on September 14, 2011
This book essentially identifies the amalgamation of Federal agencies, Military units, and commercial firms that, for reasons of National Security, operate behind a veil of government mandated secrecy. This amalgamation has always been an important component of the U.S. National Security Establishment. Yet according to the authors of this book, since the tragedy of 9/11, the number of organizations within this veil of secrecy as well as the number of persons holding security clearances necessary to work at these entities had grown exponentially. The entire book is really focused on documenting this growth and exploring how selected parts of this secret structure work.
Those purchasing this book expecting to find exposures of corruption and other villainies will be doomed to disappointment. The story Priest and Arkin paint is rather one of numerous examples of well meaning, patriotic people desperately trying to fight what until recently was called the `the Global War on Terrorism' without a clue as to how to go about it. Millions of dollars have been ignorantly wasted in creating new organizations, the purchase of exotic hardware and software, and in the creation of far reaching programs all under the rubric of `Counter-Terrorism'. Because there has been no single authority guiding this growth, agencies and programs have tended to overlap and even duplicate each other. Because of misplaced secrecy one agency will spend millions on a project that duplicates what another agency is already doing.
This general confusion has been exacerbated by the extensive use of private contractors, indeed of the over 800 hundred thousand persons who hold security clearances in this country over 200 hundred thousand are contractor personal. Again most contractors are not the venal crooks that are often portrayed by journalists and writers who ought to know better. Although Priest and Arkin did not go into it, contractors in the secret world usually provide three types of services: 1) collection and analysis services which some in the U.S, Intelligence Community do not think are core intelligence functions; 2) the design of information systems or collection systems that will improve the speed and efficiency of intelligence production in agencies that have contracted for their services; and 3) operating what are considered specialty functions such as the IT infrastructure management. Contractors are also used in smaller numbers to fulfill a host of other roles with varying degrees of success. The use of contractors no matter how well qualified for their missions has clearly added to the uncontrolled expansion of the secret world.
Priest and Arkin in the best Washington Post tradition report on this uncontrolled growth of the Secret World, but do not pass judgment on it except in the most obvious cases of duplication of effort and clear cut waste. Yet if the reader is attentive it is obvious that most of the uncontrolled growth of secret world that they so accurately report on could have been prevented had the U.S. Government actually developed a coherent counter-terrorism strategy that could have guided an effective response to the threats posed by al Qaeda specifically and terrorism in general.
Dana Priest and William Arkin have produced a remarkable, very deep view of our entire antiterrorism, intelligence, clandestine operational set of networks.
The in depth work and analysis they have here produced is indeed worthy of the highest praise and of immense potential value to our nation.
It is obvious that many high level federal and contractor people opened up to these two highly talented researchers to allow us to gain an insight into the gigantic infrastructure of Top Secret America, and we owe our thanks to these individuals in addition to the authors.
The immense amount of money increasingly devoted to the agencies and programs in conjunction with the amount of inefficient overlap described in this work is frankly sickening and inexcusable.
Within the conclusions, here is a statement right on, absolutely correct, and is referring the mass of agencies, organizations, etc., involved in antiterrorism, intelligence, and cybersecurity and the enormous amount of overclassification and impossibility of ever insuring none of it will leak:
"The smarter and safer route is to design policies and construct foreign relationships based on operating forthrightly, in a way which won't embarrass us or harm anything of value when it is revealed." Great statement and objective. As long as we have politicians who feed at the trough of contractor profits derived from permanent war, however, it isn't going to happen.
My very high praise for this outstanding piece of important work is only mitigated slightly by some non-organizational assertions (in other words not concerning structure or budgets) and in some cases an appearance of not questioning what should have been questioned.
I suggest some items for consideration (samples), and please keep in mind that the following small points are to be taken in context of what is an outstanding piece - Top Secret America.
1) Ayman al-Zawahiri was not "in the ranks" of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ); he was its leader, and it is difficult to understand why the obfuscation in this work. This man was a terrorist leader long prior to the US promoting of the little known bin Laden to the world. It should further be noted that al-Zawahiri was one of the five signers of the infamous 1998 Fatwah, attributed erroneously solely to bin Laden, and one of the four who at that time led organizations, in his case EIJ. The only signer who was an individual, not the leader of an organization was bin Laden.
Compare these bits of information to all that our public has heard about the authorship of this Fatwah. Knowing the above it is worth some thought why al-Zawahiri has been continually referred to solely as companion, doctor (his is a doctor), second in command, "side kick" (Dana Priest), etc., of bin Laden. He has always been a major terrorist leader. Of course now he is acknowledged as being in command of what is called al-Qaeda.
2) The USS Cole attack was not by al-Qaeda; it was EIJ, led by al-Zawahiri. Dana Priest had an opportunity to correct this error when she noted that the CIA stopped distributing reports on responsibility soon after the attack, but that opportunity was not taken.
