‘Top Secret America’ dismissed as a ’study’
I worried aloud after first reading ‘Top Secret America’ that the series from the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin lacked a sufficient ‘villain’ to make it a lasting entry into the grand history of capital-J journalism. I also argued that reading it felt like reading a slightly more enjoyable Government Accountability Office report. And today in The New Republic, Judge Richard Posner lights the series up, dismissing it as no more than a ’study’:
The overarching theme of the study is that the intelligence system is too large. But in emphasizing sheer size, the study reflects a lack of perspective. Although the national security state has about 100,000 employees and annual expenditures of $75 billion, IBM has four times as many employees and yearly costs approaching the same amount. Is IBM too large? Is $75 billion, which is roughly one-half of one percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, too much to spend on the full range of intelligence activities in which the world’s most powerful and globally committed nation—a nation at war and struggling against terrorism on many fronts, including the home front—is compelled to engage?
This is an interesting choice of words from a legal thinker who knows how to use them. One usually calls a work of journalism a ’story’ or maybe a ‘report.’ A ’study’ is more the sort of thing that gets published by a thinktank or even an activist organization, pointing to an academic exercise that may or may not have been gamed from the start.
That ‘Top Secret America’ came off feeling like something of a ’study’ should not be all that much of a surprise – Bill Arkin’s background is more in the world of activist thinktanks than it is in the world of journalism, and the database-driven conclusion-drawing built into the series surely reflects that. And I don’t say this critically – I’m a fan of Arkin having read his work during my own time in the world of national security thinktanks.
But I think Judge Posner’s criticism that the Post’s opus failed to truly bring light to the problem is a bit over-played. Yes, of course much in the series was already known, especially to those ‘in the know.’ You could say that about just about anything broadcasted on episodes of PBS’s Frontline. But just as that show plays a social value, a big honking series like this one can bring light to a major social problem, and our ballooning, unmanageable intelligence community is surely a major social problem in this country. Will it? I worry it won’t because unlike Priest’s series on Walter Reed and the CIA secret prisons, there isn’t a galvanizing force. That’s what the series really needed to push it to Pulitzer-grade journalism.
Of course, that’s the problem with the intelligence community. Most of the time, it’s hard to know who the villains are because everything is a secret. And you have to credit Priest and Arkin for lifting as much of the curtain as they can from those secrets.