A hidden world, still growing beyond control

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William R. Arkin wrote a fine series three years ago about the out-of-control growth of secret national security and intelligence agencies.   The recent PRISM disclosures make it more relevant than ever.  Here’s their lede, following by some of my miscellaneous thoughts:

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.

top.secretAfter nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

* 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.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* 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.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

via washingtonpost.com.

The fact that an enormous amount of money is being spent, and nobody knows quite how to account for it, has a corollary:  Some people are making a lot of money, and have a vested interest in keeping their income stream.

The PRISM program is not a new concept, although its scope is unprecedented.  As early at 1997, before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI was using a software program called Carnivore to monitor and process electronic and e-mail communication.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created what it called the Total Information Awareness program, which gathered and correlated information on everyone in the United States, including phone calls, social networks, credit card records, phone calls and medical records.   When it became known, there was a great public outcry, and Congress de-funded the program in 2003.  But evidently the essential part of the program continued to exist.

I remember J. Edgar Hoover and the enormous power he wielded because of the Federal Bureau of Investigations files.  If you were a politician or public official and you displeased J. Edgar Hoover, chances are that the FBI had a file on you, and that any sexual, political or financial indiscretion would be leaked to favored members of the press.   He gathered and leaked information on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he regarded as a Communist.  No President dared interfere with him.

Now maybe there isn’t anybody in the National Security Agency who is exactly like J. Edgar Hoover.   Maybe the NSA is completely focused on its mission to learn about potential threats to the United States, and never abuses its power.  Behind the NSA cloak of secrecy, there’s no way to tell.  Knowledge is power.  When a secret government agency potentially can know everything there is to know about citizens, but citizens have no right to know anything about the secret agency, that is a power imbalance that is not compatible with American freedom and democracy as I was brought up to believe in them.

I remember that the government did have all the information it needed to stop the 9/11 attacks, including reports of suspicious characters taking pilot lessons, but not bothering to learn how to land the planes.  The problem was not a lack of information, but lack of ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.   I don’t think that indiscriminately collecting more chaff necessarily makes the country safer.

Another aspect of the PRISM program is what it does to the ability of companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple to compete overseas.  No foreign company will want to buy a product that contains a trapdoor for the National Security Agency.   As somebody remarked, it would be as if every Japanese car contained a tracking device so that Japanese intelligence could know your location at all times.   You probably would not be reassured if the Japanese government said that they only tracked foreigners and not Japanese citizens.

Click on Top Secret America for the first article in the Washington Post’s 2010 series and links to the other two.

Click on Carnivore (software) and Information Awareness Office for Wikipedia articles on these programs.

Click on US, British intelligence mining data from nine companies in secret program for the Washington Post’s report on PRISM.

Click on Boundless Informant: the NSA’s secret tool to track global surveillance data for the latest from Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill of The Guardian.

Click on Is the government also monitoring the CONTENT of our phone calls? for a comprehensive roundup on Washington’s Blog  about what is known about government surveillance.

Christopher Mims, who writes on technology for the Quartz on-line news service, quotes William Binney, a former NSA senior technical director, as saying the NSA has access to 80 percent of U.S. Internet traffic by monitoring certain fiber optic hubs.  If this is correct, it would explain the name of the PRISM program; a prism would split the optical signal into two beams, one of which goes to the designated recipient and the other to the NSA.  I can’t link to Mims’ article directly, but click on Quartz for the news service.

[Added 6/9/13]   I am not opposed to the National Security Agency or the other intelligence agencies.  I think they have a legitimate function, which should be performed within the law, including the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

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One Response to “A hidden world, still growing beyond control”

  1. Richard Brown Says:

    Even more than the now vested interests of the “Homeland Defense Industry” a political factor guarantees that this level of domestic intelligence will be maintained and even ratcheted tighter: should any President dare to unravel part of it, there will be a heavy backlash when the inevitable “next attack” comes. No President will ever want to take that risk!

    Like

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