The Secrecy Blog of the Federation of American Scientists
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security Stateby Dana Priest, William M. Arkin
The top-secret world that the government created in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks has become so enormous, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs or exactly how many agencies duplicate work being done elsewhere. The result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe may be
The top-secret world that the government created in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks has become so enormous, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs or exactly how many agencies duplicate work being done elsewhere. The result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe may be putting us in greater danger. In TOP SECRET AMERICA, award-winning reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncover the enormous size, shape, mission, and consequences of this invisible universe of over 1,300 government facilities in every state in America; nearly 2,000 outside companies used as contractors; and more than 850,000 people granted "Top Secret" security clearance.
A landmark exposé of a new, secret "Fourth Branch" of American government, TOP SECRET AMERICA is a tour de force of investigative reporting-and a book sure to spark national and international alarm.
The Secrecy Blog of the Federation of American Scientists
A history of the growing national security state and a chronicle of the lack of accountability for national security agencies toward the citizens of the United States. Priest looks at the myriad ways increased security (of which technological surveillance is one piece) fails to live up to its own rhetoric. (LJ 4/15/11)
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Los Angeles Times
The Washington Post
New York Review of Books
Washington City Paper
This is an invaluable book, a breathtaking investigative account of America's vast new secret world...it offers an indispensable guide to anyone who worries about the explosive growth of what the authors call America's terrorism-industrial complex since September 11th....Priest and Arkin explain better than Congress ever has the staggering waste and ineptitude that inevitably has followed."Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times"
Priest and Arkin fully flesh out how the Byzantine security maze actually works, breaking down its components....The authors' arguments are compelling.Lydia DePillis, Washington City Paper"
The book is far more ambitious than was the [Washington Post] series...and makes the team's investigation available in detail to those of us who live beyond the Beltway....Since Priest and Arkin themselves lack security clearances, part of the interest of their book is how they acquired so much secret information."Richard Rhodes, The Washington Post"
Priest and Arkin blow the whistle on how, since 9/11 and the adoption of the Patriot Act, the government and its contractors use classification and security screens to conceal expenditures that have failed to enhance national security...This is an important book."Publishers Weekly
A newsworthy examination demonstrating that U.S. government secrecy is eroding civil liberties, busting the federal budget, contributing to deaths in unauthorized wars and spreading paranoia among large portions of the citizenry.
Washington Post reporters Priest (The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military, 2003) and Arkin (Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, 2007, etc.) published the beginnings of this book as a newspaper series during 2010. The authors are meticulous but angry reporters, openly dismissive of the national-security apparatus begun by the federal and state governments at least 100 years ago, then expanded significantly after 9/11. Although President Obama vowed to curtail the national-security state and overall government secrecy in the wake of the Bush administration, Priest and Arkin demonstrate that the current president has abandoned that vow. They calculate that at least 850,000 individuals inside government and within government contractors have received "top secret" security clearances. Untold hundreds of thousands more individuals are cleared to use and abuse secret but not top-secret information. Priest and Arkin reach the sad but unavoidable conclusion that 9/11, combined with other real and threatened incursions by terrorists, has led to an around-the-clock police state. In addition to compelling anecdotes, the authors cite as examples the regular broadcasts of threat warning levels from the Department of Homeland Security, a culture of fear surrounding discussions of al-Qaeda by politicians and the public and budget-busting measures to protect what is unprotectable or perhaps not even in danger.
A mixture of investigative reporting and advocacy journalism that shines light in dark corners but is ultimately depressing because the authors seem convinced that the paranoia and its dangerous offshoots will never dissipate.
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Top Secret AmericaThe Rise of the New American Security State
By Dana Priest
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Dana Priest
All right reserved.
Top Secret America
Small fires were still smoldering under the rubble of the Pentagon crash site when President George Bush’s senior staff approached Congress for emergency money for cleanup and retaliation. The first request was bolder than anything anyone on Capitol Hill could ever remember receiving: “… and such sums as necessary for an indefinite period of time.” Scott Lilly, then Democratic minority staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, which under law helps Congress decide what executive branch programs to fund and in what amount, likened the first post-9/11 supplemental budget to “a repeal of the Constitution.” While the committee members knew the administration would have to come back to them for more money, in the dazed shock that followed the attacks, no one questioned that a war against al-Qaeda would necessarily involve a massive infusion of funds.
