The Post Covers Spy Town

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>And I thought I wrote long!

This week, the Washington Post showered its readers with 20,000 words, hundreds of statistics, and dozens of pie-charts -- not to mention a database of the 1,931 contractors doing top-secret work for the government -- that paint a dazzling, mind-boggling picture of a 21st-century intelligence-industrial complex that is out of control and out of reach of government and congressional oversight.

Cable news shows and the networks, led by Post ally NBC, went nuts, declaring before the paper even hit the streets that official Washington was "reeling" from the disclosures. The series' reporters, Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, were all over the airwaves, declaring their amazement at the enormity of the secret surveillance state and warning that America was faced with a "hidden" black world of analysts and operatives so massive that "its effectiveness is impossible to determine."

Well, after three days of blanket coverage, it's safe to say the Post was right: it was indeed impossible for its team to get its arms around this story or explain the political significance of the secret world it uncovered. The Post never delved into the troubling matter of what it means to have private, for-profit corporations and their executives operating at the highest levels of national security and sharing the government's most sensitive secrets. And much of the series was old news -- fancied up with snazzy graphics and amusing photo spreads -- that could have been told years ago if the paper had been up to the job of covering the massive growth of national security capitalism since 2001.

To be sure, the Post did the public a huge favor by showing, in excruciating detail, just how massive our secret government has become since 9/11, how far it spreads geographically across the country, and how many citizens are involved in its highly classified work: 854,00 people, or 1.5 times the size of DC. In fact, its reporting on the sheer size of the security monolith made the lead-off story one of its best of the year. Plus it was intriguing to learn all that insider stuff, such as the existence of "Super Users" at the Pentagon -- a highly select few with access to all black programs in the military -- and to read one of them comment that he won't "live long enough to be briefed on everything."

But the Post should have stopped after Part One and given it a rest. Looking beyond the numbers and the choice quotes from Bob Gates, Leon Panetta and other high-ranking officials, the series is filled with the most pedestrian of reporting and reveals very little that is actually new about the privatized part of our national security state. It ended on Wednesday with an acutely boring piece about secret installations around DC that could have appeared in the real estate section (and will certainly not impress the Pulitzer judges looking for context and meaning). And when it came to reporting on intelligence contractors, the Post did not advance the story one iota. Indeed, I'm shocked at the paucity of new information and anecdotes about contracting in a story that was supposed to reflect the Post at its investigative best.

For starters, Priest and Arkin offer an incredibly simplistic explanation for how the contracting bandwagon took off under President Bush, who they say manipulated "the federal budget process" to make it easier for agencies to hire contractors. Is that why Blackwater suddenly appeared on the scene in Afghanistan days after 9/11, signed up by counterterrorism official named Cofer Black who later joined the company? Is that how CACI International, a favorite of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, got the interrogation work at Abu Ghraib prison through an "IT" contract outsourced to the Interior Department? The Post also completely ignored the huge growth of contracting during the Clinton administration, which "reinvented" government by downsizing and outsourcing the federal workforce -- including spies and surveillance teams in places like Bosnia. Many of the companies that are big wheels today got some of their first contracts during the late 1990s.

Worse, there is virtually nothing in the series about the deeper political questions raised by privatization, including the obvious issue of the revolving door. Unbelievably, Priest and Arkin don't even mention that President Bush's DNI, Mike McConnell, and President Obama's counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, were both prominent contractors before taking their jobs. Why is that relevant? Well, McConnell came directly from Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the IC's top contractors and an adviser to the NSA (and he's back at Booz now). Brennan was an executive at The Analysis Corporation, which built a key terrorist database for the National Counterterrorism Center (which Brennan used to run).

There was not even a hint that Lt. Gen. James Clapper (ret.), who appeared before the Senate for his DNI confirmation hearing on the second day of the series, once had close ties to major contractors. Clapper once directed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. which has extensive contracts with a satellite firm contracted by the government; after leaving the NGA, he joined its board. Nor was there mention of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the largest association for NSA and CIA contractors, for which McConnell, Brennan, and Clapper have all served as chairman. That's not part of the story? Could Clapper's experience have influenced his strong defense of contractors during his testimony? Or would mentioning such ties hurt the Post's access to the ODNI and the White House?

Despite Arkin's much-vaunted reputation in collecting data, not even the charts are very good. The Post's enormous database of contractors will be a useful tool for researchers and journalists, and certainly reveals the incredible scope of the industry (nothing new there though). But it does little to inform the public about what private corporations such as Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and Northrop Grumman actually do for the CIA and the dozens of intelligence units within the Pentagon. That's partly because -- as the authors admit in a note to readers -- they removed certain "data points" at the suggestion of intelligence officials.

Therefore, you can look up a company like Booz Allen and see which agencies it holds contracts with and what kind of counter-terrorism, intelligence, or homeland security work it does; but you can't learn what special tasks it carries out for specific agencies. Now some may applaud the Post for the omission, but I just see a failure to disclose. After all, this kind of information can be found in public documents or through ordinary reporting (on this point, see this article by the excellent Marcy Wheeler, which appeared on the first day of the Post series).

Now, as many readers know, I have a professional beef with the Post. As I've pointed out in several interviews and as bloggers have been noting on Twitter and other outlets all week, Priest and Arkin completely ignored my book, Spies for Hire, as well as my reporting on intelligence contractors over the past five years. They also ignored the massive body of work by Jeremy Scahill, P.W. Singer, and others on the privatization of national security. What the Post did do was lay an an enormous overlay of detail over our collective work, but with very little fresh information (by making this complaint, I'm not just grousing at the Post: Jeff Stein, now the Post's blogger on intelligence, gave Spies for Hire an excellent review in the Post's now-defunct Book World in 2008. And years ago, the Post's Jeff Smith wrote a long piece about a major story I'd broken in another newspaper about U.S. ties with South Korea).

