Thoughts about Top Secret America

Some thoughts about the Washington Post’s great series, Top Secret America, which came out this week, about the uncontrolled proliferation of secret intelligence and surveillance agencies.

1.  The series shows the value of traditional newspapers dedicated to journalism as a public service, and of the Washington Post specifically.  There is good journalism on Internet web logs, but none of them have the resources to conduct a two-year effort such as this.  At the same time the Post’s web site provides information that its print edition could not include.

I don’t know whether printing this series contributed to the newspaper’s profitability, compared to alternative uses of its resources.  I suspect that it did not, and I feel sure this was not a consideration going forward.  I don’t know whether you can have good journalism on a pure business model.

2. Back in 2004, there was concern about duplication and lack of coordination in intelligence activities, and Congress created the office of Director of National Intelligence under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.  But because of objections of existing intelligence agencies, the DNI was not given any actual authority to hire and fire or give orders – just to coordinate.  This is another example of how not quite doing the job is equivalent to not doing the job.

On the other hand, a certain amount of redundancy and duplication is a good thing.  Otherwise there is no margin for error and no exploration of alternatives.  It is a question of “how much” and not “whether.”

3.  The question of civil liberties is more important than the question of waste and inefficiency.  Would it be better if intelligence agencies really could keep track of the phone calls and e-mails of every American citizen? The government has virtually unlimited powers of surveillance, plus powers to imprison people without criminal charges, to torture, to assassinate and to silence whistle-blowers to reveal abuses of power.  It is a leap of faith to think that such powers were never be abused either by President Obama or by any President ever to hold office in the future.


A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control by Dana Priest and William Arkin in the Washington Post

The Real U.S. Government by Glenn Greenwald in Salon

When is it a good thing to have multiple bureaucracies tackling the same problem? by Daniel Drezner in Foreign Policy

Top Secret America, Too Big to Change by Jamelle Bouie in the American Prospect

The Priest-Arkin Article by Colonel Patrick Lang

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