Quality journalism exposes the counter-terror industry
The plummeting sales of newspapers worldwide have brought about an epidemic of soul-searching about the future of journalism: do people still want straight reporting in the age of blogs? Is there room any longer for large reporting organisations like newspapers and network TV News? Above all, who’s going to pay?
Whatever the answers to those questions, it’s a good time to be reminded of what journalism can be at its best, and the Washington Post has produced exactly such a reminder. If you read nothing else this week, bookmark this site.
Over two years, two Washington Post reporters have been assembling an investigative series into what they call Top Secret America, and the results are fascinating.
Despite the title, the first article, at any rate, does not appear to disclose any actual secrets, though it is full of material which will be entirely new to most of the reading public. It’s all painstakingly assembled from open-source material, as well as interviews by the two journalists, Dana Priest and William Arkin.
But this open-source material, in the form of government documents, contracts and more, is widely dispersed and not easily dug up. And the core message of the piece is that, since 9/11, the U.S. intelligence and counter-intelligence system has grown so huge that it’s beyond the control of any single official or agency.
So far, the series has not addressed the historical roots of this growth, but it has to be said that American intelligence has had some extremely spectacular failures.
It failed to predict the fall of the Shah of Iran and the ascension of the Ayatollah Khomeini, it didn’t see the collapse of Soviet-bloc Communism coming in the late 1980s, it missed the warning signs that Saddam Hussein was about to invade Kuwait, it was shocked by the extent of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction development at the end of that war, and then before the second Gulf War, perhaps partly overcompensating for the mistakes of the first, convinced itself that there was still a massive hidden WMD program in Iraq.
The complete failure to prevent the 9/11 suicide bombers in 2001 finally convinced the hierarchy that there were massive systemic problems – such as a catastrophic inability for agencies to communicate with each other – that had to be addressed. It also convinced the executive and the Congress of the need to pump billions of dollars more into expanding counter-intelligence so that such a thing could never happen again.
As Priest and Arkin describe it, “With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009”.
What no-one seemed to foresee was that bigger would not necessarily mean better. These new agencies still don’t communicate with each other very well - hardly surprising since there are so many of them – either on the human or the machine level. There’s a vignette of a senior intelligence official who is constantly scrolling through four computers, none of which will link up with each other. Priest and Arkin argue that all the necessary information to spot the so-called ‘Underpants Bomber’ was in the system, for example, but it was buried under such a deluge of other information that it went un-noticed.
It was left to a fellow-passenger to notice what Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was doing and alert the flight crew just in time to thwart him.
It’s hardly surprising that the important stuff gets drowned in the flood: there’s just so much information to analyse: “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work”.
With about 850,000 people given top-secret clearances in the US system, the indications are that counter-intelligence is suffering from gigantism, and the real question may now be whether it is so big that it’s now unstoppable. Some parts of it, apparently, already are: “the chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness. “Like a zombie, it keeps on living” is how one official describes the sites”.
This is, as I’ve said, a remarkable piece of journalism as it stands. But as the foreign policy analyst Michael Fullilove said today, it should also serve as inspiration to Australian journalists.
What might they look out for? I’d suggest the obvious parallels to start with: Like the USA, Australian intelligence agencies have had big funding boosts since 2001. Like the USA, (though obviously on a much smaller scale), there’s a building boom, with new headquarters going up in Canberra for ASIO and the ONA. Like the USA, sources tell me that the increase of information and expansion of the system is causing problems; there are many young and inexperienced analysts, and too much information for people to handle.
No-one is questioning the need for a strong and effective counter-terrorism apparatus. The question is whether, with public servants battling for turf in a world which is by definition shielded from a lot of scrutiny, whether it is as strong, effective and streamlined as it should be.
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