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WELCOME TO THE TERRORDOME: A Conversation With Dana Priest Of The Washington Post

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mecroppedsharp_1.jpgBY JONATHAN VALANIA Last December, The Washington Post published a multi-part investigative series by Dana Priest and William Arkin that attempted to quantify the astonishing growth of the security-industrial complex in the wake of 9/11 and found that the exact parameters of that massive expansion are effectively unknowable. The series, which has been expanded into book form and recently published as Top Secret America: The Rise Of The New American Security State, boils down to this: The national security state “has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.” After 9/11, the national security sector was tasked with making sure it never happened again and given wide latitude and a seemingly bottom budget to get the job done. Much of this growth has come in the form of private contractors to mask what is in fact a massive increase in the size, scope and cost of the federal government. Currently, there are more than 250,000 private contractors working on top secret programs. More than 850,000 Americans have top secret clearances. More than 1,200 government organizations and nearly 2,000 private corporations work on top secret programs related to terrorism, homeland security and intelligence matters at more than 10,000 locations across the nation. The “chatter” they monitor — a sprawling amalgam of international and domestic spying that hoovers up phone calls, emails, web usage both here and abroad — results in more than 50,000 intelligence reports annually, a number so vast that most go un-read. Dana Priest, who is a two-time recipient for the Pulitzer Prize, will be speaking discussing her book tonight at the National Constitution Center.

PHAWKER: What was the tipping point or the trigger for the initial series that eventually became the book?

DANA PRIEST: Well, as a reporter, I covered intelligence for the Washington Post and the military as well after 9/11, and I saw things change. New organizations popped up, a lot more people involved in counter-terrorism, and a lot more contractors in places that I was shocked to see contracts. William Arkin, my co-author, he was seeing the same thing in a very different way. He was seeing a lot of funny code names and job descriptions on job boards asking for thousands of people with top-secret clearances. We eventually joined forces and we decided our goal was to get our arms around this thing and just be able to describe its dimensions in the series of stories and then in much more detail in the book. That’s what we did, we started to Dana_Priest_byWhitney_Shefte.JPGactually map what we call “Top Secret America” – that would be federal organizations and companies doing work at the top-secret classification level. We created a large map that you can see on washingtonpost.com that is really an alternative geography of the United States. It has concentrations of this world in different locations throughout the country, but they’re certainly mostly concentrated in the Washington area and Baltimore region close by to our North.

PHAWKER: One of the overarching conclusions of the book is there’s really two Americas; one that lives in this fortress of secrecy where everyone is paid high salaries and the schools are great and the houses are nice, crime is low – then there’s everyone else.

DANA PRIEST: There are about 860,000 people in the country that have top-secret clearances, there are millions probably that have secret clearance. In fact there are so many that we had to go up to the top secret level because we figured we could never count everyone and all the programs at the secret level. So yes, this is a population the size of the city of D.C. that inhabits this world not in any one place, it’s scattered throughout, it’s sort of hidden in plain sight in office buildings throughout the Washington area and different parts of the country. Contractors make two or three times as much money as the federal workers who do the same job. You can see the ramifications of this when the Census Bureau came out with this list of the 10 wealthiest counties in the country. Six of those counties were smack in the middle of top-secret America. The ripple effect, economically, is enriching those people while the rest of the country is suffering an economic downturn. That’s just one of the many ramifications of having a fourth branch – a secret branch – of government.

PHAWKER: Do you think there’s any connection between this imbalance we’re talking about – is some or all of the money that’s being drained out of the rest of America heading this way?

DANA PRIEST: Some of it certainly is. The budget, for example, for intelligence and counter-terrorism. It’s grown about 250% since 9/11, the majority part of the intelligence budget by itself is now $80 billion. That doesn’t include the Department of Homeland Security and it doesn’t include any other military agencies that work on this as well. Just by that simple budget figure you can say that the money is being spent on this and not spent on other things.

