Small Wars Journal

If 'Top Secret America' is too big, we should blame ourselves

The average response to the Washington Post's expose on the intelligence community's (IC) vast spending on counter-terrorism seems to be a shrug -- if the Washington Beltway responded to 9/11 with a gluttonous frenzy of contractor-hiring and office construction, why should anyone be surprised? I join those who have found the series a little over-hyped and underwhelming.

Some have become cynical about Washington's ways. But we should consider whether there might be deeper causes that mere bureaucratic competition and empire-building behind the vast expansion in the IC. Rather than being only a self-interested grab by agencies and contractors for money and power, the great expansion of the IC also reflects the preferences of the broader American society. We could save money by making significant cuts in the IC's counter-terrorism activities. But that would mean taking risks with casualties, civil liberties, or responsibilities that many Americans would find uncomfortable. So, perhaps not yet having thought through the financial tradeoffs, the public, at least for now, is happy to "spend whatever it takes." In other words, if we are outraged by the size, expense, and waste of "Top Secret America," we all share the blame.

For example, the minimum acceptable standard for counter-terror success is presumably zero attacks within the United States homeland. An Islamist maniac shooting up a reception center at Fort Hood with two pistols or a crude attempted car bomb in Times Square are deemed to be unacceptable failures, requiring investigations and bureaucratic shakeups. An alternative and thriftier approach for the federal intelligence community would have it focus on only truly mass casualty scenarios such as nuclear, chemical, biological, maritime, and commercial aviation threats. Preventing relatively low casualty threats such as car bombs, suicide bombers, and gunmen would fall on states, cities, and the citizens themselves.

But don't expect anyone to propose cutting $100 billion over ten years from the IC's budget in exchange for a, say, 25% increase in the chance of 200 terror murders in the U.S. over the same ten years. One reason the IC may be so costly and complex is because of the urge to spend extra money in an attempt to save that extra life from a terror attack. American society seems —to make that marginal payment. In this sense, society's preferences for the IC's spending on counter-terrorism matches the society's preferences for health care spending -- every extra year of life is worth it, whatever the price. Not surprisingly, the budgets for the IC and health care are following the same exponential trajectory.

Counter-terrorism might be cheaper if American society didn't rightfully place such a high value on civil liberties, social equality, and the rule of law. Racial profiling, police state surveillance, preventive detention (Gitmo aside), even quarantining travel and contact with countries known to be terror harbors are all measures deemed beyond the pale. Maintaining safety without these measures requires a larger and more expensive IC, an expense U.S. society is —to pay in order to avoid corrupting its values.

Americans seem to have opted for professionalization of their security. "Let the experts handle it," is now the way things work. Never mind that it was common citizens who foiled the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, the Fort Dix plot, and others. If they knew they alone were responsible for their security, 300 million pairs of motivated eyes could probably outperform the 854,000 experts with top-secret clearances discussed in the Washington Post story. But we will never hear a Secretary of Homeland Security or U.S. president say, "Citizens, you are responsible for stopping terrorism." Most citizens likely believe they have such a responsibility. But it is not clear how vague or concrete that responsibility is, where it stops and where the experts' responsibility begins. Or vice versa.

Within the looming need for general budget-cutting in Washington, the IC will no doubt find some redundant programs to cull. But the standard of zero attacks on the homeland means that it will be impossible to discuss the tradeoff between extra security spending versus extra risk taken. As important is the discussion of how much the responsibility for security should be in the hands of the federal government's security elite versus in the hands of the citizens themselves. Just as with health care spending, there will be no upper bound to the IC's budget until society talks through these issues.


Ross Wolf (not verified)

Wed, 07/21/2010 - 2:29am

Following 9/11 Bush II set into motion counter-surveillance networks, that allowed NSA illegal wiretaps and surveillance of Americans private emails--allegedly to prevent terrorists attacking America. Subsequently U.S. Government counter-surveillance networks have become huge, supported by thousands of government employees and private contractors, many duplicating work. There are now tens of thousands of U.S. Government counter-surveillance agents, employees and private contractors monitoring U.S. Citizens private records and communications with no Congress or U.S. Citizens oversight. It is probable spies have already infiltrated private contractor industries stealing or buying vast amounts of intelligence information.

What this report does not mention, in the U.S., government-private contractors and their operatives work so close with police exchanging information to arrest Americans and or share in the forfeiture of their assets, they appear to have merged with police. Similarly in 1933 after the German Parliament building was set afire, Hitler used the fire as vehicle to use taxpayer money to expand his private police, the Gestapo and increasing merged it with German national security. Even before the Gestapo was consolidated with the German Government, the Gestapo arrested Citizens and confiscated private property with no legal authority." However U.S. Government has already granted that power to private contractors. In 1939 all German Police agencies including the Gestapo were put under the control of the "Reich Main Security Office" the equivalent of U.S. Homeland Security.

Can History repeat itself? It is foreseeable that should there be a radical change in U.S. Government, many of the current government private contractors would continue working for e.g. a fascist U.S. Government; communist or other despot government against the interests of Americans. Consider the German police first work for a democracy; then under Hitler worked for the Nazi Fascists; then worked for the Soviet Union running the East German Police (Stasi) believed to be the world most oppressive police force until the German Wall came down.