Negotiations were brief, given the nation’s state. Emergency preparations to respond to another attack were under way throughout Washington and it was considered unsafe to be on Capitol Hill, rumored to be the one target al-Qaeda had missed that day. Authorities had quickly simulated what various types of explosives would do to the nation’s most recognizable buildings. In the case of the Capitol, of particular concern were the panes of nineteenth-century glass. One powerful bomb could easily cause three thousand deaths as a result of the shrapnel of flying glass. Other scenarios were just as devastating and prompted the closing of streets around the area.
In a matter of days, a bipartisan group of leaders approved an additional $40 billion—two-thirds of total federal spending for education that year and twice as much as Bush had ended up requesting—to counter the attack. Wisconsin representative David R. Obey, Lilly’s boss and the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called the measure “a down payment” on a “long twilight struggle against terrorism. This is going to be a very nasty enterprise.”
Less than three weeks later, by the end of the month, congressional leaders approved another $40 billion. Some of the money was devoted to quickly reconstructing the Pentagon, and cleaning up the World Trade Center site, as well as to fortifying the Capitol and other federal buildings. “We were single-minded,” said Jim Dyer, Republican House Appropriations Committee staff director. “We were going to show the bad guys how quickly we could respond, that we were strong enough to take a hit and bounce right back.”
Three weeks later, envelopes of deadly anthrax emptied the Capitol and adjoining office buildings. Members and staff of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, locked out of their offices, spent their days at the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Energy, and the other agencies that were most immediately involved in the response. The displaced House Appropriations members added items not on the White House list: protection for the Statue of Liberty; a remote backup computer server site for the FBI, which had none at the time; preparation for mass vaccine production; more equipment and personnel for the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation’s electronic surveillance agency; and much more money for domestic nuclear security. The list, anxiously compiled, was long. By December, Congress passed another supplemental spending bill. Supplementals are funds not included in the normal fiscal year budget of any department, and they would become a way of life for the federal government following the 2001 attacks. When the buildup to the war in Iraq began just a year later, massive infusions of cash again were requested and approved. Much of the new money, on top of the already existing multi-billion-dollar budgets of the intelligence community and the military agencies, went into classified budget annexes under a new catch-all category called “GWOT” (pronounced Gee-Watt), for the Global War on Terror. Given the fact that the country was now actively at war in Afghanistan, barely a member could speak out against more GWOT funds. “These were massive amounts no one could check,” said Lilly. “It got so huge it overwhelmed the system. There was no way we could keep track of it. You’d no sooner be finished with one bill and you’d be given a request for a supplemental.” Keeping tabs on the deluge of money was all the harder because much of the spending was also hidden from public view in what became a routine classified no-man’s-land dealing with counterterrorism and homeland security, where it remains today.
The expansion of the classified portion of the federal budget reflected what was happening in the operations of the defense and intelligence agencies. On September 17, Bush signed a nearly open-ended Presidential Finding, a document legally required in order to authorize covert activities by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. (The term covert—as opposed to clandestine or secret—means the activities are supposed to remain concealed so that the United States could plausibly deny its involvement if necessary. Clandestine and secret activities are concealed, but, if they are discovered, their U.S. sponsorship can be acknowledged. Under law, military operations, even the most carefully concealed, are not meant to be covert.) As reported first by Bob Woodward for the Washington Post, Bush’s Presidential Finding on al-Qaeda directed the CIA to undertake the most sweeping and lethal covert action since the agency was founded in 1947. The objective was to attack bin Laden’s organization and to kill or capture those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and their supporters. Bush immediately gave the agency $1 billion and instructed the military to help the CIA in any way it could.
From the Presidential Finding grew dozens of frenzied programs to beef up the spy agency’s paramilitary capabilities and support infrastructure around Afghanistan. Each one of them flew by the desk of John Rizzo, the CIA senior deputy legal counsel, for review.
“There was a flood of money and also a flood of authorities, a flood of responsibilities that we were directed to undertake, obviously immediately,” said Rizzo, who by then had already spent a quarter-century at the agency. “It overwhelmed the infrastructure that was in place.”
I had met Bill Arkin ten years before, during a much simpler operation: Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the first Gulf War. Arkin was a meticulous chronicler of the military and the national security establishment, writing about the nuclear arms race during the cold war and, later, about the airpower era of the 1990s. He conducted assessments on the ground in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia and then persuaded the air force to give him detailed bomb damage assessment data to develop authoritative accounts of accidental civilian deaths, known as collateral damage, inflicted during air campaigns.