PHAWKER: This is all black-budget stuff, but has anyone involved given you estimates on what they think the total cost of all this is?

uncle_sam_spying_flip.jpgDANA PRIEST: People have, and I don’t know if they are considered accurate or not. As much as $150 billion was the higher range. We use in the book the $80 billion figure because it’s something we could definitely believe was accurate. That’s one of the problems when you have a world that is all classified behind a black wall of secrecy; people aren’t able to see how much money is being spent and they certainly aren’t being able to see how much money is being spent on particular programs or even particular agencies, or how big those agencies have grown. Nor is it possible to see where the problems are. The problems are also classified because it’s in this realm, and that makes this different than any other part of government, where there is some outside oversight usually by Congress and public sessions the media can attend and the public can listen to. In this world, it’s all done in closed session, they call it – in classified sessions where the members of the intelligence committee and their staff are the only ones permitted to listen to testimonies and see documents from the intelligence world. Those committees are so overwhelmed and so understaffed that I would give the oversight of this community an “F.” They do a good job in the sense that many of them work hard, but they are just so out-manned that it’s impossible for them to figure out what’s going on. Because of the secrecy and the size of all this that’s grown up, not even the person in office that was created after 9/11 to manage it all, because the government knew it was growing and they said, “we need to have some control over this,” they created the Director of National Intelligence and his office to oversee all this. And really, they are failing at the job as well, because the job has become so big. But even though they’re failing at the job, they even themselves have become gigantic as well. They occupy a building outside of Washington in one of the nicer neighborhoods around here, located in one of the wealthiest counties in America. The office building itself is 500,000 sq. ft. which equals about five Wal-Marts stacked up on top of each other – it’s become part of the problem as well.

PHAWKER: Backing up on the budget thing a second – what is the justification for blacking out the actual dollar figure? I can understand the specifics of what these people are doing might be classified, but why would we not know the actual amount being spent in this area?

DANA PRIEST: It’s always been the case until this year, General Clapper – who has the position I just mentioned – came out with a figure. But until then, they had not been given out every year. The reason is it’s classified. OK, why is it classified? Something is classified if exposing it, according to the government’s judgement, would gravely damage national security. People on the inside making these decisions have decided year after year that that top line dollar, giving it out would gravely damage the national security. That is a prime example of how the classification system has run amok.

PHAWKER: What have you learned over the course of this investigation that keeps you up at night?

DANA PRIEST: I think it’s the idea that so much money is being spent on things that are not making us safer; that are not providing information that isunclesam_spying1.jpg helpful in the fight against terrorism. We don’t have infinite resources – we have other needs. But more than that, it’s spending that sort of money and using people’s time to do something that’s not helpful, really diverts from making us safer. I do believe that we are much safer than we were on 9/11 and that’s because there are several organizations that are very good at what they do now. They know how to look for terrorists, they have expert employees who have been at this a long time. The CIA group that found Bin Laden, and the Special Operations Force that went in and killed him – those are all people that do an unbelievable job. But they’re relatively small, they’re very focused, they’re not this sprawling organizations that does a lot of the same things that everybody else does. Having visited a lot of organizations that have been put in that other category, you just walk away thinking, “How can we continue to do this?” That’s the thing that motivates me to describe this system in hopes that we can make it better and ultimately then, we will make our country safer.

PHAWKER: Where does the Obama administration break with the Bush administration when it comes to this spiraling growth and complete lack of accountability?

DANA PRIEST: It doesn’t really much at all. Obama has said he would not support the rendition flights that flew people from one country to the other, he supports the closing of the secret black site CIA prisons that were closed by President Bush, and he wanted to close Guantanamo but didn’t do it. Other than that, he has pretty much continued the Bush administration’s program for counter-terrorism, including continuing to grow the budget and the number of organizations that work at the top secret level on counter-terrorism. As far as I can tell, nobody within the government of Barack Obama has taken a really hard look at individual organizations and programs and said, “what is it that we need to keep and what is it that we really don’t need because it’s not helping?” In addition to that, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is on a campaign to enlist the help of regular citizens and local police departments and sheriffs department. The campaign is called “See Something, Say Something,” or “Report Suspicious Activities.” This is sort of dragnet approach to getting citizens and local police to give the FBI tips on potential terrorists. It’s not well focused – a lot of the police departments don’t have proper training yet. They’ve often done silly things like monitoring anti-war demonstrators or Tea Party activists under the rubric of terrorism. So, I have to say that he’s continued on the path of the Bush administration and has in fact increased the budgets for all this. And of course we know that he’s increased the drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well.

uncle_sam_spying_flip.jpgPHAWKER: The conventional wisdom on the difference between Candidate Obama and President Obama is that when he was finally privy to all this top secret information he realized the threat was so much greater than he’d previously thought and that this was all necessary. I think a counter argument might be though that maybe the Intelligence Industrial Complex/Military Industrial Complex is far more powerful than the President, and that they dictate the size and scope and the terms of national security, not the president.