3) Whereas it is stated that the evidence of WMD in Iraq was so well buried that very few people had actually seen the evidence, it would have been more accurate to note that such evidence did not exist. Put it this way: It was known that no substantial evidence was in existence. I certainly put that out continually.
4) The source Curveball: It was known that he was a flake prior to Powell's UN speech by both German Intelligence and the CIA, and the information broke publicly a couple days prior to that speech. Besides, there simply wasn't evidence to support anything he said.
5) Powell's UN speech was barely touched upon, but it was a complete disaster, as he now understands. However, at the time the speech was made almost every single assertion could immediately be refuted as baseless and outrageous. This disaster is an example which could have served in this book to point out how politics can and does control what is called intelligence when the objective is war.
6) The assertion is made that it is terrorists who "sought to undermine the openness of our government" and to "force it to become a fortress." Factually, no, that's our own government. The policies put into effect after 9/11 were done so by our government, not some foreign organization.
7) It is clear that a lot of value has been placed on what the 9/11 commission. Acceptance of a severely flawed investigation shouldn't be a given. It is not that the members should be faulted necessarily. Their ground rules and limitations insured the commission was worthless as an investigative body. There is yet to be a valid investigation of this subject.
8) It is asserted that Raymond Davis, CIA in Pakistan, shot "two would-be assailants." I wonder who is responsible for that designation of those he shot and then photographed lying in the street. According to Pak Intelligence, they were Pakistani intelligence agents following him for a good reason.
9) In praise of the effectiveness of drones, after an attack "a motionless body" and "helping to kill terrorists 5000 miles away ..." Well, actually, more than one "motionless body," and "helping to kill" countless others within the blast zones.
10) "... in Pakistan where a number of civilians have died in the (drone) attacks..." Actually, quite a number of civilians, and by most on the ground, on site evaluations following the drone attacks, the ratio has been about 9:1, civilians killed to suspects. In this book an assertion is made that because a Pakistani General agrees substantially with the CIA low count of civilians killed by drone attacks, that "helped confirm their (CIA) accuracy." Don't think so.
11) "... the US backed Northern Alliance..." ... "vanquish the Taliban" Fact: Prior to our invasion of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance received its backing from Russia and Iran. It was the US Air Force, not the NA, which forced the Taliban from government. Further, the Taliban were not vanquished; they dispersed, and in fact are still, after 10 years, very much a presence.
12) The JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) were "... blamed for deaths and torture they did not commit ..." Perhaps, but with not a single example given, we're left with the knowledge that indeed they are responsible for both many civilian deaths and torture. So, whereas the assertion probably has a basis in truth, it should be put within context.
13) It is quoted that in December 2001 al-Qaeda had a force of 3,000 and that after the battle of Tora Bora, the dead al-Qaeda were carried off by the truck load. Without questioning the amount of dead, in that "al-Qaeda" consisted of about 200 at the time, it is not made clear where the 3000 came from. Everyone we fight and kill is not a member of "al-Qaeda."
14) Reference is made to the "al-Qaeda operatives" in the Philippines. As I recall, when the US starting asserting al-Qaeda in the Philippines, the leadership of that outfit was very clear in objecting and asserting that they were neither al-Qaeda nor did they have any affiliation with al-Qaeda.
15) The Abu Ghraib abuse is referred to being as just "by low level army soldiers." That's misleading and a cop-out. Responsibility for those war crimes goes right up the chain of command. Those prosecuted are not synonymous with those responsible. And the reason for no further prosecutions was a decision made by the incoming OBama administration.
16) The claim is made that Abu Zarkawi, al-Qaeda top operative in Iraq, was captured June 7 2006. No, he was killed, on June 8 in a bombing raid, not captured. Two witnesses, a neighbor and Iraq police officer, both claimed he was taken off a stretcher and a US troop stomped on his chest and stomach until blood came out his mouth, and then died..
Abu Zarkawi (Zarqawi) certainly had no affiliation with either al-Qaeda or bin Laden prior to our invasion. He was non-affiliated out of Jordan, and was in Iraq for his leg. It is questionable that he ever was affiliated with al-Qaeda. What we called al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI ], called itself the "Islamic State of Iraq." A more accurate term may be "the "non-aligned mujahideen" which he brought together from many other nations to fight in Iraq after our invasion.
17) It's timely to point out that the label "al-Qaeda" has been enormously over used. Everything and everybody who now want to attack us and whom we are fighting is not always either nor affiliated with al-Qaeda. As an example, even in Iraq as quoted from a DoD intelligence officer: "It was kind of a running joke in our office. We would sarcastically refer to everybody as al-Qaeda." Not just there has it been and is it being done.
