Mark Stout, SPY Historian
The Washington Post’s compelling three-part series on “Top Secret America” has become the topic of water cooler conversation all over the country. The series portrays a mysterious and murky world of government agencies and contractors that is growing like kudzu and draining our pocket books, unconstrained by meaningful oversight. This is a world of silence and secrecy, a world of office buildings with no signs on them, a world of impenetrable Oakley sunglasses and lie detectors.
Reading the “Top Secret America” series and looking back on my years inside that world, I am struck by what we might call the banality of secrecy. There are not many James Bonds or for that matter Fox Mulders here. These Americans may have a “haunted look” that betrays a fear that “someone is going to ask them something about themselves,” as one Maryland resident who lives on the borderlands of Top Secret America put it, but other than that they are relentlessly normal people. They are food service workers, police officers, van drivers, mechanics, computer techs, soldiers, and harried professionals who sit behind computers in offices reminiscent of Dunder Mifflin. They lean Red or Blue, they have mortgages, belong to the PTA, follow the NFL and NASCAR, and hold backyard cookouts. Americans have a healthy suspicion of government and much that goes with it. Americans also look askance at secrecy, but it is important to remember that these Top Secret Americans are just like the rest of us. In fact, they are us.
It is entirely reasonable to ask, however, whether Top Secret America needs to be so big. The answer is probably no. According to the Post, there are 854,000 people in the top secret intelligence and security complex producing 50,000 intelligence reports per year at the cost of many tens of billions of dollars. Existing contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton, L3 Communications, and SAIC, are ballooning and new companies are sprouting like mushrooms. “Competitive analysis” is a good thing, all other things being equal, more eyes on a problem are better than fewer, but surely some belt tightening is in order.
How did Top Secret America become a “hidden world, growing beyond control?” There are two answers to this question. First, the US Government, in the absence of good information, almost certainly overreacted and overestimated the threat in the early years of the “War on Terrorism.” Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has commented that “the attitude was, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth overdoing.” Admiral Blair is right and he points to a very American way of approaching problems.
Second, Americans demand total security from their government even as they grouse at the price tag. In other words, every one of us who votes and, indeed, who contributes to our national culture, is in part to blame. Americans may be suspicious of government but they also want it to provide them a perfect life and they vote accordingly. As Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum put it recently:
“Americans — with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs — demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don’t simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong.”
Woe betide the politician who tries to deny Americans what they want. The next time there is an attempted terrorist attack, the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence and the Congress all want to be able to say that they did everything they could to stop it.
Is there any hope that the growth of Top Secret America can be curtailed or even reversed? The answer is yes. A little historical perspective might help.
We’ve been down this road before. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, it had only a handful of intelligence personnel. At the signing of the Armistice a year and a half later, there were many thousands, plus 250,000 volunteer members of the quasi-official American Protective League, but during the interwar years most of this bureaucracy was demobilized. The same thing happened during and after World War II. The Cold War, of course, saw a gradual increase in the size of the intelligence and security communities, but again came a retrenchment after the fall of the Berlin Wall as American voters and politicians clamored for a “peace dividend.”
What does this history suggest? It suggests that there is hope that Top Secret America can and will be pruned back someday. However, the War on Terrorism, or whatever we are presently in, will not have a dramatic and definite end like the World Wars and the Cold War had. We shall have to depend on less dramatic domestic political processes to reign in Top Secret America. Perhaps the Washington Post’s series will put those processes in motion.
Mark Stout is the Historian of the International Spy Museum. He spent more than twenty years working in the national security community, serving in the Defense Department, State Department and CIA and working in a Defense Department think-tank. Professor Stout has degrees in political science, applied mathematics and public policy from Stanford and Harvard Universities and has recently defended his PhD dissertation in history at the University of Leeds. He is the co-author of three books and he has published or forthcoming articles in The Journal of Strategic Studies, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Intelligence and National Security, and Studies in Intelligence.