DANA PRIEST: That’s possible, but the president, unlike other areas, is really the one who really leads the intelligence world and tells them what to do. For instance, covert action – which is the CIA’s ability to do things that the hand of the U.S. is never supposed to be seeing – those can only be undertaken with the presidential finding, with the president’s not only approval but direction. They can’t and they don’t go off on their own and do things without that. That’s the thing with Special Operations Forces – they are not gonna go into a particular country – like Yemen, as they did last year – without President Obama’s approval. He’s been very much a supporter of both of those activities.

PHAWKER: Lawrence Wright, who writes about national security for the New Yorker, has stated publicly that he believes his phones are being tapped or his communications are being monitored. He also mentioned in some of these public disclosures that he had discussions with reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post and there were others at both those organizations that felt they were also being monitored. I’m curious, do you think your phone is tapped or has been tapped, or that your communications are being monitored?

DANA PRIEST: I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t necessarily know. I say that because the media has a certain protection in this country. In order to invade that and to impinge on that is a big deal. It’s not a big deal because reporters themselves are special people, it’s a big deal because the Constitution actually sees a role for a free press that is so crucial it decided to protect it as an industry that it doesn’t protect other industries. In order to start snooping around on reporters, I do think here you’re talking about some fundamental Constitutional protections that they don’t take lightly.

PHAWKER: But isn’t that already going on? I mean it’s basically common knowledge that all communications in this country – phone, internet, email, etc. – are all redirected to the NSA, and if they want to access this information they can.

DANA PRIEST: There’s a difference between collecting information into a database, where it sits there, and monitoring someone’s phone call – in other unclesam_spying1.jpgwords, actually listening in on the words that are being said. That’s where I have a hard time believing that that would go on in any kind of frivolous way or any kind of routine way. The collection of information I think is more targeted than you’ve laid out, but it is a common notion that I hear. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it would be very effective. We already know that the NSA – the National Security Agency – has an overwhelming amount of information that it vacuums up from around the world and the United States everyday. It’s far too much to analyze, so it sits around. If they were to do something that, they would have even more that sits around. I don’t really see the point in that. I think more problematic is a lot of the warrantless wiretapping that went on before, or this idea that the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI could call people ‘suspicious’ and start to actually target them in some way, without the same level of proof that you need to do that in a criminal case. That’s what intelligence is: gathering information and not necessarily acting in a prosecutorial way with it, but just gathering it to see what happens. The idea that you can do that without a lot of reason and proof is something I think we need to watch for. It’s very hard to see because we don’t know what their rules are on that. They haven’t published those – they haven’t made it public.

PHAWKER: You also mentioned that there would be another way to go at all of this, as opposed to the route we’ve done – the Top Secret America, Fortress America route – and that would be to have an honest and frank discussion with the American people about terrorism. What would that entail?

DANA PRIEST: First it would entail the will to do that, and the belief that it will be beneficial to the large goal of trying to get a more realistic program in place against terrorism. The Al-Qaeda organization of 9/11 is nearly completely defeated. There are several hundred of those people left and they are by and large in hiding. Yes, there are other affiliates that have grown up, and yes there are people in the United States I’m sure that are plotting to do bad things. That has always been the case. To maintain this idea that we are constantly at risk is an unrealistic way to approach this problem. It is draining our coffers. It is causing us to use federal employees in ways that aren’t necessarily making us safer. Instead, I think now especially, 10 years later, Osama Bin Laden is dead, Al-Qaeda is nearly dead – now is the time to step back and say, “Where are we in this? Where are we in this fight against terrorism?” If it turns out – as many people would tell me off the record – that the threat is not as big as it used to be, that it’s changed greatly – then why not talk about that? In that discussion the public would also have to come to the conclusion that if someone were to make it past the defenses and do something crazy uncle_sam_spying_flip.jpglike the Oklahoma City Bomber did, we can’t always blame the latest political party for that. There is a risk analysis that would be a much more rational way to approach this situation. Or we could continue down the path we’re on.

PHAWKER: You could also just point out the fact that, you know, let’s man up here. There are bad people in the world and they wanna do bad things. Some bad things might happen, but we’ll get through it – and move on. We don’t need to radically re-order are values as a nation.

DANA PRIEST: Well, that’s better said than what I was trying to say.

PHAWKER: High praise coming from a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

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