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Our Secret Security Establishment: the Big Picture

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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July 19, 2010

At the ACLU we’ve warned regularly about the dangers of our gigantic national security establishment — whether in calling for increased oversight, fixes for runaway government secrecy, in our report on the emerging public-private “Surveillance-Industrial Complex,” and in many other places.

Now the Washington Post has issued a major new investigative report on what it calls “Top Secret America” — a geographically sprawling network of secret government agencies with a budget of $75 billion. Based on the Post’s reporting, it is no exaggeration to say that our secret intelligence establishment has spun out of control.

The report — the first in a series of three to be published this week — contains amazing new hard reporting that confirms what has long been known to those who pay attention.

The national security establishment is out of control.
The fact is, bureaucracies almost always seek to expand their own power and budgets. Add secrecy powers that protect them from independent public oversight, ineffective oversight by Congress and even from within the executive branch, and mix in ever-expanding budgets, and you’ve got a recipe for an out-of-control security establishment:

  • The Post reports that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence at 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • Two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside in the Department of Defense — a worrisome militarization of our intelligence capabilities, especially at a time when those capabilities are increasingly being turned inward upon the American people.
  • The $75 billion intelligence budget is 2 ½ times its size before 9/11. The budget of the NSA doubled between 2002 and today.
  • There is no person or agency with the “authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these activities,” in the words of one official. “There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all” secret programs, the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence told the Post. “That’s God.” However, since men are not angels, as James Madison wrote, checks and balances on government power are crucial, and that state of affairs is frightening and unacceptable.
  • Since there is no one overseeing all this, there is also no way of knowing how effective it all is. One top general complained to the Post, for example, that the National Counterterrorism Center “never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!”

The government is drowning in information.
As I’ve written before, computers are the dominant metaphor of our age and everyone thinks we can stop evil in the world if we can just collect enough data. But the Post paints a stark portrait of hundreds of government agencies drowning in data, as government systems vacuum up vast quantities of information about daily activities across the planet in the unlikely hope of discovering useful information. Unsurprisingly, the government cannot possibly make sense of all that data:

  • The National Security Agency is intercepting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other communications per day.
  • Analysts publish 50,000 intelligence reports each year.
  • “The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them,” the Post reports.

Out-of-control secrecy is counterproductive.
The United States created a system for allowing government workers to hide information from the public that is supposed to be their ultimate boss, and from the beginning, that power has been misused by bureaucracies to increase their power and hide waste and abuse. The Post reports examples showing how:

  • Secrecy means that different organizations throughout the government often work on the same issues, creating enormous redundancy.
  • Secrecy undermines the chain of command, as bureaucrats abuse it to keep rivals out of the loop, and subordinates find they are required to keep secrets from their bosses or commanders.
  • Secrecy is abused to protect ineffective projects and evade oversight. The CIA reclassified information at a higher level of classification than it had previously thought necessary, the Post reports, in order to prevent officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) from seeing it.

The Washington Post and the authors of this piece have not only done some very good investigative reporting, but they also do what the media too seldom does: use that reporting to take a step back from the day-to-day details of life inside government and show the big picture.

A civil liberties issue
It’s important to recognize that is not just a question of whether the redundant, ineffective, in-fighting bureaucracies described by the Post represent a good use of our nation’s treasure. The growth of the secret security state is a civil liberties issue.

The presence of what the Post (in an online video accompanying its article) calls a “Fourth Branch of Government” outside those created by our Founders should give all Americans pause. The fact that this “branch” is one that operates under a veil of secrecy and with little oversight makes it all the worse. And above all, we should not forget that a lot of these agencies’ activities are harming innocent people. Travel and financial watchlists are created. Names are added (often for obscure reasons) but not subtracted. Americans are spied upon for political reasons. Personal communications are eavesdropped upon on a stunning scale. And the bureaucratic curtain of secrecy often gives individuals no way to defend their rights.

Action needed
The ACLU is doing everything we can to raise awareness of these problems. Most recently, we announced the launch of a new “Spyfiles” web page focused on political spying.

But unless Congress takes action, this problem is only going to get worse. Congress needs to sharply increase its oversight of “Top Secret America” — in particular by:

  • Taking a close look at the individual programs it’s funding
  • Whether those programs are delivering value commensurate with their budgets
  • Whether management of the national security establishment as a whole needs to be reevaluated
  • Whether that establishment as a whole makes sense in its current size and shape

Of course, Congress isn’t entirely to blame — in 2007 it did create an independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board with some significant powers for overseeing anti-terrorism efforts. But, the Obama administration has failed to appoint anybody to that board. Like Congress, the administration too must recognize the importance of solving these problems, lest its legacy for future generations of Americans be a secret security establishment that continues to waste money and violate individual rights.

(Cross-posted to The Seminal.)

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