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Jul. 19 2010 - 1:30 pm | 318 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

The Washington Post’s ‘Top Secret America’ and the big government trap

US Intelligence Community Seal

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The Washington Post’s series on the metastasizing U.S. intelligence community is an excellent piece of reporting, and illustrates how the day-to-day flux of American politics and ideological debates are becoming increasingly disengaged from what is actually happening in the world (if they ever were engaged at all).

What’s sad about this series – at least, the first installment – is how unsurprising it is.  Tim Shorrock and others have reported on this trend for years. But even if you were unaware of the details that the Post so expertly catalogues, the broad contours of what’s happening have long been obvious. The United States has a vast and growing secret security apparatus whose structure no one understands, that is in effect accountable to no one.

This is a two-headed beast where each head doesn’t know what the other is doing. It is a recipe for all kinds of abuses and snafus. (My own modest foray into the shadow world of contracting a few years ago showed an impossibly complex bureaucratic web around a tiny, incompetently managed spyplane program.) Precisely because lines of authority are crossed and muddled, it’s easy for those responsible to escape being held accountable. That is, if we even hear about it. In such a system the primary aim of government secrecy often ceases to be the national security and becomes a tool of CYA and turf protection.

This state of affairs is both outrageous and dangerous, and yet there is no particular political impetus right now to rein this in, to make our intelligence apparatus behave in a sensible, effective way, or even to understand it better.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Post-9/11, the United States cannot spend too much, politically speaking, on security. If a politician voices skepticism about where all that money’s going, s/he risks attack for being insufficiently vigilant about America’s security. Terrorism aside, such a system becomes self-perpetuating: money in politics attracts more money, some of which goes to lobbyists whose job it is to protect and expand that money flow. And this is one giant gravity well of federal dollars.

This is a classic problem of runaway big government, compounded by the out-of-control growth of private contracting. Yet we don’t hear Republicans complaining about it. It’s a threat to civil liberties and the reputation of government itself, yet we don’t hear a peep from Democrats either.

One omission of the Post series thus far is an assessment of what the long-term problems of such a system will be (besides straightforward bureaucratic confusion and waste). The story identifies the role of bureaucratic snarls in failing to anticipate terror attacks by individuals, but to be honest, those are always a bit hard to judge.

Glenn Greenwald identifies some of these problems – shadowy, powerful security agencies taking aim at Americans; a breakdown in security priorities; a decline in security itself. What I think is likely to happen in the short run is the inexorable growth of the incompetent security state – the no-fly list times a thousand. At some point abuses and snafus will break out into the open, and Congress will attempt some kind of reform. But it appears this system may already be un-reformable.


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. McQuaid,

    Here is the moment for the conservative movement in general and the “Tea Party” in particular to put their money where the mouths are. They talk endless about government spending and waste on the one hand and government intrusion on the other so this should be a story that they jump all over. One would expect them to lead the charge to reign in this sort of government waste and intrusion into personal privacy. Yet somehow, I suspect, this is not how it will play out.

  2. collapse expand

    Everybody march right to your local bookstores and buy Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes”, a history of the CIA that couldn’t be written before a lot of the operations from the Korea/Vietnam era were declassified just in the last few years.

    It seems like every president distrusts and tries to “clean up” the CIA … and every president also wants the CIA to sort out various little foreign problems for him by direct action.

    Nixon, oddly enough, had the most success at just shutting down covert ops by restricting the budget so it was 90% intelligence / 10% ops, rather than close to 50/50 of most of his predecessors. This is back when the budget was a mere $6B and Nixon didn’t think he was getting half his money’s worth then. It’s the covert ops, needless to say, that cause the most expense, have the most screwups, embarrassments, and backfires.

    Not that intelligence gathering lacks embarrassments of its own. They did call the 6-day war (because one staffer was told about it by close buds in Israeli intelligence) but the 1973 mideast war, they confidently predicted would not happen…the day before the shooting started.

    It’s quite a read.

  3. collapse expand

    And how many are foreign agents, or americans selling out america…we will never know

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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