Editor’s note: At the time this article was published, Joshua Foust was employed by Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor.
Here’s a neat exercise: with the obvious exception of some interviews with corporate and agency spokesman, and a bizarre interview with a girlfriend in a bar, try to find something in The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” that isn’t on Google.
You won’t find much. Some contractors seem to have more money than they know what to do with? Written about in 2005 in Mother Jones.* There’s been a massive build up of secret facilities? The Washington Post itself covered that last year as well, when it noted all the secret buildings and communications infrastructure in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia made it difficult to expand the Metro. Sometimes intelligence analysts can be jerks to their girlfriends? Well
Indeed, it is truly remarkable how little new information “Top Secret America” presents. The last entry in the three-part series, “The Secrets Next Door,” discusses what the NSA does in its massive sprawl of buildings in Ft. Meade, MD: cryptology, eavesdropping, linguistics, and so on. It sounds scary, but that’s all publicly available on the NSA website. You don’t need special access to see, as the paper points out in “National Security, Inc.,” that the entirety of the Dulles Toll Road is lined with military and intelligence contractors—as journalist Tim Shorrock has noted, you can drive around in your car, unrestricted, and see all of these buildings. Authors Dana Priest and Bill Arkin make a point to remind readers that they aren’t posting addresses or identifying buildings of any agencies but even the supposedly secret Liberty Crossing, which houses the National Counterterrorism Center and the Director of National Security, is easily found in Google Maps based on their description (you can even see the entrance to the facility in Street View).
The Post has made it very clear that they are performing a public service in providing all of this information, and in one sense they are: their work has made public information about the intelligence community (IC) much more accessible for regular people who wish to understand it. But so what? The series lacks the context, scope, and inquisitive spirit necessary to help people better understand what this information means, and how alarmed they should be by it all.
Priest and Arkin have written in their stories that agencies have grown out of control and that could easily be true, but where is the line? Is the NSA an acceptably-sized organization with 10,000 employees, but not with 10,001? They state that contracting firms routinely perform jobs that are “inherently governmental functions,” to borrow the legal term. Only Priest and Arkin never define what they think that term means (it’s legally somewhat nebulous), nor do they provide examples of contractors performing said un-contractable work.
Let’s look at the sheer size of the IC. No one could possibly deny it has grown enormously in the last eight years. I noted earlier this week that the IC’s growth didn’t happen in a vacuum: it took place at the behest of Congress and the public, demanding “more” intelligence to counter the global counter-terror threat. The use of contractors has grown because the IC’s mission has expanded tremendously, but the ease of hiring permanent employees has not.
It is healthy to question why these two dynamics are at play. Why do we demand the IC perform more tasks, then restrict its ability to hire employees, then complain when it contracts out work to compensate? Is it even appropriate to give the IC such an expanded mission? If so, how can we modify how the community as a whole functions to reduce waste?
Priest and Arkin ask none of these questions. In fact, it’s not clear what they were asking. In the piece about intelligence contractors, we hear some eye-popping stories: cleared contractors can fetch $50,000 finders’ fees, some companies reward their employees with BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and signing bonuses of $15,000, and so on. But there’s no indication such practices are widespread: Priest and Arkin simply say such things are “common,” and cite “industry insiders” as their source.
Let’s unpack that $15,000 signing bonus. Priest and Arkin say it was for a group of software developers hired at Raytheon, a large firm that provides missile technology and computer security systems to the government. According to Glassdoor.com, a software development engineer at Microsoft can expect bonuses of up to $45,000 in a single year, when cash and stock bonuses are accounted for. A one-time $15,000 bonus merely for joining a company is relatively paltry in comparison, however enormous it might seem on its own.