Penis Envy in the Intelligence-Industrial Complex
The Washington Post debuted the stunning first installment in its three-part series into “Top Secret America” Monday, based on a two-year investigation into the sprawling, out-of-control growth of the nation’s intelligence system. That network is almost incomprehensively vast, spanning nearly 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin report. The rub, they argue, is its size and lack of transparency make it impossible to tell if the system is effective or not.
More to the point, Priest and Arkin detail how the networks’ secrecy and redundancies caused authorities to miss red flags that could have prevented Nidal Malik Hasan from shooting up Fort Hood or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from ever getting on a plane last Christmas.
The Post’s series, and its companion Web site, shines a rare light on this classified world that’s essentially large and autonomous enough to be its own branch of government. What I found particularly jarring is how primitive human instincts have played a key role in growing an intelligence system seemingly to the point of dysfunction.
The first instinct, obviously, is fear. Nine days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress approved an additional $40 billion to boost homeland security and go after al-Qaeda. At $75 billion, the current intelligence budget is two-and-a-half times larger than before the Twin Towers went down, which Priest and Arkin point out does not include an additional range of military and domestic counterterrorism programs.
It’s altogether reasonable that the government would spend whatever was needed to keep us safe, or at least to make us feel safe, after 9/11. But it appears the human instinct to seek status also fed the intelligence networks’ unprecedented bloat. “Fear has caused everyone to have stuff,” a three-star general told the Post reporters. “Then comes, ‘If he has one, then I have to have one.’ It’s become a status symbol.” A man running a business building high-security workspaces (known as SCIFs) said there’s a “penis envy thing going on. You can’t be a big boy unless you’re a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.”
This sort of status seeking isn’t reserved for the big swinging dicks in the world of espionage, intelligence, and the military. It’s just part of how we’re wired. Take Prius owners, a population arguably as far as you could get from those occupying the highest rungs of Top Secret America. Studies have shown that, rather than fuel efficiency or lower emissions, more people bought the eco-friendly hybrid car because of the statement it made about themselves — a status symbol, if you will.
I expect the next part of Priest and Arkin’s series, covering the government’s reliance on contractors, will explore how a third human instinct – greed –has factored into the intelligence systems’ expansion. Considering how some sectors of the military-industrial complex treat war like a racket, it’s easy to imagine some of the 2,000 private contractors in the intelligence-industrial complex behaving that same way towards counter-terrorism and homeland security.
Almost by definition, Top Secret America’s mutatation into an unwieldy behemoth has gone on behind closed doors. But this secrecy seems to have prevented the type of oversight to assure the right reasons motivate the creation of expensive new programs and the expansion of others. I’d submit that following base instincts like fear, greed, and lust for status is not the smartest way to build the system that’s supposed to keep the country safe.