So the real issue is not that the Post should give credit or even cite key findings by journalists like me who "beat" them to this story: more important is why the Post hasn't been covering this industry from the start. For example, there's a lot of information in the series about the money sloshing around at contractor events. One photo spread portrays a DIA contractor conference in Virginia; some of the shots are funny, some a little weird, and they show that, yes, the Pentagon and its contractors are a tight and jolly crew. Another shows the enormous growth of the National Business Park around the NSA in suburban Maryland, where dozens of contractors have their signals intelligence headquarters for their work with the world's largest surveillance agency.

Thing is, all this is very familiar to me and those who have read my work. For example, one chapter of Spies for Hire, "Intelligence Disneyland," is all about one of the contractor organizations and its fancy conferences. The NSA Business Park was the heart of a story I wrote for Mother Jones in 2005 -- a piece that began with me walking through a contracting recruitment event in Northern Virginia. My point is not to boast of past achievements, but to say that there's nothing terribly original here; and just because the Post says it's news doesn't make it news. More to the point, these photos and their accompanying reportage could have popped up in the Post anytime in the last eight years if the newspaper had been covering this beat as it should have: a combination of capitalism and national security that had virtually no precedent in American history.

For the most part, the Post covered intelligence contracting as a business story about the upward growth of area companies, with little attempt to understand what the private monolith was about. Intelligence contracting rose to unimaginable degrees in the years after 2001, yet the Post was content with little bits about the industry here and there (an item about DIA contracting one day, an expose of outsourcing at DHS on another); but with no larger thematic or enterprise stories to show their readers that this was growth of historic proportion. Then, suddenly, it's July 2010 and we have a monstrosity on our hands and it's unbelievable and my God, we better do something about it. It just doesn't ring true, and sounds a bit like Chicken Little. Sorry, guys, but we already knew this.

Tuesday's piece, "National Security Inc.," a 5,000-word take on the rise of intelligence contractors, was particularly disappointing from a news standpoint. It included some interesting vignettes of several companies, but for the most part reported information that was already widely known. For example, the Post reported that 110 companies control most of the contracted work in intelligence; I had said 100 in my book, two years ago. They did quantify the actual number of contractors (265,000), and that's newsy -- alarming even. But how much of the budget do contractors actually receive?

Well, to report that, Priest and Arkin would have had to quote me, because I broke that story back in 2007, when I obtained and published an unclassified ODNI document in Salon showing that 70 percent of the intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. That figure has become the norm in describing the privatized intelligence community. But the Post didn't mention it at all (even though they quote from the ODNI press conference where my figure was finally confirmed). That's a pity: by applying that 70 percent figure to today's intelligence budget of $75 billion, Priest and Arkin could have informed readers that spying for hire is now a $53-billion industry. And -- to use the kind of comparison they like -- they could have said $53 billion is about the size of India's huge outsourcing industry. A missed opportunity, shall we say.

Other areas where the Post's findings fall short are in its roundup of contracting at the key agencies. For example, the National Reconnaissance Office, we're told, "cannot produce, launch or maintain its large satellite surveillance systems ... without the four major contractors it works with." OK. But again, the obvious question is, so how much work do the contractors do?

The answer's in my book, where I quote Donald Kerr, a former director of the NRO, saying that "ninety-five percent of the resources over which we have stewardship in fact go out on a contract to our industrial base" -- a stunning figure by any stretch. The NSA, the Post reports, "hires private firms to come up with most of its technological innovations." But, specifically, what? Wasn't the Post interested in informing the American public, which learned in 2005 that the NSA was eavesdropping on domestic calls without warrants, about the companies that are collaborating on these tasks that many citizens and lawmakers believe violate the law?  Apparently not. Again, you have to go elsewhere for this story.

What's most disappointing about this project is the lack of specific anecdotes that illustrate the corrupting side of contracting. At the top of its story on Tuesday, the Post states: "What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency that calls into question whether the federal workforce includes too many people obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest." But the story never documents any instances in which shareholders -- and dollars -- trump the national interest.

The only mention of misconduct is that of the contractor MZM's bribes that sent a congressman to prison and the scandal over the ArmorGroup's security detail at the Kabul Embassy -- stories that were reported by other outlets and organizations. Despite Priest's amazing work on the CIA's rendition program, which won her her first Pulitzer (for public service) in 2006, she shockingly failed to develop the contractor side of this sordid tale. Bits of that story were told by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer in the magazine and in her brilliant book The Dark Side. Boeing, it turns out, has a subsidiary that arranged the flights and was deeply involved in the program; and recently, Boeing has greatly expanded its reach in intelligence by buying Narus, Inc. and Argon ST, two important NSA contractors. There's a story there, I suspect.

And surely Priest, with her vast network of sources in intelligence (many of them undoubtedly contractors), has heard tales, as I have, of contractors exaggerating threats in Iraq and elsewhere to obtain new contracts from agencies, or of certain high-level intelligence agencies where the senior staff are all employees of one of the big contractors. Such fleshing out of the story of contracting is completely missing from the Post and would have made this series a true blockbuster.

Instead, we have a series that's long on numbers, short on analysis, unwieldy as hell, and offering technology as a panacea for understanding -- kind of like the intelligence community itself. If you want the real story, read my book.

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