Private companies are not the only members of the intelligence community that offer surprising perks to their employees. The CIA recently emerged from a lawsuit against a onetime recruit who billed the agency for $13,500 in moving expenses but then declined to take the job. A federal judge ruled the CIA’s lawyers committed fraud in the lawsuit, and instructed the CIA’s general counsel to “initiate an investigation into the actions that took place in this matter and whether there exists a pattern and practice of abuse by the CIA with respect to debt collection.” Yet few complain about suspicions that the CIA routinely hassles and defrauds young college graduates.
You wouldn’t learn these things from “Top Secret America.” That’s because much of it is written without context—there is outrage there, but Priest and Arkin never say what we should be outraged about. The growth of the intelligence contracting universe is indeed worrying, but not for the reasons Priest and Arkin state: it’s not the size that matters, but how manageable it is. They say it is unmanageable, but don’t say how or why (there are hints, as when Vice Adm. David Dorsett, the Director of Naval Intelligence, reveals he was able to convert only one single contractor to a government position over the course of an entire year, but Priest and Arkin don’t follow through on what that means).
Priest and Arkin write that, near Ft. Meade, employees and contractors who work for the TSA can’t function in normal life: they walk around hunched over, unable to blend into a Borders book store, advertising their presence with drone-like haircuts and suits. In one particularly bizarre section, we learn that Jeanie Burns, the girlfriend of one long-time NSA employee, says her boyfriend won’t travel with her, doesn’t like to go out, and doesn’t do anything interesting. “I feel cheated,” she says.
Priest and Arkin never say why we should care. They don’t ask if we actually get good analysis from people so incapable of existing in normal social settings (we probably do for some things, like cryptology, but probably don’t for other things, like radicalizing cultural and social movements). Priest and Arkin said that, in bars near Ft. Meade, undercover agents circulate among the unwinding employees to make sure they don’t say anything untoward, but they don’t wonder why the NSA feels it necessary to flood bars with secret agents, or what possible effect it could have either on the analytic community—how could such severe paranoia not severely affect one’s quality of life?—or the broader residential community of Ft. Meade. They just say that it happens, and move on.
There are other worrying aspects to the proliferation of contractors in the IC: often, the contractors don’t play well with the government employees. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said, “You want somebody who’s really in it for a career because they’re passionate about it and because they care about the country and not just because of the money.” As if contractors only care about paychecks and government employees only care about passion and patriotism. The statement could easily be reversed: IC software developers, as one example, work for far less than their peers in Silicon Valley because they are passionate and care about the country, while government employees prefer the job security and greater comp. time. Either statement essentializes and trivializes the real dynamics at play between contractors and “govvies,” as they’re often called.
“I hear the contractors complaining about the govt employees who can’t be fired, get fat benefits and don’t do any work,” someone asked Priest on the Post’s comment page.” I hear the govt employees complaining about the overpaid contractors who perpetuate padded contracts rather than finish anything. What did your reporting find?”
“We did not dig into that in this series but thanks for your thoughts,” Priest wrote back. That essentially summarizes what “Top Secret America” does: it kind of highlights what’s going on, but doesn’t say why it matters. It is outrage without focus, public service without purpose. While “Top Secret America” gives us a sense of the scale of the Intelligence Community, it doesn’t help us understand why it’s a problem, how it became a problem, or even what regular people could possibly do about it.
Correction: In the second paragraph, this article originally stated that Tim Shorrock’s Mother Jones article about intelligence contractors ran one year ago. In fact, it ran in 2005. The relevant sentence has been revised, and we regret the error.
Ends 7/31: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.