Now consider the power Congress, perhaps negligently has given police and Black Box counter-surveillance entities; including private contractors to spy on U.S. Citizens. Under Bush II NSA illegally wiretapped your phone, fax and private email communications: Now NSA will monitor your Internet. In 2008 Telecoms were granted government immunity after they helped U.S. Government spy on millions of Americans electronic communications. Since, Government has not disclosed what happened to NSAs millions of collected emails, faxes and phone call information that belong to U.S. Citizens? Could those wiretaps perhaps illegal, become a problem for some Americans? Neither Congress nor the courts--determined what NSA electronic surveillance could be used by police or introduced into court by the government to prosecute Citizens.

In 2004, former Attorney General John Ashcroft asked government prosecutors to review thousands of old intelligence files including wiretaps to retrieve information prosecutors could use in "ordinary" criminal prosecutions. That was shortly after a court case lowered a barrier that prior, blocked prosecutors from using illegal-wire tap evidence in Justice Dept. "Intelligence Files" to prosecute ordinary crimes. It would appear this information, may also be used by government to prosecute civil asset forfeitures.

Considering that court case, it appears NSA can share its electronic-domestic-spying with government contractors and private individuals that have security clearances to facilitate the arrest and forfeiture of Americans property---to keep part of the bounty. Police too easily can take an innocent persons hastily written email, fax, phone call or web post out of context to allege a crime or violation was committed to cause an arrest or asset forfeiture.

There are over 200 U.S. laws and violations mentioned in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 and the Patriot Act that can subject property to civil asset forfeiture. Under federal civil forfeiture laws, a person or business need not be charged with a crime for government to forfeit their property. Again, in the U.S., private contractors and their operatives work so close with police exchanging information to arrest Americans and or share in the forfeiture of their assets, they appear to merge with police.

Rep. Henry Hydes bill HR 1658 passed, the "Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000" and effectively eliminated the "statue of limitations" for Government Civil Asset Forfeiture. The statute now runs five years from when police allege they "learned" that an asset became subject to forfeiture. With such a weak statute of limitations and the low standard of civil proof needed for government to forfeit property "A preponderance of Evidence", it is problematic law enforcement and private government contractors will want access to NSA and other government wiretaps perhaps illegal and Citizens private information U.S. Government agencies glean monitoring the Internet, to arrest Americans and to seize their homes, inheritances and businesses under Title 18USC and other laws. Of obvious concern, what happens to fair justice in America if police and government contractors become dependent on "Asset Forfeiture" to pay their salaries and operating costs?

Under the USA Patriot Act, witnesses including government contractors can be kept hidden while being paid part of the assets they cause to be forfeited. The Patriot Act specifically mentions using Title 18USC asset forfeiture laws: those laws include a provision in Rep. Henry Hydes 2000 bill HR 1658--for "retroactive civil asset forfeiture" of "assets already subject to government forfeiture", meaning "property already tainted by crime" provided "the property" was already part of or "later connected" to a criminal investigation in progress" when HR.1658 passed. That can apply to more than two hundred federal laws and violations Government can forfeit property--requiring only "A Preponderance of Civil Evidence" little more than hearsay.

jonny (not verified)

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 5:04pm

At least the vast intelligence apparatus is keeping our unemployment numbers down.


Spot on, IMO. Yesterday, I thought Joshua Foust was on the money. You raised the bar. I appreciate this series as another reminder of the ineffectiveness of large bureaucracies to solve problems..


"I think that the actual point of the series was that there is no actual correlation between expense and effectiveness."

Should it rather be examined as a matter of organizational design and process? My rudimentary interpretation is that since the end of the Cold War and the drastic State/Defene budget cuts, we've expanded with many ad-hoc civilian corporations to feed a burgeoning bureaucracy (Nat'l Security Arm) that thrives on routinization instead of output/outcome. I would submit that the problem is not as simple as money doesn't correlate to effectiveness.

In an earlier time, the Guy Filippellis of the world, who studied with me under Mike Meeses world of economics, would have been recruited into one centralized simple-structure organization to unleash their brilliance onto the enemy. A "Wild Bill" Donovan would have been the overall leader of such an effort. Leon Panetta could manage a similar effort if given the authority and responsibility.



Robert Haddick (not verified)

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 2:53pm


I agree that the authors assert that there is no actual correlation between expense and effectiveness. But the authors cannot prove that. Nor can those who hold the opposite point of view compute how much extra safety the country achieves for an extra increment of spending.

My point was that no policymaker who is answerable to the public will wish to engage in a discussion over marginal costs versus marginal benefits. Such a discussion would be too politically toxic. Therefore it is more likely that every reasonable idea someone in the IC has for stopping terrorism will find support; no one wants to take a risk that the reasonable idea that was rejected was the one that let the bomber through.

Tiny (not verified)

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 2:32pm

"We could save money by making significant cuts in the ICs counter-terrorism activities. But that would mean taking risks with casualties, civil liberties, or responsibilities that many Americans would find uncomfortable."

I think that the actual point of the series was that there is no actual correlation between expense and effectiveness.

Indeed, given that billions of items of intelligence are being vacuumed up _every day_, there is no possible way to intelligently analyze the data for threats.

Brett Patron

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 1:54pm

I don't recall too many, if any, contractor security breaches when we get all our security training.

I'm sure it's happened.

Maybe that's also "inherently governmental"? :)

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 1:47pm

TS clearance equals Top "Status"

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 1:35pm

The one interesting comment that came out the article was the number of TS and I suppose TS/SCI clearances---in excess of 800K.

At the height of the Cold War that number was far less and security breaches were far less.

Now even the cleaning person needs a TS just to get in building to clean.

The drive to literally upgrade all clearances to TS has in fact create a ticking security timebomb that no one has ever thought through.

Heck there is a drive to even upgrade the current TSA Secret clearances to TS--what for excapes me.