"Top Secret America" Sheds Light on the Intelligence-Industrial Complex

Thursday, July 22, 2010

This week, the Seattle Times is running a Washington Post expose on the vast American intelligence bureaucracy.  Called "Top Secret America," the series delves deep into the underbelly of the intelligence world and exposes a runaway freight train that costs a pretty penny and does little to keep us safe.  Of particular significance to civil libertarians, the series documents official frustration with data overload, notes the high cost and low efficacy of the expanding network of programs and agencies, and highlights concerns with the increasing role of private intelligence contractors.  Those familiar with the ACLU's work on surveillance and privacy will recognize these issues as common refrains.

The Post quotes several intelligence officials who express frustration with the amount of information they receive.  Unable to keep track of the vast majority of “intelligence,” even the most skilled agents are prone to overlooking key facts.  For example, the Post alleges that an overwhelming barrage of data prevented agencies from seeing information that could have prevented the Christmas Day bombing attempt.  Such information overload also occurs in Washington state, where intelligence officials also receive large swaths of unnecessary information.  One way to reduce this barrage and enhance the effectiveness of the intelligence community is to create clear, uniform standards for information gathering that focus on suspected criminal behavior, and prevent entities from gathering information based on political or religious ideology.

The Post also notes that the new intelligence world is increasingly expensive.  While part of that can be attributed to collecting and storing unnecessary information, governments also spend an overwhelming amount of money on gimmicky new tools and technologies.  Several police agencies in Washington state have received millions in federal grants to purchase gadgets that would confound James Bond.  But because these technologies are implemented ad hoc, without clear standards for use, the high cost does not result in a safer world.  The immense growth of the intelligence world, coupled with the political advantage of a government that claims it will “spare no expense” when it comes to security, creates an unfocused, unstructured environment that distracts us from real threats to safety.  Needless to say, the intelligence business operates inefficiently.

 “Intelligence business,” of course, means exactly that.  The Post points out that our intelligence world consists of an alarmingly high number of private intelligence contractors.  Because the government “spares no expense,” these contractors represent increasingly attractive investment opportunities, creating a substantial risk that intelligence work will be driven not by legitimate threats, but by shareholder needs.  The business model of an intelligence contractor relies on the presence of an actual threat in order to generate a profit; the lack of any threat, by contrast, represents a threat to contractor’s business.  Given this model, some contractors have an incentive to sustain a climate of fear.  As a result, elected officials are routinely solicited by intelligence vendors promoting fancy but unnecessary gadgets, creating the risk of a self-perpetuating intelligence-industrial complex.

One of the great things about "Top Secret America" is its depiction of the intelligence world as a behemoth that threatens to unintentionally obliterate everything in its path. The problem exists regardless of the attitudes and politics of the people involved. This means that concerns are best addressed by establishing new restraints that make intelligence gathering more effective while enhancing our freedom and our safety.

Importantly, the problems discussed in Top Secret America are not limited to the federal bureaucracy; they also exist at the state level. We in Washington state also should focus our resources more wisely.  By pressing for legislation aimed at protecting civil liberties and cutting waste, we can preserve our freedom while ensuring our safety.