Thousands of government organizations and private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence. Last December, The Washington Post reported that this "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 work."
On today's Fresh Air, Washington Post national security reporter Dana 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 questions."
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 terrorist networks.
"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. So in 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 much money."
More than 800,000 people now hold top-secret security clearances. 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 says. "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."
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 detectable."
"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 decade.
"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 have."
The JSOC team also did reconnaissance and special-operations work in the months directly after Sept. 11.
"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 Bush and Obama have 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 normally get."
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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This week, we'll be doing several programs related to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In response to the attacks, the government created a top secret world of agencies and private contractors to collect and analyze intelligence. It's become so large, unwieldy and 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.
The system put in place to keep the U.S. safe is so massive, its effectiveness is impossible to determine. These are some of the conclusions Dana Priest and William Arkin reached in their Washington Post series "Top Secret America." They've just expanded the series into a book called "Top Secret America: The Rise of a New American Security State."
Dana Priest is my guest. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her investigation into the CIA's secret prisons. In 2008, she won another Pulitzer for her investigation into conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Dana Priest, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you just describe the scope of this world that you describe as top secret America?
Ms. DANA PRIEST (Co-author, "Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State"): Well, physically, which is what we could see about this world, since it is top secret, it is really a large community that's spread out throughout the Washington area, but also in different parts of the country. It's so big and includes so many buildings, that it is many, many times the size of the Pentagon, if you were to put it together.
And inside top secret America, there are about 2,000 companies that work on top secret projects and programs for government. And there are another 1,200 organizations, give or take, that work on top secret programs in intelligence and counterterrorism. And that was the world that we sought to describe, the world that great up in response to 9/11, when 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, literally, $40, then another $40 billion, and a blank check after that, for anybody with a good idea to go and pursue it.
GROSS: I would want the vastness of these new intelligence and Homeland Security outfits and the amount of money being given to them to make me feel secure. But reading your book, a lot of that made me feel insecure, because you're saying that there's so much redundancy and such a huge volume of information and reports being generated by all these new agencies and private contractors, and it's impossible to synthesize it and really keep up with it.
Ms. PRIEST: Well, that's so true. Not only does the government find itself unable to get its arms around itself, this top secret America behemoth, it doesn't know what's inside, it doesn't really know what works, what doesn't work, and nobody still, 10 years later, is really in charge of those questions. And at the bottom line, nobody still is in charge of counterterrorism.
So what you have are, you know, good-hearted people and companies and employees that are doing what they think they can get paid for and what they - what might help. But so much of it is reinventing the wheel that another organization has already reinvented five times.
That's particularly true within the military, which is the largest government agency in this world, much larger than the CIA or the National Security Agency. So you find, within the military, large units that decided on their own that they wanted to be - get in the fight, so to speak. They wanted to do counterterrorism, and they were often ill-equipped to do that.
GROSS: How has this happened? How has our need to protect ourselves ended up in this, like, vast network of agencies and private contractors that aren't necessarily communicating, that are duplicating each other and that are publishing all these reports that nobody can read, how did that happen?
Ms. PRIEST: It happened first because everyone was so worried there was going to be another attack, that Congress and the White House really did say, you know, anything it takes, here's the money, go do it. And then they didn't follow up.
And then when they got better at understanding the threat and what it was and what it wasn't, they never reassessed what was in the process of growing up. And then you have, you know, the other leg of the stool is Congress. You know, because this is all classified, you and I can't look at it. We can't debate it like we could the nuclear Seawolf submarine the Defense Department was going to build and say: Look, do we really need another one or another dozen? We can't see that. We can't see anything about this.
So Congress plays this role that's critical and unique. Congress needs to do that. 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, develops spy satellites and happens to spend tens of billions of dollars a year to do that -critical function. Those handful of staffers, half of them are very inexperienced because there's a relatively high turnover. That's your oversight.
