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The ‘Super User’ Problem and Other Top Secret America Enigmas

Generating so much information that no one person can digest it all, the post-9/11 intelligence business is an endless maze of bloated bureaucracy — one that does not necessarily keep America safer or more secure.

Annie Jacobsen


August 19, 2010 - 12:00 am
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During the third week in July the news in this country seemed preoccupied with the Shirley Sherrod story. Meanwhile, another very important story was largely overlooked — one about your safety, security, and wallet.

In “Top Secret America,” the Washington Post unveiled an impressive, two-year investigation by reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin. In it, they depict a giant intelligence bureaucracy unprecedented in scope and size. If the whole purpose of the post-9/11 federal intelligence system was to tear down the walls of bureaucracy, the report shows in no uncertain terms that just the opposite has happened. America now has a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy made of tall, impenetrable walls.

Today’s behemoth is made up of an astonishing 1,271 government bureaucracies and 1,931 private companies employing at least 854,000 top secret cleared individuals. To visualize that kind of workforce, consider the office space they require: 17 million square feet worth, which is roughly three times the size of the Pentagon. The growth is not slowing down anytime soon. In the Washington, D.C., area alone, 33 intelligence agency building complexes have been built since 9/11, or are currently under construction, in order to accommodate this new, top secret workforce.

The problem is not just the sheer volume, it’s the massive amount of waste involved. One example the Post uses involves the analysts who track terror-financing schemes. They belong to 51 separate federal organizations and publish 50,000 intelligence reports a year. That kind of reportage is impossibly unwieldy, leaving much of the data in the reports ignored. “Lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted,” write Priest and Arkin.

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