From his converted office barn in Vermont, the former army intelligence analyst wrote books on how to research the military and how to use the Internet to unearth government secrets. In the 1980s, using only publicly available information, such as telephone books, Arkin had located the secret U.S. nuclear weapons sites in Europe, infuriating the Defense Department and causing a firestorm in Europe but also showing the government what a poor job it did keeping secrets.
To understand any national security question, he collected and cataloged troves of documents: budgets, contracts, military directives, program descriptions, hearing transcripts, job listings, phone directories, audits, and a brain-pickling list of other sources.
Shortly after September 11, Arkin began to notice numerous changes in the budgets, hearings, and military directives he had discovered. Colorfully random two-word titles began to appear, nonsensical phrases like Busy Lobster, Fervent Archer, and Scarlet Cloud. The names of military operations, such as Brave Warrior, Justice Assured, and Freedom Eagle, all made a statement about political purpose and resolve. But Titrant Ranger? What did that mean?
Arkin’s way of dealing with this proliferation of code names was to pull them into detailed computer files and study them as a whole. He had collected more than 3,500 of these odd phrases. To analyze them, he created a three-tiered classification system, a secrecy pyramid. At the base were designations that he already knew, and which were commonly used nicknames for military exercises and hardware and the like, phrases like Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. The next level contained classified names that could only be vaguely definable by cross-referencing them with a budget line, a contract, a cryptically written directive. (Anything associated with the Nimble Elder program, for example, turned out to have something to do with weapons of mass destruction and counterterrorism.) Then there was the upper layer, the 5 percent of names that appeared rarely and without any description and were probably associated with the most secret and compartmentalized activities.
After years of analysis, Arkin figured that his voluminous research on code names had excavated only the tip of the pyramid, but he was still surprised at the number of new code names that were being manufactured every day. As he began matching code names to other references he had kept over the years, he discovered a giant flaw in the government’s security system. A lot of the code names, even those near the top of the secrecy pyramid, showed up in the descriptions on job-listing websites of positions available to candidates who held security clearances. He was surprised, and delighted, to see classified NSA program names among them, such as this first job announcement he collected from the Windermere Group, an obscure intelligence consulting company, which was looking for a “Senior Analytic Support Specialist” based in Columbia, Maryland, to work on “at least two of the following: ANCHORY, OCTAVE, SKYWRITER, SEMESTER, JAGUAR, ARCVIEW, e-WorkSpace, PINWALE, or HOMEBASE.”
As massive online job boards such as Monster.com replaced job listings that had appeared in newspapers, an astonishing number of these notices became searchable in their totality for the first time. Arkin began to catalog from four hundred to six hundred new job postings a day from the federal government and private companies looking for top secret–cleared workers with very specific skill sets. At any one time, he could find as many as 15,000 listings for very specialized positions that required a top secret clearance. Between 2006 and 2010 he cataloged 182,000 such job announcements in his files. As he did so, Arkin started to count government organizations and private companies working at the “secret” level of classification. Something is classified secret if its unauthorized disclosure would cause “serious damage” to national security. For instance, many of the State Department cables published by WikiLeaks are classified secret because they provide candid assessments of foreign leaders and agreements. Routine field reports from military units are also classified secret on the theory that they might provide useful tidbits to an enemy. He was quickly overwhelmed by the volume. There were simply too many organizations and companies to track. Had he been looking prior to September 11, he would have expected to see evidence of a significant number of such programs, but the post-9/11 quantity was mind-boggling.
Given the huge number of secret programs, he decided to track only those classified top secret. A classification of top secret meant that public disclosure would lead to “exceptionally grave harm” to national security. The classification generally went to intelligence sources and special capabilities, particularly those involving nuclear weapons or special operations. Top secret information might reveal sources who were secretly passing information to U.S. authorities, or sophisticated technologies used to listen in on the conversations of adversaries, or the content of those conversations. Virtually everything concerning spy satellites and the methods of NSA monitoring is classified top secret, whereas most of what the conventional military does during war is classified secret. Cross-referencing and reading the fine print of job announcements in the summer of 2008, when we first joined forces, he had a list of two hundred companies that did top secret work; several weeks later he had five hundred—and not just their names but their addresses, as well as specific program titles and descriptions that corresponded with those locations.
