August 30, 2011
A K-9 police officer and his
patrol New York's Grand
Central Terminal in 2003.
Less visible are the
clandestine security measures
the government has
implemented since 2001.
Thousands of government organizations and private companies work on programs
related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence.
Last December, The Washington Post
"top-secret world... 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
On today's Fresh Air, Washington Post national security reporter
Priest, the co-author of both the Post's investigative series and the book
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,
joins Terry Gross for a discussion about how the "terrorism industrial
complex" created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks grew to be so big.
"The government said, 'We're facing an enemy we don't understand, we
don't have the tools to deal with it, here's billions... of dollars and
a blank check after that for anybody with a good idea to go and pursue
it' " she says.
"Not only does the government find it
difficult to get its arms around itself, [but now] it doesn't know
what's inside, it doesn't know what works, it doesn't know what doesn't
work. And nobody still, 10 years later, is really in charge of those
Priest and fellow Post reporter William Arkin
found that many security and intelligence agencies do the same work.
For example, there are 51 federal organizations
and military commands, she says, that track the flow of money to and from
"So what you have are good-hearted people
and companies and employees who are doing what they think they can get
paid for and what might help but so much of it is reinventing the wheel
that another organization has already reinvented five times," she says.
Because much of the counterterrorism work is
classified, she says, there's no room for the public to have any kind of
oversight into the process.
That role falls largely those with security
clearances and the intelligence committees within Congress.
"So you and I cannot pressure government to
do better," she says.
"The interest groups that weigh in on every
other subject matter in our governments cannot weigh in, in any public
manner. So you get this cabal of people who have clearances and they
weigh in - and that cabal, unfortunately, includes a profit motive
because there are so many companies whose livelihoods depend on a
continued flow of money to them - because [right after
Sept. 11] the
government relied on contractors to do the work ... [because] Congress
and the White House didn't want it to appear like they were growing
government while they were asking the government to do much more."
Many of the contractors that the government hired to do counterintelligence
and security work are paid much more than their public counterparts in the
CIA and Homeland Security.
"[The government] is willing to pay these
companies money to get the bodies," she says.
"It's created this unintended adverse
consequence: [The private companies then] also drew from the agencies.
It sucked away the very people that those agencies needed to keep. And
it did it because it could attract them with relatively high salaries
and less stressful work than when you're working in government.
addition to costing more, it cost the government some of its best people
- and then it sold those people back to them at two or three times as
More than 800,000 people now hold top-secret
And now an entire industry has sprung up to
provide those clearances, says Priest.
"The government is now contracting
contractors to do the security clearances for other contractors," she
"The contractors, in the beginning, were
just supposed to be supplemental to the federal employees... But now,
they are everywhere. And some agencies... could not exist without them."
When 9/11 came along, not only were more
things put into the secret box, but they were more highly classified
- making it difficult for not only the public to understand, but for
other people within government [to understand].
- Dana Priest
Priest also profiles the Joint Special
Operations Command, or
JSOC, the clandestine military command that now
conducts more anti-terrorism operations than the CIA.
The organization, established in 1980, conducted
hostage rescues for many years. It has since developed into a highly
secretive and lethal force responsible for reconnaissance and targeted
military operations - including the one last May in Pakistan that found and
killed Osama Bin Laden.
Priest describes JSOC as,
"sitting at the center of a secret universe
as the dark matter that shapes the world in ways that are usually not
"In the last 10 years, JSOC has managed to pull off a level of obscurity
that the CIA hasn't even managed," she says.
"Until now, we have had sporadic reporting
here and there about actions undertaken by JSOC but [we have] tried to
put together its history since 9/11 when it was completely revamped into
a manhunting, lethal arm of the military."
Priest and Arkin looked at what JSOC has been
allowed to do and how effective the organization has been in the past
"As a killing machine, it is highly
effective," she says.
"No one competes with them. It is a
professionalized killing force and that's what it's been used for. They
operate in very small groups of people so they can keep a low profile.
They have their own interrogation facilities that they alone control.
And they have captured and killed a lot more Al-Qaeda than the CIA
The JSOC team also did reconnaissance and
special-operations work in the months directly after Sept. 11.
Dana Priest received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize
for her coverage of the Water
Reed Army Medical Center
and the 2006 Pulitzer Prize
for her work on CIA secret prisons.
Whitney Shefte/Little, Brown & Co.
Dana Priest received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for
her coverage of the Water Reed Army Medical Center and the 2006 Pulitzer
Prize for her work on CIA secret prisons.
"They also have a kill list," she says.
"That is one of the more controversial
aspects of JSOC and the CIA - they can put people on that list and they
can then hunt them down and kill them. Some people call that
assassination, which is banned in the United States. Other people call
that targeted killing. That's what the U.S. government calls it."
Priest says both Presidents
used JSOC as a personal weapon against terrorists.
"In JSOC's case, they have the authority to
do more killing in this way than the CIA does without informing
Congress," she says.
"Under [President] Bush, they did not inform
Congress much at all about JSOC's actions. President Obama has taken a
slightly different approach. He believes they should brief Congress...
The CIA has more oversight of its activities
than JSOC does. JSOC's oversight comes from its own chain of command.
The CIA's oversight comes not only from its own chain of command - but
also from Congress."
Priest says there's a difference between secrecy
- and the current state of secrecy that was created in response to the
terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
"We're not arguing that secrecy is
unnecessary - not at all," she says.
"The bin Laden strike is one great example
of why you do have to keep operations secret. However, the secrecy has
gotten out of control. Everybody in government and outside has made that
point. When 9/11 came along, not only were more things put into the
secret box, but they were more highly classified - making it difficult
for not only the public to understand, but for other people within
government [to understand]...
And now, it's simply out of control. And
most people I interviewed would agree with that. And they would also
agree that the government can no longer maintain its secrets."
On the intelligence committees in Congress:
"But the intelligence committees are so
understaffed and overwhelmed by the largeness of the task.
There are literally only one handful of
staffers who have any expertise in the National Reconnaissance
Office, which is the office that manages spy satellites and happens
to spend tens of billions of dollars a year to do that.
It's a critical function. Those handful
of staffers - half of them are very inexperienced - because there's
a relatively high turnover. That's your oversight."
On why she wanted to report on this:
"Watching social programs overseas that
are meant to deal with terrorism in a different way - not in a
military way - be killed because of funding or be underappreciated
because they couldn't show results on paper quickly, while there was
so much waste in this area."
On the secrecy surrounding JSOC:
"It's all shrouded in secrecy and in
this case, a level of secrecy that's beyond all others so it's hard
for the public to know not only what they're doing but whether those
actions are effective or whether they're counterproductive...
Whatever they do - and if they make
mistakes - there is always a cleanup operation afterwards. There are
always people in a village who hate what is being done and civilians
are killed and that has happened repeatedly.
The blowback for such
secret operations is no longer secret...
That is one of the downsides to being
able to give the authority to one person or a group of people to use
such a lethal weapon without the rest of the world knowing - because
you're operating in the dark, by yourself, without the oversight you
Where is Top Secret America?
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Top Secret America