Top secret is the new black

The first part of the Washington Post special report on the intelligence community is a good overview of the system we have but I’m not sure there’s anything really new to people who’ve been following the intelligence field.  I suspect that even if you’ve just been perusing this blog you’d find some reoccurring themes.  Over classification of information, lack of planning and direction, poor training, an emphasis on shiny objects and the old fashioned belief that the best information is horded.  Still, some of the details are worth noting:

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

Just a reminder:  Top Secret:  containing information whose disclosure could result in grave danger to the national security; – the highest of the three commonly known levels of national security classification, the others being confidential and secret.

One wonders how many people are running around with Secret clearances.

Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who was asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department’s most sensitive programs….”Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste,” Vines said. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.”

Why does he assume that the purpose of the intelligence industry is designed to make us safer?  If you assume that the purpose of the community is to enlarge itself and justify its existence by pointing to a flurry of activity which focuses on production over utility than you’d expect to see things like this:

  • 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.
  • at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.

Heh…and here’s a quote worthy of Sir Humphrey…

In an interview before he resigned as the director of national intelligence in May, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair said he did not believe there was overlap and redundancy in the intelligence world. “Much of what appears to be redundancy is, in fact, providing tailored intelligence for many different customers,” he said.

Yes…some require reports in Times New Romans and others in Courier.

At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11.

And 80% of such agencies all had to have flat screen TVs after 9/11 too….

Turf wars, institutional inertia, and of course, status seeking behavior.  It’s all there in its green tinged glory.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. “In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF,” said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. “They’ve got the penis envy thing going. You can’t be a big boy unless you’re a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.”

Oh, it’s not just in D.C. and it’s not just among three letter agencies.  It’s 2010 and we still can’t shake the insane idea that higher classification equals more credibility, reliability and importance of information.  I’d really like to see a comparison of intelligence products which matches up one developed at each level of classification (or at least unclassified, Secret and Top Secret) and then measure them in terms of accuracy, reliability, time from assignment to dissemination and a test of how widely its findings are disseminated (the best intelligence product in the world if no one is cleared to look at it).  Actually, I’d like to see a lot of comparisons like that because I’m confident that the products written at a lower classification level would be superior in almost all cases.

And keep in mind…these are the agencies at the pinnacle of the field here in the U.S.  It’s all downhill from there.  Regional, state and local intelligence agencies have fewer resources than their federal counterparts, have less money to offer their personnel in terms of pay, equipment and training leading to them hiring employees who can’t get jobs with federal agencies/contractors (a pretty significant feat during the gravy train days) or people who are tied geographically to an area.  That puts serious strains on your talent pool over time.

Rather than look at what a particular agency can be good at, everyone looks at where the money is going to come from.  Grant money for prison radicalization?  Oh…let’s form a center of excellence!

Something I didn’t see reported was the challenges of security clearances themselves.  You see, not ever agency recognizes security clearances granted by other agencies.  Agency X might not accept Department of Defense clearances….who might not accept them from Agency Y.  Perhaps that’s an official policy or perhaps it’s some local fiefdom flexing it’s muscles but it happens often enough to get to the water cooler during ‘WTF?!’ sessions.

Yes, we have met the enemy and he is us…

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4 responses to “Top secret is the new black

  1. “One wonders how many people are running around with Secret clearances”

    Millions, I imagine. Every military troop starts out with one, don’t they? Every GS-11 or higher has one, I imagine. Not hard to get at all, as long as you don’t have a criminal record or obvious mental/drug problems.

    But I think this WaPo special is just full of fluff. I admire Dana Priest and William Arkin, but Arkin goes overboard in trying to put a light on how the DOD and other agencies overclassify stuff. I mean, he’s right to push for more transparency, but there’s no vast conspiracy, and there ought not to be a central clearing house/strict accountability drill just for the sake of efficiency either. As I note in my blog, there’s agencies who are supposed to oversee and manage this process. They’re called “Congress” and the “National Security Council.” Put the blame where it belongs.

  2. I don’t think every military troops starts out with a clearance but certainly all senior NCOs are supposed to have them as well as all officers. Still, you’re right…it doesn’t take much to get a clearance and they do tend to hand them out like candy.

    I agree that there isn’t much new or shocking in the WaPo report but I can’t tell if I have that opinion because I’m acclimatized to the subject matter or if it really is fluff. I suspect for a whole lot of people this really is ‘new’ information.

    Further, I agree, there isn’t a vast conspiracy but that’s also part of the problem. There’s so little actual planning and direction that the system has just become a beast.

  3. I think you are right, that we already knew about this kind of stuff. But we’ve never had it presented in this kind of a way before. Listing all of the redundant agencies and missions makes the whole endeavor seem kind of silly.

    My question: where is the best actionable intel coming from? In today’s age, do we lose initiative by slowing the intel process down with classificatiions and clearances? How long can we keep good intel secret before it is either released publicly or it becomes irrelevant?

    Based on the article, I would bet that a govt analyst could provide no better commentary or analysis on a given subject than an academic on the same subject matter, using the ‘ol Lexis Nexis.

  4. Heh…the best ‘actionable intel’? I guess it depends on how you define that term. Usually, it’s used in discussions about an immediate arrest or kinetic action but that makes assumptions that that’s more valuable than longer term strategic analysis that might have greater influence on policy decisions. Is it? I guess it depends.

    To be honest I’m just not sure how you’d even measure that without presupposing the outcome and that’s one (but by no means the only) reason that the IC has ballooned out to the extent the article talks about.

    I’d agree with your final paragraph for a host of reasons and think many decision makers would as well. I was going to expand further but I was getting so long winded that I should clearly make this a blog post all it’s own. Thanks for the idea…

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