I repeat: Within the conclusions, here is a statement right on, absolutely correct, and is referring the mass of agencies, organizations, etc., involved in antiterrorism, intelligence, and cybersecurity and the enormous amount of overclassification and impossibility of ever insuring none of it will leak:
"The smarter and safer route is to design policies and construct foreign relationships based on operating forthrightly, in a way which won't embarrass us or harm anything of value when it is revealed."
Thank you for reading this review, the length for which I apologize, and I realize that some of the above points may be other than commonly believed.
Since 9/11, the number of newly classified documents has totaled 23 million; not surprisingly, it has become more difficult to learn the extent of our intelligence efforts. America's 'War on Terror' has become a multi-billion-dollar terrorism-industrial complex. Nobody knows how much it costs, how many it employs. Since 9/11, 33 large office complexes for top secret intelligence work have been completed in the D.C. area - the equivalent of nearly three Pentagons. More than 250,000 contractors (854,000 total) are working on top secret programs; the thought was that they would be less expensive - wrong; a large number were recruited from existing government intelligence employment, at much higher salaries. (A 2008 study by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that contractors made up 29% of intelligence agency workforces, but cost 49% of their personnel budgets. Secretary Gates said federal workers cost 25% less than contractors.) More than a thousand agencies have been created. Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies (about 800 doing nothing but IT) work on counter-terrorism programs, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations in the U.S. Many do the same work - eg. 51 organizations and military commands in 15 cities track money to/from terrorist networks. The NSA intercepts and stores 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, etc. each day. Dozens of databases feeding separate computer networks, however, cannot interact with one another. Sixty classified analytic Web sites were recently still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness. There is no mechanism to insure that everybody doesn't produce the same thing, gravitating to the lowest-hanging fruit. Findings are shared by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports/year - a volume so large than many are routinely ignored; high-level managers rely on personal briefers to help summarize the material. We've recreated a problem identified as a main cause of 9/11 - lack of information-sharing.
Secrecy is sometimes used to protect ineffective projects, according to one senior intelligence official Whether all these efforts have made us safer or not is impossible to determine, and there is no known assessment mechanism. What is clear, however, is that it thwarted neither the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead (Hasan had exchanged e-mails with a known radical cleric in Yemen), nor the Christmas Day bomb attempt (stopped by an alert passenger). Further, the new agencies and added staff, mountains of data, computers, and technology had little to do with bin Laden's killing - this was accomplished by a small team that had been tracking him for nearly ten years. Interrogating a prisoner eventually led to finding bin Laden's courier, and it was mostly routine from there on.
Within that new bureaucracy, the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has grown more than tenfold (from 1,800 to 25,000) since 9/11, while sustaining a level of obscurity that not even the CIA manages. The unit takes orders directly from the president of secretary of defense and is overseen by a military-only chain of command. JSOC's core includes the Army's Delta Force, the Navy's SEAL Team 6, the Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron, the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the 75th Ranger Regiment. Capabilities include the ability to retrieve and examine items captured in raids - thumb drives, cellphones, CDs, and computers.
'Top Secret America' is not just about massive waste of dollars on a security state that does more harm than good. It is also about loyal employees upset about what they are asked to do - often illegal and dysfunctional. The term 'wasteful redundancy' occurs often in the book.
JSOC is not immune from controversy - reports have accused its members of assaulting and torturing prisoners and hiding them in secret facilities, detaining mothers, wives, and daughters when they couldn't find the men they were looking for. Thirty-four were disciplined disciplined in a one-year period alone. Civilians have also been killed or wounded - its success in targeting the right homes, businesses and individuals has only been about 50%.
The CIA has also undergone a transformation since 9/11, increasingly focused on finding targets to capture or kills. The drone program has killed more than 2,000 militants and civilians since 2001, but the CIA doesn't even acknowledge the drone program. Regardless, its 118 strikes last year were outnumbered 'many times' by instances of providing tips to foreign partners.
'Top Secret America,' however, does not cover all the costs of added security since 9/11. It's estimated that twice as many guards (more than a million) now patrol public spaces, and the cumulative increase in Homeland Security expenditures since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars - again without any sort of real cost-benefit analysis. Then there's the trillions more spent in the Dept. of Defense supposedly on the 'War on Terror' in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bottom-Line: America is now in a perpetual state of yellow alert. 'Top Secret America' documents innumerable examples of new redundancies created as a result. The inevitable result is increased time spent on political infighting and further harm to our economy. Worst of all, we've taken no actions since then to reduce the motivations of potential terrorists - we continue to provide blatant one-sided support for Israel and its abuses of Palestinians, just recently played a lead role in the overthrow of another Arab state, Libya, continue to wage war in and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, frequently bomb Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen, while also threatening Iran and Syria.