What History Can Teach Us About Top Secret America

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.

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3 Responses to What History Can Teach Us About Top Secret America

  1. Pingback: What History Can Teach Us About Top Secret America | Spy Blog from …

  2. Scott Salsman says:

    Excellent post!

  3. Dan says:

    History can teach us to analyze and think about the cost of protecting freedom.

    One of the largest and most secret programs of the cold war, Operation “OXCART” provided aerial reconnaissance intelligence from the early 60’s to the late 90’s with the development of the A-12 / SR-71 Spy Planes.

    The programs security and importance was equaled in scope to the Manhattan Project.

    Not until 2007 was data released in FIOA documents that told of the top secret additives used in the aircraft’s specially developed JP-7 fuel. This additive was known as “Panther Piss”, “A-50” which is the element “Cesium”.

    Cesium is a highly radioactive and highly toxic material. It was used to disguise the aircraft’s exhaust trail. Described by Ben Rich, the SR-71’s co-designer and also the Director of Lockheed Skunk Works, boasted in his book (memoir) titled “Skunk Works” on page 240.

    “We at the Skunk Works believed that the airplane’s height and speed, as well as its pioneering stealthy composite materials applied to key areas of its wings and tail, would keep it and its crew safe, but we fortified that belief by adding a special additive, which we nicknamed “panther piss”, that ionized the furnace-like gas plumes streaming from the engine exhaust. The additive caused enemy infrared detectors to break up incoherently.”

    Below is the link to the CIA FOIA, document titled, “History of the OXCART Program” Written by Kelly Johnson, the Aircraft designer and the Director of Lockheed Skunk Works. Look at the bottom of page 4 and the top of page 9.


    CESIUM is highly toxic, cell damaging, and carcinogenic, and most forms are highly radioactive. No studies have been published on exposure to humans by way of external contact, inhalation of burning exhaust, fumes or vapors.

    The Air Force has not made any statements on the use of this fuel or documented veterans medical files who were exposed to it.

    They never made hazardous duty pay to workers who were exposed to it. Even though executive orders required payment to workers exposed to hazardous fuels.

    The material is so dangerous that the CIA list Cesium as a potential terrorist weapon.

    The SR-71’s flew from at least three operating locations for nearly 25 years, until 1990 and use over 20 billion pounds of JP-7 fuel.

    The SR-71’s design did not include sealed bladder fuel tanks. The aircraft leaked profusely and continuously. Workers would be soaked in the fuel while working on the aircraft. When the engines ran, personnel would readily inhale the burning exhaust and vapors. No Hazardous Communication, training, or personnel protective equipment was issued or tested.

    The SR-71’s leaked onto the ground which flow to nearby creeks and ground water ways.

    All SR-71 program files were sealed by the Air Force and sent to storage and coded not to be released under normal FOIA time constraints.

    Hopefully we can at least find out what form of this element we were exposed to and have our veterans medical records documented.

    On May 25th 2010, the Air Force announced the successful flight of the X-51A Hypersonic Space plane.

    Reports were made that the X-51A used JP-7 as its fuel, just like the Blackbirds.

    I started this comment with the statement –
    History can teach us to analyze and think about the cost of protecting freedom.

    I will end it with a question-
    Will we learn from this lessen that history has taught us?

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