[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Host, Shane Harris:
In July 2010, as Washington Post journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin were getting ready to publish the first article in their Top Secret America series, they got an unusual request from the office of the United States’ intelligence director: Please don’t publish a key part of your research.
Priest and Arkin had spent years compiling a large database of government organizations engaged in top secret work, and the companies that were helping them do that work. It had the potential to shed light on a multi-billion dollar enterprise that employs hundreds of thousands of people across the United States, but that is opaque to most Americans. Intelligence officials argued that publishing the database would jeopardize national security. Many more observers–this one included–thought it might well embarrass U.S. officials if Americans knew how much of the spy business had effectively been outsourced, but that this knowledge would hardly aid America’s enemies.
This centuries-old conflict between the public’s right to know and the government’s efforts to keep secrets is at the heart of Priest and Arkin’s new book, based on their Post series. Top Secret America is a concise, informative account of what the authors call “an alternative geography” that sprung up in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. It’s a top-secret world they say has become so enormous and so unwieldy that even the people in charge of it don’t know how much money is costs and how many people it employs.
Top Secret America encompasses secretive government facilities where federal employees and contractors, often working side-by-side, intercept terrorist communications, pilot remote aircraft over Afghanistan, mine intelligence reports looking for the signs of a pending terrorist attack, and preform hundreds of other secretive tasks every day, all in the name of preserving a republic that has thrived largely because of its openness.
The authors argue that the United States is stuck on “yellow alert,” a kind of mid-grade sense of anxiety and dread in which the risk of terrorist attack is officially labeled as “significant,” but has also become part of the background noise of every day life. We barely notice anymore when an elderly woman in an airport is removed from her wheelchair and patted down for weapons. That account, which opens the book, is one of several vivid anecdotes that Priest and Arkin use to illustrate the contours of Top Secret America, and to show us how we’ve all, in one way or another, been consumed by it.
“It is time to close the decade-long chapter of fear,” the authors write in the introduction to the book, “to confront the colossal sum of money that could have been saved or better spent, to remember what we are truly defending, and in doing so, to begin a new era of openness and better security against our enemies.” That’s an idea that many current and former officials likely support, considering that many of them were sources for Priest and Arkin’s book. Top Secret America makes a worthy contribution to a debate that has consumed much energy in Washington, but for far too long has been smothered by the very same veil secrecy that the authors try to pierce.