Code names linked companies and agencies and activities, and the number of locations doubled again, quadrupled, and then doubled again. Unknown locations appeared; obscure agencies emerged; organizations that neither Arkin nor I had ever heard of went from the few to the dozens to the scores.
As the focus shifted to organizations, Arkin shifted much of his research to contracts. All that money meant that the government was also the nation’s largest buyer. It purchased things, from toilet paper to computer equipment to the niftiest surveillance devices and drones. It contracted for services, from architectural design and construction to intelligence analysis, and augmented staff for even the most sensitive activities. The most secret would use cover names and intermediaries, but Arkin matched addresses and phone numbers and fake names on government procurement announcements, he found out how the agencies purchased their fuel oil and electricity, and he was able to map a full picture of the life and diet of a giant, growing entity.
The bloom of code names and job listings and addresses wasn’t meaningful just for its own sake but for something much larger. Just as the most significant thing about a spiking count of white blood cells was what the blood test couldn’t see—the infection that prompted the white cells to multiply in the first place—the top secret jobs and companies, and the government organizations they worked for, pointed to something unprecedented that had yet to be identified in the body politic. We call this Top Secret America.
All You Need to Know
Top Secret America, its exponential growth and ever-widening circle of secrecy, had been set in motion by one overwhelming force: the explosion in the number of covert and clandestine operations against al-Qaeda leaders and people suspected of supporting them. These operations had become larger, and involved more American and foreign operatives, than any secret undertaking in the nation’s history. John Rizzo, the man who approved all those operations after 9/11, told me after he retired from thirty-four years at the CIA that “the cumulative number” of covert operations during the cold war “pales in comparison to the number of programs, number of activities the CIA was asked to carry out in the aftermath of 9/11 in the counterterrorism area.”
By design, this unprecedented expansion was invisible to the American people. But hints of what was happening began to leak out in whispered conversations. People inside the government began to tell stories about enemy fighters in Afghanistan who would arrive at American battlefield detention facilities having been kneecapped on the trip in, or of detainees who had been punched, kicked, and stuffed in small, hot boxes under the blazing summer sun to get them to talk to interrogators. Others were being denied food, shackled to the walls, and kept standing or crouching for hours on end. These measures were all part of a panicked attempt to get the prisoners to tell the Americans what they knew about Osama bin Laden and coming attacks against the United States.
Other sources described a detention site at Bagram Airfield controlled by an organization other than the U.S. Army, which ran the base. Even regular American soldiers weren’t allowed to enter. Eventually I found a former U.S. Navy SEAL who was also trained as an interrogator. He put a name to the list of interrogation methods other sources had been telling me about—“stress and duress” techniques: Standing for long periods of time. Imprisonment in cramped quarters. Limited diet. Sleep deprivation. I had covered the military for many years, and I knew this sort of thing had not been done in the decades prior to 9/11.
I called up the White House’s National Security Council spokesman for a comment about the stress and duress techniques and the existence of the mysterious facility. He said, for the record, “The United States is treating enemy combatants in U.S. government control, wherever held, humanely and in a manner consistent with the principles of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949.” It sounded like a complete denial. But how could all these sources be wrong? Or how could the White House believe that those interrogation methods conformed with the Geneva Conventions?
In the middle of investigating these strange tales, the administration offered an official hint about what was going on. On September 26, 2002, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees invited Cofer Black, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, to testify. A decade earlier, Black had helped capture Carlos the Jackal, one of the most infamous terrorists of his time. Black had been given the CIA counterterrorism job before 9/11, when it was a low-profile assignment; now he led the agency’s war. He had CIA director George Tenet’s ear and the president’s attention. He didn’t really even need to report to his immediate boss, the CIA director of operations.
The CIA, Black told Congress that day, had been granted new forms of “operational flexibility” in dealing with suspected terrorists. Then, his voice deepening with drama and arrogance, he told the intelligence committee, “This is a very classified area. But I have to say that—all you need to know—there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off.” Most people focused on the references to the gloves coming off, which was certainly an enticing statement. But I couldn’t forget that other phrase, “all you need to know.”
Why was it up to this civil servant, no matter how well respected he was among his colleagues, to decide what anyone else, even the elected representatives he was addressing, did and did not need to know about the deadliest enemy facing the United States? Obviously details about the timing and location of operations, the exact technologies used, and the particular sources involved would need to remain secret. But why would anyone just simply trust the government with all that power and responsibility? It seemed almost un-American that a small group of people at the White House and within the CIA could decide that only they should know how the world really worked, while the rest of the citizenry was expected to assume that they would figure out how to defeat such an elusive foe all on their own, do the right thing, and then tell the truth if they messed up. Black’s phrase would ring in my ears for years.
Just a week after Black’s testimony, the public got a sample of what “the gloves… off” meant. On November 3, 2002, using a Predator drone armed with two five-foot-long Hellfire missiles, the CIA killed several people in a car driving through the desert in Yemen, a country with which the United States was not at war. The dead were an al-Qaeda leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, who was suspected of masterminding the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and a naturalized U.S. citizen from Yemen, Ahmed Hijazi.
The CIA was ecstatic. Its new secret weapon had worked. Not only had it killed a single terrorist in a remote location before he ever heard the buzzing of the drone engine, but it gave the White House confidence that it could wage war covertly in any part of the world and deny its involvement if necessary. But not this time. Despite their habit of hiding in the shadows, senior CIA leaders were so proud of what had happened that they wanted to share it with the public, a decision that would become quite controversial within the rank and file.
Some sources inside government, and former military officials and lawyers in particular, had questions about the legality of the drone attack. “Wasn’t that assassination?” I asked the cranky CIA spokesman, William Harlow, knowing that assassination had been outlawed decades ago. “They attacked us, remember?” he yelled over the phone. “Don’t you get it?”
Not everyone was so sure, however, that the missile attack was a justified response to 9/11. Even solid supporters of the CIA questioned it. “This ought to be a last resort for the United States,” Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA, told me. The preferable route, he said, would be to capture and try terrorists, and share the evidence of guilt with the world. “To the extent you do more and more of this, it begins to look like it is policy,” he said. After a while, such pinpoint targeting of individuals might “suggest that it’s acceptable behavior to assassinate people…. Assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas.”
The existence of armed Predators had been hidden deep down in layers of government secrecy. Before 9/11, unarmed surveillance Predators had been flown by air force pilots operating under the conventional rules of war. Lethal strikes by manned aircraft in all wars, including the last one in Kosovo, had been an armed services responsibility, too.
Over lunch, another source outlined how the target in an attack like the one in Yemen would be selected. There was a process, he explained. It involved lots of people. There was a list. It was hard to get on. Those on it—high-value targets, or HVTs, in official lingo—were either killed or captured; those captured by the CIA were apparently providing good information, the source said, critical leads in preventing new attacks.
Were the high-value targets in Afghanistan?
Not all of them, he said, before changing the subject.
I called a former agency analyst for a more detailed explanation. He said my lunch date was probably referring to “renditions.” Renditions had started under President Clinton and had been “very helpful,” he said. Suspected, detained terrorists or fugitives found in one country would be secretly transported by the CIA back to their own countries, where they were wanted by the courts or internal intelligence agencies. The CIA rendered these people “to the bar of justice”: to the courts in a third country, the source said, even if the court were in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where fair trials for terrorist suspects were rare and torture was routine.
Renditions, another person said, came with lots of legal review. The third country usually needed an arrest warrant for the person. Many of the renditions carried out during the Clinton administration involved sending members of the religiously extreme Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Islamic Jihad to Egypt, which had outlawed both groups. Egyptian Islamic Jihad had carried out the assassination of former president Anwar al-Sadat; in its ranks was the man who would become al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. It was reported that the Egyptian intelligence services tortured many of these prisoners during interrogations, including Zawahiri.
Another man with lots of experience in the secret world was helpful, too. At a dark restaurant, over a bowl of vegetable soup and saltine crackers, I asked whether these current renditions were like those carried out in the Clinton administration.
“In what way ‘not exactly’?”
They are “extraordinary renditions,” the source said. “The CIA needs to get information from them. It’s completely, 100 percent legal. It’s an ongoing war. The EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques—another new acronym I’d never heard] have been approved by a zillion lawyers.” When I asked him for some examples of EITs, he replied, “Can’t say exactly,” and we moved on in the conversation.
A few weeks later, I found myself sitting on a broken park bench in a seedy part of Washington, DC, with another source. “EITs,” I said. “What are those?”
“You know I can’t tell you that. It’s classified. I won’t tell you anything that’s classified.”
“Everything’s medically supervised,” the source said.
“By doctors? That makes sense,” I responded.
“By agency doctors?” I asked.
We were both whispering.
“Must be hard on them.”
