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August 2, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Top Secret America

Monday 19 July’s edition of The Washington Post saw the publication of the first of a three-part series looking at what investigative journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin refer to as “Top Secret America”. While the size of America’s intelligence industry has clearly ballooned following the 9/11 attacks, the results of this two-year investigation focus on really bringing to light the scope and subsequent inefficiencies of this “alternative geography”, and the fact that “top secret America is hidden from public view and lacks in thorough oversight”. An excerpt from an interview with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates illustrates this when he reveals “There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that is a challenge.”

The findings of the investigation outline that a staggering 854,000 people across 1271 government organisations and 1921 private companies are involved in counterterrorism programs. While this should surely ensure a feeling of relative safety and security for the American public, it is the inefficiencies in the fact “many security and intelligence agencies do the same work”, and the publication of approximately “50,000 intelligence reports each year—a volume so large that many are routinely ignored”, that raise concerns over the effectiveness of this colossal industry. Consequently, the authors make a convincing argument that these inefficiencies, and subsequent ineffectiveness of the industry as a whole, have actually acted in detriment to national security. They find that “lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists, but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate”.

While the first part focuses on revealing size and presence, the second article in the series, released the following day, outlines the scope of privatisation within an industry that takes care of America’s “most sensitive duties”. While reports from Iraq made companies such as XE Services, formally known as Blackwater, household names due to the problems faced with holding private contractors accountable in the wake of dubious actions, it is difficult to comprehend the true magnitude of the private sector’s involvement in intelligence and security. Priest and Arkin estimate that 265,000 out of the aforementioned 854,000 with top-secret security clearances are private contractors, and that this privatisation of the industry has added to its lack of effectiveness. Private companies have responsibilities to shareholders which often results in clear conflicts of interest, and as the authors point out, because the “privatisation of national security work has been made possible by a nine-year ‘gusher’ of money, (of which the Obama administration has been equally as complicit as the preceding Bush administration), with so much money to spend, managers do not always worry about whether they are spending it effectively”. This is exemplified by the fact that studies often double up, “because no one shares information”.

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Arkin comments that “The military-industrial complex of the Eisenhower era was one that produced massive amounts of capital goods for the military—bombers, missiles, nuclear weapons, et cetera. But today’s national security establishment really values information technology more than it values weapons.”

Arkin goes on to outline that “the mega corporations which have always been powerhouses in the defence industry—Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics—they are moving more and more of their business from production to the provision of services—that is, providing staffing for government. What you see is that we are increasingly a national security establishment that is producing paper rather than producing weapons. And the question is, with the production of all that paper, whether or not we have an effective counterterrorism operation, or whether or not we’re even safer.”

Bringing it all closer to home, while the part played is small; New Zealand does fit into this narrative despite the articles’ domestic US focus. Specifically, Priest and Arkin make reference to the “Five Eyes Allies”, in the third part of their exposé. The Five Eyes Allies refers to the United Kingdom-United States of America (UKUSA) Agreement, which is a multilateral agreement in which those two countries, as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, share intelligence information about the entire world. Many may have been completely unaware of New Zealand’s complicity in this intelligence agreement until the series of protests at the now-infamous Waihope ‘spy base’, which most recently saw Anzac Ploughshares activists deflating one of the balloons that surround satellites with a sickle in April 2008. New Zealand’s responsibility as a part of the UKUSA Agreement is directly concerned with the Western Pacific, and listening posts at both Waihope, and at Tangimoana fulfil these duties.

I would contend that while the Anti Bases Campaign will no doubt continue to raise awareness of the existence of these listening posts in New Zealand, the Top Secret America investigation itself should act primarily as a further deterrent to New Zealanders for allowing our privacy to be compromised, especially as the Law Commission and Privacy Commission work through a substantial review of New Zealand’s privacy law.
To read the Top Secret America series in full, and explore the web presentation that accompanies the articles, head to


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  1. Rock N Roll says:

    I also heard the Democracy Now! interview. It’s totally out of control now…it’s pretty obvious to those who can see it. Intelligence bubble ready to explode???
    What would be the consequences?

    Nice article

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