Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 296 pages. $27.99.

By Benjamin Franklin Martin

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Cofer Black, head of the Counterterrorism Center within the Central Intelligence Agency, told congressional leaders, “there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off.” Black was referring to more than one set of gloves. During the decade following, United States intelligence services have prevented any major terrorist incident on American soil and have inflicted crippling damage on al-Qaeda by killing its leaders and cutting off its sources of funding. Concurrently, the intelligence services have expanded their size, scope, and activities beyond the comprehension of most Americans and even of high government officials.

This new “security state” includes nearly 1,100 federal organizations and 2,000 private companies in some 17,000 locations throughout the United States, producing more than 50,000 separate serialized intelligence reports and costing approximately $81 billion annually. Filling its ranks are 854,000 individuals with top secret clearance—another 700,000 await the completion of background investigations; they represent a new elite, charged to know what ordinary citizens may not.

More may not mean better. The National Security Agency alone processes 1.7 billion intercepted communications daily. This literal deluge of reports assures that no one can read, much less assimilate, them all. Congressional oversight is impossible because members of the intelligence committees are forbidden to discuss top secret material even with specialized staff possessed of requisite clearance. The expansion has guaranteed that more dots of intelligence are connected, thereby assisting with specific investigations. Yet sophisticated analysis has always resembled more the assembling of a jigsaw puzzle when many of the pieces are missing and only guesses are possible about the completed picture. Note that the “Arab Spring” took the American intelligence community entirely by surprise. Creating the Director of National Intelligence has failed to curb inter-agency rivalries and compartmentalization because Congress endowed the office not with “authority” over all intelligence matters but merely “responsibility.”

Dana Priest and William M. Arkin have long experience in reporting on national security issues. As they prepared this book, they obtained the great bulk of their information through computer files openly available because many among the myriad agencies and companies of “top secret America” disregard security procedures. Then, from the individuals who consented to interviews they heard of massive waste, mediocre product, and “disturbing dysfunction.” They draw a damning conclusion: The very threat of terrorism has accomplished the basic intent of the terrorists, to instill paranoia and to compromise the values of an open society. They quote General Michael Hayden, once director of the NSA, then the CIA, and now a principal in the Chertoff Group, a private company offering global security services, about the Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures”: “What constitutes reasonableness depends upon the threat.”

Benjamin Franklin Martin (ΦBK, Davidson College, 1969) is the Price Professor of History at Louisiana State University and a resident member of the Beta of Louisiana Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.