The Spectacle Blog

Clandestine and Cumbersome

By on 11.27.13 | 1:25PM

In his piece for the November edition of TAS, Jed Babbin makes a very salient point:

“Snowden’s security clearance never should have been granted. Alexis’s should have been terminated. Both failures raise important questions about who is falling down on the job. The necessary conclusion is that there are problems within the agencies and processes that go very deep. Identifying and fixing them has to be a national priority.”

He acknowledges the…

“…soft-brained idiocy—the kind of failed leadership and mismanagement—that we’ve come to expect from the federal bureaucracy.”

And correctly notes that…

“…when we were less burdened with the sheer volume of secrets and with political correctness, people were routinely denied clearances for events such as a conviction of driving while intoxicated.”

As such, Mr. Babbin concludes that…

“Agencies have to compartmentalize more top secret information and establish procedures to ensure that people in positions such as Snowden’s can’t get access to our intelligence agency’s most precious programs.”

Wait a second. What?

In so many words, Jed Babbin articulated the problem, but failed to grasp the solution. The growth of our intelligence architecture has produced a BIG problem. It's unwieldy, murky, and bottomlessly expensive. It's also enormous.

Aaron Alexis was one of nearly 3.5 million people who hold a secret clearance, according to the most recent figures from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Another 1.4 million people (including 483,000 contractors like Edward Snowden) hold higher level clearances that allow them access to more sensitive documents.

In our colossal national security community, any one of the nearly 5 million Americans who hold a clearance could become a leaker. (I write this as someone who has gone through the clearance process myself.)

Mr. Babbin calls for more compartmentalization. That’s a great solution...if you merely want to insulate the scope of potential leaks. However, that remedy ignores the September 11, 2001 Commission Report. Their conclusions suggested tragedy might have been averted if agencies weren’t so hesitant to share information with one another. Additional intelligence segregation might contain inevitable revelations, but that doesn’t fix the real problem: keeping Americans safe.

In October, the Center for Public Integrity published a revealing report. It details how recent security clearance lapses have been complicated by the “huge and sudden growth in secrecy-obsessed institutions” since 9/11. When you mix in profit-maximizing contractors (and political imperatives), small wonder we run into problems.

Consider this lede from the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” project:

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.

Their WaPo’s key findings reveal:

* 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.

And Mr. Babbin calls for more obfuscation?

We regard the dark arts of national intelligence with inchoate wonder, but that doesn't eliminate that “soft-brained [federal] idiocy” Mr. Babbin suggests. Just because your tax dollars are spent on clandestine projects doesn’t mean they’re not wasted…or disbursed, bi-monthly, to the next (nearly inevitable) Snowden…or used to finance the improper collection of your electronic data.

In the wake of the Snowden scandal, Americans are gradually acknowledging that our government’s tireless efforts to shield itself from public scrutiny are incompatible with the protection of basic rights and liberties.

Here’s to more nimble national security that respects our privacy...and our property.

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