant new information flows from this but the scope of this work and level of contractor involvement may surprise many people and therein lies the risk. The direct national security threat is minimal but the public relations impact is already significant.

I tried to look up my former employer, SAIC, and explore their “top secret relationships” but found only database errors. I’m sure whatever bug or bandwidth issues the site is facing will be resolved soon though. I doubt SAIC is rooting for the Washington Post web team:

Major companies like Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) are said to be worried about a database that Washington Post researchers have compiled linking contractors to the location and function of their contracts. That’s because SAIC performs many classified functions for the government, and at least one intelligence agency occasionally uses SAIC facilities as cover for its own operations. That’s how intermingled the worlds have become.

This intermingling isn’t new, and isn’t just a post 9/11 phenomenon, but that event did (not surprisingly) trigger exponential growth in all directions. Managing this growth is a herculean task but declaring it unmanageable and unworkable is a bit of a stretch. The system presents countless opportunities for reform and improvement but it largely works. It’s easy for critics to point to events like the Times Square bombing attempt but how do they account for what is essentially a tranquil homeland in the face of so many threats?

In a perfect world this would spark productive discussion about how the intelligence community is resourced and managed. What we’ll get though is political grandstanding, conspiracy theories, and potentially another layer of bureaucracy. Of course, another other story could always blow up and shift the public’s attention before this one takes root. Lindsay Lohan, the DNI is counting on you.

The Atlantic Wire has a roundup.


  1. Patience

    I think a person’s stance on this issue will largely come down to how they react to your question– “How do they account for what is essentially a tranquil homeland in the face of so many threats?” Considering how often the Bush and Obama administrations have gone public with the news that they have foiled various terrorist plots, and the minimal amount of funding and expertise that seem to have been necessary in order to put most of these piddling plots together, one wonders if the vast array of agencies and contractors and funding unleashed against transnational terrorism– three Pentagons’ worth of office space, according to their reckoning– has been proportionate to the threat. Terrorist attacks would have a huge effect on our quality of life, of course, but has our intelligence system evolved to prioritize the best ways of uncovering and foiling plots hatched by small bands of terrorists? Or has it simply been a case of each agency redefining its mission to claim that it is indispensable to that problem?

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