On the Washington Post’s ‘Top Secret America’
Now that it’s all out there, here are a few thoughts on the Washington Post’s Top Secret America project. Having done newspaper projects myself, I’m a little reluctant to critique, because I know how much work goes into them; the reporting (especially in this case, where the much of the subject matter is
classified and sources reluctant to talk), the conceptualizing, writing, and shaping of it all are very difficult. Outside criticism never quite captures the depth of the effort.
The Washington Post has done a great service in putting all this information into the public domain. We’re in an era when secrecy for its own sake, rather than to ensure safety and security, is an endemic problem. The series’s database, maps, and the stories themselves are a portrait of 21st century government-out-of-control, shielded from bureaucratic and political accountability. The implications are staggering. By pushing this out there, the Post can provide the germ of a genuine public debate on this topic. Right now, there isn’t one. That’s the essence of journalism.
Yet in other ways, the series doesn’t quite deliver – at least not what I have come to expect from a big investigative series from the Washington Post. In government, the real scandal is usually not what’s illegal, but legal and routine: the day-to-day status quo that, when examined closely by fresh eyes, turns out to be something monstrous. This is an obvious case of that. When you read something like this, the result of two years of digging, you expect your sensibilities to be shocked and your expectations undermined. But what we got was more of a mildly alarming, broad-brush portrait of the way things are now: the gradual breakdown of bureaucratic order and accountability as the intelligence community expanded post 9/11. It may be making us less safe, though this is disputed. Some people in government view this as a problem and are trying to address it. Others don’t. There are entire suburbs for secretive agencies and corporate contractors, which have a lot of of money and good schools.
A deep dive like this, you want something more than a broad-brush portrait of a system: you want to know how it got out of control, what interest groups and political entities benefit from the status quo and thwart reform, what some of the system’s worst and emblematic excesses are. And what it all means. The series outlines a dangerous breakdown in accountability without an immediate solution, government “bigness” beyond anyone’s control – and mysteriously stops there. But what are the implications for domestic spying, for democracy, for my own life? When you immerse yourself in material like this, you develop deep insights and can draw strong conclusions. The Post never quite gets there. To put it another way, I don’t think they’re quaking in their boots out in those new office suites in Herndon.
There’s also the issue of crediting earlier reporting on this topic, notably that of Tim Shorrock, P.W. Singer and James Bamford. (Full disclosure: Shorrock is a friend.) The Post should have tipped its hat to them somehow. The journalism etiquette on this type of thing is very nuanced, perhaps ridiculously so. For the purposes of having an impact on public debate and, well, history, a newspaper will try to claim a kind of “ownership” of a topic when it does a huge investigation. There are, to be blunt, Pulitzer Prizes at stake. The problem is, you’re never going to own a story like this one. The topic is too broad and too well-known. And this is the Internet age, the era of links and collaboration and iteration. Nobody has an exclusive claim on anything, really. Even if you push the story to a new level of depth, failing to acknowledge earlier work ends up looking not just high-handed, but strange.
Update: Tim Shorrock on where he believes the series misses the mark.