Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin have written a new series that is grabbing headlines titled “Top Secret America.” They used publicly available information to compile a database of contractors working on secret programs with the government. Although experts disagree about the impact of the stories on national security, they are united in their concern over the media’s role and motivations in influencing policy.
“The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe,” the Washington Post website says in its section on “Top Secret America.”
Priest and Arkin’s articles are meant to expose the massive growth in the use of contractors for secret intelligence work, often resulting in redundancy and wasteful spending. However, there was immediate concern about whether the reports would endanger America.
General James Clapper, the Obama Administration’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he was “very concerned” that the series was “making it easy for adversaries to point out the locations of contractors who are working for the government.” The Office of the DNI sent an email to contractors reminding them not to confirm or deny the information in The Washington Post. It stated
“Foreign intelligence services, terrorist organizations, and criminal elements will have potential interest in this kind of information.” Another official told FoxNews.com that “few intelligence groups have the assets and resources to pool” the information in the database.
The newspaper has responded to the criticism by saying it consulted with government officials and when specific portions were asked to be removed, they complied. The Post said that one government agency expressed its opposition to the entire web site but “declined to offer specific comments.”
Former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin said that open-source information can be a valuable asset those hostile to the U.S., criticizing the Post for “doing the work that the adversary would have to do.”
“But why help them? Why help confirm for them what they may conclude? Why reinforce their analysis?” he asked.
The motives of Priest and Arkin themselves are being questioned. Priest previously exposed the CIA’s rendition program that involved sending suspected terrorists to other countries that engaged in torture. One report noted that Priest is married to William Goodfellow, the Executive Director of the Center for International Policy, which is closely tied to a Marxist diplomat from Chile that is suspected of spying for Cuba. Priest participated in an anti-war, far-left panel for the group in 2003 that included speakers that accused President Bush of being involved in the 9⁄11 attacks.
Arkin also has an anti-war past, referring to U.S. troops in Iraq as a “mercenary” force. He then apologized but lamented that “far too many in uniform believe they are the one true nation. They hide behind the constitution and the flag and then spew an anti-Democrat, anti-liberal, anti-journalism, anti-dissent, and anti-citizen message that reflects a certain contempt for the American people.” He also gave a speech in September 2002 where he said the U.S. was “going to war to enhance the economic interests of the Enron class.”
“What I fear is that our press has decided that their own pursuit of recognition (Pulitzers) now outweighs the greater good to the nation,” former CIA case officer Bart Bechtel and Director of Spy Cruise told FrontPage.
“In my opinion, the article was deliberate subversion of our national intelligence efforts and those putting forth the information are guilty of subversion, if not treason. The problem with the latter charge is that our treason statutes make it extremely difficult to prove,” Bechtel said.
He added that if the media is trying to promote a more open government, such reports are counter-productive because they push the intelligence community to be less forthcoming with the press.
Dr. Thomas G. Mahnken wrote in Foreign Policy that “they [Priest and Arkin] have made it easier for America’s enemies to defeat U.S. efforts to ferret out their secrets and have thereby made it more rather than less likely that the United States will be surprised by a future adversary.”
Mahnken also said that he’d “have a hard time giving it a passing grade” if he was grading the report. He said that it was misleading because its database includes contractors working in fields not related to terrorism and “[doesn’t] distinguish between those who are genuinely involved in intelligence work and those who require the clearances for other reasons.”
Former national security reporter for The Washington Times Rowan Scarborough wrote that “Top Secret America” is unjustifiable because it doesn’t reveal any government misconduct and is “a good guide for would be saboteurs.”
However, other experts noted that the database was compiled entirely from open-source information that any terrorist group or government could have access to, although the publication of the database could help save them time. The Hudson Institute’s Gabriel Schoenfeld said the series didn’t reveal anything significant, calling the series’ title “false—and very smart—advertising.”
One concern voiced to FrontPage is that the series will cause the government to “tie the hands of the contractors behind their backs,” in the words of Kerry Patton, author of _Sociocultural Intelligence_ and former government operator in Afghanistan.
He said that although “the article did not, in any way whatsoever, place the United Stats in any greater danger than we already were in,” it could result in an overreaction that results in burdensome government regulation over contractors. Patton argued that contractors are more risk-averse, have more freedom of movement, and are more familiar with the battlefields because they are not required to rotate in and out of the theaters.
“The reason these contractors are abroad is because the U.S. government as a whole can not fulfill the needs of this global war solely on their own. These contractors not only serve as protection elements, they serve as continued support in base infrastructure, intelligence analysis, protection, and training local indigenous persons,” Patton told FrontPage.
“Simply put, we do not have the amount of troops needed to fulfill all these tasks, hence we need these contractors.”
Experts may disagree in their criticisms of _The Washington Post_’s series, but the point remains that the media’s reporting on sensitive intelligence work can have serious repercussions, whether it’s in distorting the public’s perception, directly undermining secret work, or causing an overreaction by the government. With stakes so high, the background of reporters like Priest and Arkin need to be analyzed so the media, and not just the government, can be held in check.