“They’ve been cleared psychologically.”
“You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things I hear… cigarette burns on the hands… reminds me of Nazi Germany.”
“Who used cigarettes?”
“I told you, I’m not going to tell you anything classified.”
I Googled “OMS” when I got back to the office. “Office of Medical Services, CIA” popped up. I typed in “CIA.gov” and began looking around the website.
Career Opportunities, Medical Officer: Are you up to the challenge? The Office of Medical Services is hiring individuals with medical degrees and board certification in primary care specialties to provide medical care and advice to Agency employees, dependents and assets. Positions are available for overseas assignments.
All applicants must successfully complete a thorough medical and psychological exam, a polygraph interview and an extensive background investigation. US citizenship is required.
Important Notice: Friends, family, individuals, or organizations may be interested to learn that you are an applicant for or an employee of the CIA. Their interest, however, may not be benign or in your best interest. You cannot control whom they would tell. We therefore ask you to exercise discretion and good judgment in disclosing your interest in a position with the Agency. You will receive further guidance on this topic as you proceed through your CIA employment processing.
With these nuggets, I pulled my car up to the curb outside a local deli. A new source got in. We drove around the corner and parked. He was worried about the legality of things going on at the agency but didn’t say what he meant by that. He fretted about the damage to the CIA and its people. “We’ll be hung out to dry.” We talked for an hour, and although he didn’t say much then, I could tell he really wanted to say more.
The CIA is the president’s personal sword of power in foreign lands if all else fails, one he can use without asking Congress first. If the president asked, the agency would attempt to overthrow governments, as it tried but failed to do in Cuba, North Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Angola, and successfully did in Chile, Guatemala, the Congo, Iran, and, twice, in—of all places—Afghanistan.
The CIA is the one agency in the U.S. government that was created by law (the National Security Act of 1947 and Title 10 of the U.S. Code) to do things overseas that no other agency in government is allowed to do: CIA operatives blackmail foreign bureaucrats into stealing state secrets, or bribe them with money, sex, alcohol, medical care for ailing relatives, or a private school education for their children; or they appeal to their sense of a greater good. They steal secrets themselves, using spy gear that can distinguish the words typed on a computer keypad from faint differences in keystroke sounds. They covertly help one foreign political party over another, hoping to ensure that the “right” people gain power.
To facilitate these covert actions required help from many of the code-named programs Arkin was discovering. The deep layers of secrecy were to keep terrorists, foreign spies, and reporters away. We were in terrible company and often treated accordingly, especially by President Bush’s cabinet members, conservative members of Congress, and cable television pundits who especially liked to label us traitors.
Even the government officials whose job was to deal with the media often weren’t any better. Harlow, the CIA’s spokesman, often lost his temper when I asked for direct access to people doing secret things. Having traveled the world with the military, I just didn’t understand why I was failing to progress with the CIA. Maybe I wasn’t using the right terminology or phrases, or hadn’t found the right people to ask. But the obvious answer was made clear to me one day when Harlow finally got tired of the badgering and let me have it, explaining in a very loud voice why, for the umpteenth time, he had no comment to my questions. “This is a goddamn secret organization! That’s why!”
So, like other intelligence beat reporters trying to describe the post-9/11 world, I had to use more indirect methods. For example, when I had gathered half a dozen specific leads, I would run them by a couple of good sources I had known for many years. “I’ve always said you were an accurate reporter,” is the only response I would get back. It wasn’t much, but it told me I was on the right track.
Over the next four years, as more sources became willing to provide pieces of the puzzle, a portrait of the CIA’s most deeply buried covert action program began to emerge. It was code-named Greystone.
Greystone had hundreds of subcomponents, including post-9/11 detention, interrogation, and rendition programs, and all the required logistics, from airplanes used to fly detainees around the world to fake names for the secret prisons overseas where detainees were kept in isolation, sometimes for years.
Greystone was one of the big reasons the CIA’s relatively small portion of Top Secret America had grown so quickly and involved so many private contractors. It included hundreds of CIA employees and hundreds of officials in foreign intelligence services, though only a handful knew any more than their tiny slice of the pie.
Greystone was executed in a series of countries where the CIA and its counterparts overseas believed al-Qaeda, its followers, and new affiliates were located. Originally, this included Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Somalia, Germany, France, Italy, Kosovo, and Macedonia. It did not include Iraq, because al-Qaeda was not there.
