The Post Covers Spy Town


>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).

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