The much anticipated “Top Secret America” project has been released by The Washington Post today and is now dominated much of the political talk around the country. For those unfamiliar with the project, which can be read here, it essentially documents the tremendous growth of the intelligence community since 9/11. The articles allege that the intelligence community has now become a bloated, inefficient organization as a result of massive spending increases over the previous nine years.
Included are documents showing that 1,271 government organizations and 1931 private companies work on programs relation to intelligence in 10,000 locations across the United States. The website features an interactive map in which readers can look up the thousands of intelligence community locations. The project also reveals that 854,000 people now have top-secret security clearances and 33 building complexes have been under construction for the intelligence community since 9/11.
Conspiracy theorists are likely to have a field day with many of the facts presented in the article. The Washington Post video introducing the project goes one step short of the “Enemy of the State” movie trailer. People like far right-wing radio host Alex Jones have long been warning listeners about a government takeover, and the enormous growth documented in The Post series feeds into such doomsday scenarios.
The more likely scenario simply involves politics contributing to the overgrown size of the intelligence community. After 9/11 intelligence spending has become yet another sacred cow in yearly budgets passed by Congress. As the project documents, Congress authorized an extra $40 billion for intelligence operations in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. They appropriated another $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. President Bush proposed the spending increases and the Democrats in Congress did not stand in his way over fears they may seem weak on national security (an unforgivable sin to the American electorate).
The Obama administration response to the report has been a combination of push backs and concessions. The Defense Department released memo documenting what they call eight “myths” in the Post’s project. For example, the project claims that 75% of intelligence is done by contractors, but the National Intelligence Director puts the actual number at 28%. The memo clarifies the difference between work being contracted (such as money spent on computer systems) and intelligence work which is contracted out to a separate company. At the same time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates (pictured above with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield) concedes that the growth and efficiency of the intelligence sector needs to be reviewed.
While the Post’s “Top Secret America” project is generating a lot of buzz, it is unlikely to generate actual spending cuts or legislation anytime soon. Democrats and Republicans are both jockeying for position ahead of the 2010 midterm elections. Neither wishes to give the other a gift by actually passing legislation which cuts the intelligence budget (justified or not). The more likely result is some kind of slow reform after the November elections are more of bipartisan basis.