In the beginning, no one outside the small circle of people executing the operations knew the program existed, and even those people didn’t know every single subprogram under the larger Greystone umbrella. By White House design, that small circle did not include Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was supposed to be in charge of U.S. relations with foreign countries, or his general counsel, William Taft. Nor did it include the four-star regional commanders who managed U.S. military relations and operations in different parts of the world, or the members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, who were supposed to oversee every major operation undertaken by the CIA.
Such limitation and compartmentalization were applied to programs like Greystone, which was called, in CIA parlance, a Controlled Access Program (CAP). The Pentagon’s version of one is called a Special Access Program (SAP). They exist to give the CIA and the Pentagon extra protection against unauthorized disclosure.
By 2002, President Bush was ordering war preparations in Iraq, too, based on the belief that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was building a biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons capacity that he might one day share with al-Qaeda or use himself against the United States.
The information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was another one of the secrets so well buried beneath so many layers of classification that very few people in the CIA or Pentagon had actually seen the evidence themselves to support the assertion that such weapons existed.
Only the congressional intelligence committees and the defense appropriations subcommittees that drew up the budget for the intelligence agencies were privy to regular classified briefings. This gave these congressional groups a special role in overseeing intelligence activities, a role unlike that assumed by any of the other congressional committees. As war with Iraq became likely, members of Congress clamored for more information and for the intelligence community to get together and produce what is known as a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), an analysis by the National Intelligence Council with input from all the intelligence agencies. It is considered the most authoritative work on a particular question, in this case, Does Iraq possess WMD, and how likely is Saddam Hussein to use them against the United States? But when the NIE arrived on Capitol Hill, no more than six senators, and only a handful of House members, ever actually bothered to read beyond the five-page executive summary of the ninety-two-page document laying out the government’s information on Iraq’s weapons capabilities.
Reviewing all the intelligence was exceptionally arduous and inconvenient. Because the NIE was so highly classified, members of Congress couldn’t have a copy delivered to their offices or sent to them via email. Instead, they had to walk over to one of the secure reading rooms and sit alone. They could not enlist the help of an aide, and they were not allowed to take notes. The document was dense, “like the Brahms of music,” as Democratic West Virginia senator John D. Rockefeller IV described it to me after he had read it. It contained many qualifying footnotes that even the most dedicated reader might miss, including an important dissenting opinion from the State Department Intelligence and Research branch that cast great doubt on the NIE’s overall assertions that Iraq probably possessed chemical and biological weapons and was well on its way to developing nuclear ones, too.
Congress’s oversight of intelligence was unlike any other job it performed. Since just about everything in the realm of terrorism was classified, members of Congress were the only outsiders allowed to know what was happening inside, and they played their role badly. Even when a select few members were briefed on President Bush’s controversial counterterrorism tactics—warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency, targeted killings by the agency or military, extreme interrogations, which were the EITs my sources were raising questions about—any concerns they had were muted by extreme secrecy, and they could not go public given nondisclosure agreements that even these elected officials were made to sign. When it came time for members of Congress to analyze whether the risk from Iraq warranted going to war, they seemed too busy with other things—like keeping up with annual budget requests and their constituents back home—to study the information that was available. After all, even Colin Powell, respected on both sides of the aisle and seen as honest, had confirmed that the WMD were there and that something had to be done.
None of the top secret code names and job descriptions that Arkin was finding were for the congressional staffers on the intelligence committees who were supposed to do all the work to monitor the phenomenal growth in Top Secret America. Two committees do the lion’s share of the intelligence oversight: the House and Senate Permanent Select Committees on Intelligence and the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Defense. Yet the number of staffers on each has not grown much at all in the decade since the 9/11 attacks. The number of staffers with knowledge of and experience with the most costly and technologically complex agencies, the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Organization, which manages multi-billion-dollar eavesdropping and spy satellite programs, actually declined. On the authorization committees, which set policy and design budgets, there were no more than four staffers dealing with the NSA and the NRO.
The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, who often were the only members briefed by the CIA on covert action, were not allowed to consult with their lawyers or the specialized staff members steeped in the issues, even if they had the appropriate security clearances. Instead, these members of Congress were left on their own to make sense of highly technical issues such as surveillance of fiber-optic cables in the Internet communications grid structure, or the legal interpretations, history, and nuances of a particular regulation in the law governing electronic searches and seizures.