Then the next leg of the stool is the secrecy. You and I cannot pressure government to do better. The interest groups that weigh in on every other subject in our government 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 livelihood depends on a continued flow of money to them, because the government in the beginning did rely on contractors to do so much of the work, because Congress and the White House didn't want it to appear as if they were growing government while they were asking government to do much more in the beginning. So they brought in private contractors.
GROSS: While you were listening to Congress debate the debt ceiling and what programs we should cut or cut back to help balance the budget, were you thinking about all the money we're spending on top secret America? For example, you write that after 9/11, the Bush administration and Congress gave security-related agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending. And you say this top secret world has grown so large, no one even knows how much money it costs.
Ms. PRIEST: Of course I was, and even before the deficit became the center of such attention. It was something that gnawed at me and actually was one of the motivations for doing this sort of work, which wasn't easy, was watching social programs - 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.
And, I mean, I'm quoting a general in there who's also so frustrated. He says: These buildings are like palaces. And they really are. The director of national intelligence, which was a position created in 2003 to try to put somebody on top of all this, to govern it, an experiment which has largely failed, by the way, that - his office now is 500,000 square feet, the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of each other. It's enormous.
GROSS: So this building is - houses the director of national intelligence. I feel like I am in absolutely no position to judge whether the building needs that kind of space, and - do you feel like you're in a position to say this is really too big? I mean...
Ms. PRIEST: I - well, I would say that the people I talk to who have worked with the director's office say that the size of the office symbolizes top secret America in that it has become so big that it fails on its weight, because people within the organization don't know what each other is doing. And there are so many people, that it's hard to keep adequate oversight over what they're doing.
But in addition to that, this particular office - which, again, was created after 9/11 to manage the entire 16 intelligence agencies, according to people in those agencies, is not a great benefit, has not made operations better, has not made it more likely that those 16 agencies will find the people they're looking for and stop the next attack.
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, co-author of the new book "Top Secret America."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Dana Priest. She and William Arkin have expanded their Washington Post series, "Top Secret America," into a new book investigating the vast and expensive terrorism industrial complex that has been created since 9/11.
Now, getting back to America's deficit and the crisis of spending and cutting that we're in now, you say, you know, that when the government started contracting, like, sending a lot of the intelligence and Homeland Security work to private contractors, the idea was to make it seem to the public that government was not growing. You write: They wanted the public to believe that government was not growing during this vast period of expansion of the early 2000s. Contractors would be counted as part of an agency's workforce, and besides, by turning to the private sector, the government could avoid the rigid federal civil service rules that made the hiring process slow.
So it looked like government wasn't expanding, but the money that we were spending paying private contractors was expanding enormously. And in fact, the private contractors that we've been paying, most of them - or at least many of them - make more than their counterparts in government, their counterparts in the CIA or Homeland Security. Why is that?
Ms. PRIEST: Well, the simplest answer is the government will pay it. So the market will bear it. They are willing to pay these companies this much money to get the bodies. And because there are a limited number of companies that do the work that, for instance, the CIA wants done, they're valuable to them.
Now, it's created this unintended adverse consequence, which is it also drew from the agencies. It sucked away the very experienced people that those agencies needed to keep. And it did it because it could attract them with such high salaries and relatively less stressful work than when you're working in government.
So it also - in addition to costing more - it bled the government of some of its best people, and then it sold those people back to them for two and three times as much money. So in recent years, the CIA, for example, tried to do something about that, because they just saw people flooding out of the agency -and not just senior people who could also collect their pension and retirement, but young people who got enough experience to get a clearance - which takes quite a bit of investigation on the part of the government. They would see them leave before they really had much of a career, but then again be sold right back to the same agency for much more money.
So it created this dynamic of brain drain, and the agency put on a prohibition that anybody who left before 20 years - which is their retirement period -could not work for the agency for a year.
Well, that sounds onerous, but actually what companies did - because they knew these employees were so valuable - is they would hire them. They would have them sit in the office doing basically nothing for a year, paying them these very high salaries - you and I paying them their high salaries - so that when a year was up, they could go work at the agency.
So it didn't really affect the larger companies that do this work. And by the way, some of those large companies like Booz Allen Hamilton now are - they really are an arm of the intelligence world.
Booz Allen, for example - which has a very good reputation within the community - its work is almost exclusively government contracting in the intelligence world now. So it's like a shadow agency, if you will.
GROSS: You know, just in terms of the expansion of this top secret world, there are so many employees in the infrastructure of clearing people for their top secret status. I mean, that's an industry in and of itself now.
Ms. PRIEST: It's an industry in and of itself that is contracted out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PRIEST: So even - so the government is now paying contractors to do the security clearances for other contractors.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PRIEST: I mean, the contractors, in the beginning, were supposed to just be supplemental to the federal employees. But they - and, in fact, there are regulations that say they cannot take on what's called inherently governmental functions, because you don't want somebody to have a money motive, in addition to a public service motive.
But now they are everywhere, everywhere, and some agencies 0 like the satellite agency, the NRO - could really not exist, could not do what they need to do without them. That wall that's so famous, the marble - the white marble wall at the CIA, where the officers who have died in the line of duty have stars, anonymous stars, 22 of those stars have been put up there since 9/11 for officers who have died in the line of duty. Eight of those 22 are actually contractors who were involved with, for the most part, covert action on the part of the United States working with the agency. So that gives you some sense of how ingrained contractors are to the intelligence world today.
GROSS: You know, one of the things I was thinking about reading book, is about how the Homeland Security and intelligence business has expanded so enormously at the same time that cities and towns are cutting back police and fire departments because they don't have the money to support them. So we have this huge federal infrastructure, but the local infrastructure in so many places is falling apart. And they're the first responders.
Ms. PRIEST: Right. And so what you have now is you have DHS agreeing to give states and local authorities - because they are now on this big campaign, I should say, to get local police to be their front line against terrorism. They will give local communities money for intelligence fusion cells and for counterterrorism analysis and work. And those local communities are so desperate for money that even though they don't really think they have an issue with terrorism, they take the money, agree to do - agree to use their force to do some of this work, which some of them don't really think needs to be done, just so that they can get extra equipment and use it for regular crime-fighting.
I went to Memphis, Tennessee, and spent a good - a fair amount of time there with the Memphis Police Department, who's very gung-ho and very inventive in the sort of information they're collecting on people that they think are potentially criminals. And a lot of that equipment is given to them or funded by DHS terrorism money. And, by the way, some of the intelligence equipment is equipment it developed for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that has migrated back to the law enforcement community here.
And I'm talking about biometric equipment that can take thumbprints at traffic stops or take a picture of someone's iris, even, from a distance without them knowing, some of the cameras that are now used to automatically pull up a license plate information in a car when the police are just driving around, and a lot of the cameras that are posted in high-crime areas throughout the - in the case Memphis, but other communities that record people's actions. But there are many others, as well.
GROSS: What are your concerns about that?
Ms. PRIEST: The concerns are privacy concerns, because it is being melded up with commercially available information on individuals that, prior to this separate boom in IT and just technology, the police needed a warrant to understand, you know, all the places that you lived or what your various phone numbers were. They needed to get some kind of higher permission to do that.
Well, now they can buy commercially available data about you and me, like you and I can, or like the Washington Post can when we do that in order to do our work as reporters. Law enforcement can do that now, also.
So you have this marriage of high-tech technology that can really probe somebody's background, plus the surveillance equipment and biometric information. And now they're also creating the DHS and FBI databases in which people who are suspected of acting suspiciously - which is a pretty low bar. It doesn't mean - it's nothing close to probable cause that is required to open an investigation by a police department. It's much less than that.
We have seen dozens of cases throughout the country, the ACLU has collected them on their website - but we've done some collecting ourselves - in which local police departments and sheriffs departments, wanting to join the counterterrorism fight, have totally misunderstood what they should be doing in that regard and have collected information on anti-war activists and protestors, on, you know, people who are protesting environmental issues.
They've collected information on Tea Party activists, just the whole gamut of legal demonstrators and activists on various causes, and they've put it under the name of counterterrorism.
GROSS: Dana Priest will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Top Secret America." Tonight, she reports on top secret America in an edition of the PBS series "Frontline."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pulitzer prize-winning, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest. Priest and William Arkin have written a new book called "Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State." It's about the massive terrorism industrial complex that was created in response to 9/11 that Priest says operates in the dark without sufficient oversight.
Your new book expands on the series that you wrote for the Washington Post on top secret America. But there's a new chapter you write about, about JSOC, which stands for the Joint Special Operations Command. And you describe this as sitting at the center of the secret universe as the dark matter that shapes the world in ways that are usually not detectable. What do you mean?
Ms. PRIEST: Well, JSCO is the secret clandestine military command that actually does more work on counterterrorism against al-Qaida and its supporters that the CIA does, and in the last 10 years has managed to pull off a level of obscurity that the CIA hasn't even managed.
It is used by the president, reports directly to the president and to the secretary of defense. And really, until now, we have had - for those of us who were, you know, looking at this - we've had sporadic reporting here and there about actions that were undertaken by JSOC. But this chapter is trying to put together its history since 9/11, when it was completely revamped into a man-hunting, lethal-action arm of the military. And to say - and to look at what it's allowed to do and how it does it and how effective it has been...
GROSS: Well, it was a JSOC SEAL team that killed bin Laden. So...
Ms. PRIEST: Right.
GROSS: ...and is really effective.
Ms. PRIEST: Yes. I mean, as a killing machine, it is highly effective. It is -you know, no one competes with them, not - certainly not the CIA's paramilitary. It is a professionalized killing force, and that's what it's been used for. And, in fact, president Obama has really increased the use of JSOC. They operate in very small groups of people so they can keep a low profile. They also operate unmanned drones that are there for surveillance to collect information about their targets, but also lethal drone strikes. They have their own interrogation facilities that they alone control. And they have actually captured and killed a lot more al-Qaida than the CIA have.
And they've been revamped to by General Stanley McChrystal, who really took them from being a hostage rescue unit that did - definitely did some major work right after 9/11, into what I call - what we call the secret army of the United States, because they're a self-sustaining unit that has everything they could possibly want, from their own satellites to their own intelligence unit and their own - some reconnaissance planes and aircraft and that sort of thing.
They do - they also have a kill list. And that I guess is one of the more controversial elements of both JSOC and the CIA, is that they can put people on that list - individuals, single individuals 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.
GROSS: You describe JSOC as being the president's personal weapon against terrorists, and that both President Bush and Obama have used it that way. What are the implications of that?
Ms. PRIEST: Well, again, because it's all shrouded in secrecy, and in this case a level of secrecy that is beyond all others. It's hard for the public to know, not only what they're doing, but whether that - those actions are effective, or whether they're counterproductive.
In the chapter I quote Stanley McChrystal, General McChrystal, who was the commander of JSOC and really revamped it in - starting in 2003, is saying some of our actions were counterproductive. That's because whatever they do, and if they make mistakes, there is always a cleanup operation afterwards. There is always people in a village who hate what has been done, and especially if there is mistakes and civilians are killed. And that has happened repeatedly. The blowback for such secret operations, first of all, is no longer secret. People know what people have been killed. And they began to understand that it was the military or some kind of unit - because they must have worn clothes that were similar enough - that it caused, some would argue, it caused more grief than a benefit. And that is one of the downsides to being able to give the authority to one person or to a small group of people to use such a lethal weapon without the rest of the world knowing.
In JSOC's case, they have the authority, under the way the government lawyers interpret what they do, to do more killing in this way than the CIA does without informing Congress. Under Bush they did not inform Congress, much at all, about JSOC's actions. President Obama has taken a slightly different tact. He believes that they should brief Congress, even though he agrees with the Bush administration's legal interpretation of what they're doing, but that it makes political sense to brief some of the conventional leaders about what JSOC is doing.
The CIA has more oversight of its activities than JSOC does. That's the bottom line. 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.
GROSS: After bin Laden was killed, I felt like well, I can understand secrecy surrounding an operation like that. I mean that's such a...
Ms. PRIEST: Well, absolutely.
Ms. PRIEST: Absolutely. We're not arguing that secrecy is unnecessary, not at all. However, the secrecy has gotten out of control and every body in government has made that point, going back 20 years. Nine-eleven came along, and not only were more things put into the ceiver(ph) box but they were more highly classified, making it more difficult for, not only the public to understand it, but for other people within government. So it became an impediment to better government functioning, as well. 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. The WikiLeaks is one product of that, but there are many other examples of this sort of thinking of classified information that are contained in the conclusion. But simply stated, the technology that the government uses in its computer systems is easily penetrated and is being penetrated by people who have no authorization to get that information. So it realizes that its ability to control this vast amount of information it's created that's classified, is very weak at the moment. And many people advocate it - just start over again, and say what is it that we really need to keep secret?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Dana Priest. Her new book is called "Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post reporter, Dana Priest. We're talking about her new book "Top Secret America," which is about how top secret private contractors and government agencies have just expanded incredibly since 9/11.
Let's give some kind of physical reality to the top secret America that you're describing. There's all kinds of new complexes that have grown up or that are being built in the wake of 9/11. You say that the capital of this alternative America is actually the Baltimore area, which surprised me. What's going on in Baltimore?
Ms. PRIEST: Right. South of Baltimore, near the Baltimore Airport, is Fort Meade, the home of the National Security Agency, which is an agency that probably grew the most after 9/11. And it's the worldwide eavesdropping agency. I backed into this discovery, because I was invited to go to a... You know, one of the hazards, one of the difficulties of reporting this book, is how do you get inside? So I was looking for places where I could go and get inside and do something that was being done that relates the to top secret America, and the Defense Intelligence Agency let me come into a class in which they were teaching people how to program these cipher locks. And they were teaching them how to maintain classified meeting space.
So they let me come in and watch what they were doing. And when I drove over there, I noticed that the whole area where this classroom was situated, the office was situated, had this eerie feel to it. I mean, I had to bring my editor out to show her, to say, am I crazy?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PRIEST: But the buildings looked different. They were, sort of, paler or plainer than - lots of them had the same time of tinted glass. They had no signs that identified what was inside, but only numbers that identify them. And a lot of long stay hotels, for what I later learned, were contractors that would come in. Well, this led to a big exploration of this area. Bill Arkin, up in Vermont, where he did a lot of his work, would explore using his addresses and his incredible research tools to map the area. And then I would get in the car and drive around with my computer on the armrest, talking to Bill on the phone, and the both of us trying to figure out where I should go next to find these industrial - it looked like a business park, but they are business parks for these corporations and agencies. And then I found a realtor who understood the dynamics of the area, and he took me around and showed me even more.
And what it turned out to be was a part of the alternative geography that's mirrored in other areas of the country, which is you have a large agency like the NSA, which is the hub, and then around it grows up all the contractors who need to be near it to do their work, and then also hundreds of other government agencies that supply bits and pieces and personnel for this and that, that they also need. And so you get a cluster effect. And that's how we discovered this cluster and then went about discovering the other clusters. But what we discovered about this cluster is that when you start counting these things, as we did, that this is the densest.
GROSS: What's an example of something that you found in one of these secret communities, these secret hubs, that you found especially interesting?
Ms. PRIEST: Well, the 10 richest counties in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, seven of them are hubs of top secret America. That tells me that we are not just talking about a concentration of top secret work in a concentration of top secret corporate business, but the ripple effect of that is that the people who live and work in those communities are, by far, more well off, economically, than their counterparts elsewhere. And so there you see the distortion, if you will, of top secret America's economic power. The schools are better. The income is higher. The standard of living is much different.
GROSS: So I'm wondering, when you hear politicians say government can't create jobs...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...what does it make you think? Because you've seen all these jobs, high-paying jobs, that have basically - they're with private contractors, but they've been created to fulfill government needs. And you've also seen government agencies, in top secret America, expand.
Ms. PRIEST: Oh, and what I've just said about those wealthy communities is the best example of that. I mean, this is a jobs program, as well - which is not -which is a very important political point, because jobs programs are really hard to cut back on, politically, for government, for politicians, because people's livelihoods are at stake.
I mean, part of the reason this whole thing exists, is because our political leaders have not yet had an honest dialogue with the public about terrorism -about how many al-Qaida - about how much the al-Qaida network has been decimated, about what its strengths are that remain. It's much easier just to keep adding more onto this, so that if something were to happen, you know, nobody can be blamed. The cost, the political cost of cutting this, publicly, is that if something happens then political leaders are going to accuse whoever did the cutting of risking our future and risking our safety. So it's just much easier to maintain this belief that we are nearly under attack every day, than it is to speak openly and honestly and disclose much more about what we know about al-Qaidas strength right now.
And if you do that - and I have had that conversation with many people, and there is really - I mean, while there is still great concern about al-Qaida, al-Qaida is largely a decimated network now and there are several hundreds left. There are new affiliates that have sprung up that are very worrisome, but al-Qaida is nothing like it was before. And that's been a success of some of these organizations like the FBI, like JSOC, like the CIA - not the larger top secret America that we describe in the book.
GROSS: So thats interesting. So you'd think some of the greatest victories in trying to attack terrorism have come from the already existing part of top secret America, not from this huge new infrastructure that's grown up?
Ms. PRIEST: You can definitely pick out half a dozen organizations that have been highly effective in capturing and killing al-Qaida, and in producing the intelligence, more importantly, that it took to do that and creating the weapon systems that it also took to do that job. But they are a minority. They are a corner of this larger top secret America beast that we write about.
GROSS: Top secret America, as you describe it, has grown so much. But the more people trying to keep it secret, the more likely the secret it is to get out. So is the secrecy getting harder and harder to preserve as the secret organizations, and contractors and government agencies expands and expands, and as the Internet keeps gathering more and more information? I mean you point out in your book that there are a whole lot of, like, top secret documents, even before WikiLeaks, that have been on the Internet.
Ms. PRIEST: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. This is one of the oddities about this, is that as secrecy grew and more became classified, the harder it was to keep that information from leaking out one way or the other. And one of the revelations in the book is a counterintelligence review of the WikiLeaks leaks. And government discovered that many of its agencies don't understand how to keep their networks safe, don't understand where their networks are leaking. Those that do, haven't patched them up because they either don't have the money or the personnel that know how to do it. And what's more, is that they believe this problem is only going to get worse as, as you say, the Internet gets stronger and people figure out other ways to penetrate the governments systems.
Part of this is a generational thing. The leaders are older. They don't understand as much as they need to about how their own IT systems work. And it's like plugging your finger in the dyke to try to patch it up here and there. This problem will only get bigger, which is another reason why it is time to re-look the entire classification system. Classification system was written 50 years ago when technology was completely different. But yet, things are classified today, under top secret, which means that exposing them would cause grave harm to the national security. And when you look at the things that have been exposed and written about that are top secret, they have not caused grave harm to the national security. So really, the whole system needs to be reviewed. It's been reviewed many times. Someone needs to take...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PRIEST: ...someone needs to act on it for the sake of keeping those things secret that need to be secret.
GROSS: Dana Priest, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. PRIEST: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Dana Priest is the co-author of the new book "Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Priest reports on top secret America in tonight's edition of the PBS series "Frontline."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Amy Waldmans new novel "The Submission," about the controversy over the design of a 9/11 memorial after the jury that picks the designer finds out he's Muslim.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.