Pixel Tracker

Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 12:35 pm | A Few Clouds 63º

 
 
 
 

Joe Conason: Our Secret Leviathan

Our democracy and protection depend on taming the monstrous national-security bureaucracy

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War — when mutual nuclear annihilation was a policy option — a culture of secrecy arose in Washington. What wise observers understood even then was that while governments tried to keep secrets from one another, their chief concern was to keep secrets from their own people.

Joe Conason
Joe Conason

Considering what had been done in the name of the United States, from Mafia assassination plots against foreign leaders to murder, corruption and coups d’etat, that concern was quite sensible. And there was hell to pay when the hidden history began to emerge.

During the nine years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the national security state has doubled or tripled in size, with huge annexes in the private sector — and the culture of secrecy has metastasized simultaneously. As The Washington Post reports in a landmark series titled “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William Arkin, the dimensions of the security colossus are stunning. It is nothing less than a fourth branch of government — so large, so powerful and so wealthy that no other branch can even grasp it, let alone control it.

How big? Nobody knows exactly, not even the Post investigative team, after two years of research that gathered many thousands of public records, including government contracts, intelligence reports and corporate documents, and included interviews with exceptionally knowledgeable sources.

But Priest and Arkin, whose work ought to be read by everyone, say that there are as many as 1,271 government entities and 1,931 private companies “working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States,” with an estimated 854,000 people — far more than live in the city of Washington, D.C. — holding “top-secret security clearances.”

More than 30 building complexes for top-secret intelligence outfits are either under construction now or have been built since September 2001; altogether, these buildings occupy 17 million square feet of space.

Nobody in the White House, Congress or any of the intelligence agencies, including the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence, seems to have the capacity to manage the complex tangle of agencies, companies and off-the-books entities that are supposed to protect us from violent extremism.

After reviewing the way the Defense Department oversees its most sensitive intelligence and operational programs last year, retired Army Lt. Gen. John Vines told the Post reporters that he found the morass almost incomprehensible: “I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities. The complexity of this system defies description.”

Calling this thing a “system” is a bit misleading. But does the leviathan offspring of government and corporation make us safer? That, too, is difficult to determine — in fact, it is impossible to determine, as the writers explain, because with “so many employees, units and organizations, the lines of responsibility began to blur.”

We have no way of knowing precisely what the national security complex does with the hundreds of billions of dollars in its shrouded budgets. What we do know is that billions of dollars are wasted through redundancy, corruption and sheer overgrowth. Too many agencies are performing the same tasks, such as shutting down terrorist money transfers and generating too many reports for anyone to read.

Most disturbing is that so many critical functions are outsourced to private corporations, primarily loyal to shareholders and management. The role of these corporations and their lobbyists, who controlled the creation of the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush administration, is a challenge to democracy of unprecedented proportions.

But despite presidential promises of transparency, the Barack Obama administration is fostering more secrecy, not less — which is exactly the wrong way to cope with this problem. Our democracy and our security both depend on bringing this monstrous bureaucracy to heel — and that can only be done in the sunlight.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >