Top Secret America

The new WaPo series Top Secret America is making waves on both left and right, and for good reason. It’s a strikingly comprehensive look at an ever-expanding national security state. As the authors write,

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

Yet Dana Priest and William Arkin do give us an idea of the striking number of agencies, contractors, and buildings devoted to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence:

An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. . . Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. . . .In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

I highly recommend the series, which helps answers some of the questions posed at the New School conference “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy:”

[W]here is America today with respect to the limits on our access to information, limits on what we can keep confidential and what the government and other institutions can keep secret? How can the public gain access to information and how do we decide what information is a citizen’s right to know? What information endangers individuals’ or the country’s wellbeing and safety? Are the ever-increasing number of technological innovations fundamentally transforming what we can know and what we cannot? What can remain confidential and what cannot?

I have often heard the possible futures arising out of information technology advance characterized as “info-anarchy” (anyone can have access to anything) or “perfect control” (where technology makes it easier to monitor and manage exactly how knowledge is disseminated). Top Secret America suggests a dystopian intelligence network where anarchy and control combine in strange and unpredictable ways.

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