The poor quality of congressional oversight wasn’t just a matter of money and staff, though. When members voted to approve the use of military force against Iraq, which in effect approved the presumptive deaths of thousands of U.S. men and women in uniform, they didn’t do it after studying the best information available or conducting exhaustive hearings; they simply took President Bush and his well-qualified national security team at their word.
So much information hidden away in compartments like Greystone created a government system that became distorted by its own secrecy. Take, for instance, the German intelligence source code-named Curveball, an Iraqi living in Germany whose stories about Saddam’s biological weapons so greatly influenced thinking at the top of the U.S. government. Because his identity was so closely held, in a compartment within a compartment, it wasn’t vetted in a rigorous manner and, as a result, his lies were not publicly revealed until long after the war began. And only in February 2011 did he confess publicly, in an account published by the Guardian newspaper in Britain. Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, who was Curveball in flesh and blood, admitted that he had fabricated stories for intelligence officers about mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine bioweapons laboratories in an effort to bring down Saddam Hussein. “I had a chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy.”
Had more doubts been aired about Curveball’s credibility early on, maybe Powell would have had doubts about his presentation to a rapt audience at the United Nations a month before the 2003 invasion. “We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels,” Powell said. “The source was an eyewitness—an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities. He actually was present during biological agent production runs. He was also at the site when an accident occurred in 1998. Twelve technicians died.” None of that was true.
To understand how far the government has fallen into the bottomless well of official secrets, step into William Bosanko’s stately pale-yellow office at the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. With only twenty-three employees, his agency, the obscure Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), is supposed to ensure that the entire government classifies and protects its documents properly. But since 2001, the number of newly classified documents has tripled to over 23 million, while his staff has barely grown. Bosanko said that with so few resources, ISOO has not even attempted to gain access to the government’s Special Access Programs.
Bosanko’s office has studied how much the federal government spends just to keep secrets secret. The price tag: $10 billion a year.
“Today the classification system is in crisis,” said Bosanko. “We are failing at the most basic requirements,” including training officials not to overclassify documents and periodically assessing whether some material can be declassified. But does that make us any less safe?
“Yes, absolutely,” he said, “because the real secrets don’t get the right protection.”
Curveball’s identity and the information he gave German intelligence, which they shared with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, was handled using the authority conferred by Executive Order 12958, signed by President Clinton in April 1995. The order updated similar ones going back to President Truman establishing a system of national security information and designated classes of information: confidential, secret, and top secret. The order gave permission for certain top intelligence and defense officials to create vaults of information to which only a few people would have the combination.
These vaults—the aforementioned SAPs and CAPs—are distinguished from all other classified information by their “BIGOT” lists. A BIGOT list is the list of specific individuals who have access to each compartment. Anyone not on the list, no matter how highly cleared, must not be told what’s inside.
The intelligence community itself still doesn’t have a complete picture of all its CAPs and SAPs. In late 2010, a friendly man in charge of a new Controlled Access Program Coordination Office (CAPCO) in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence began compiling a database of these programs. The database itself, the man explained to me, is a compartmented secret, a mystery box that contains itself.
After years of work, CAPCO’s database contained the barest basics: code names, rationale for compartmentation, any significant changes since inception. It does not include the substance of the programs and it does not include most of the Defense Department’s relevant programs, which means it is missing a lot.
How much? When the names of the Defense Department’s SAPs are printed out and delivered to the leadership of the congressional defense committees every March 1, the list is three hundred pages long—and those are just the names of the programs. The database doesn’t include two other categories of deep secrets: “waived SAPs” and “unacknowledged SAPs,” neither of which the full committees have to be briefed on. Nor does it contain the many Special Access Programs that can be hosted within the other federal agencies, a list that includes the Departments of Homeland Security, State, Justice, and Energy. And it only really contains the top-level program of an entire genealogical tree of programs. “Let’s say you have a dresser in your bedroom—that’s the top-level thing,” explained the man. “Within that dresser you have twelve drawers we call ‘compartments.’ Now, each of those drawers you might open, and let’s say one of them is a sock drawer. You have a divider in there for all your socks. Well, those are ‘subcompartments.’ ”
Excerpted from Top Secret America by Dana Priest Copyright © 2011 by Dana Priest. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Dana Priest is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. 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 the author of The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military.
William M. Arkin has been a columnist and reporter with The Washington Post since 1998. He has worked on the subject of government secrecy and national security affairs for more than 30 years. He has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books about the U.S. military and national security.
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