National Security Inc.

William Arkin, co-author of the Washington Post’s two-year investigation into the covert intelligence network that grew up in response to 9/11, told a Middlebury College audience how he and his fellow journalists discovered that nearly one million people hold top-secret security clearances working at over 1,000 secret locations around the United States.

“We used a pretty obvious methodology,” Arkin said on January 24 in McCardell Bicentennial Hall. “Everything that happens has to happen someplace. If there is warrantless wire-tapping, it has to be done somewhere. If there are secret prisons, they have to be somewhere. And so we thought: ‘We are going to just map it.’”

Using public documents such as government contracts, telephone books, and the federal government’s own electric bills, Arkin and co-author Dana Priest (along with several research assistants) mapped the clandestine sites from coast-to-coast where top-secret intelligence work was taking place. It was their first step into an exhaustive research project that resulted in the Post’s three-part, award-winning series called “Top Secret America” and in a new book by the same name released by Little, Brown and Co. on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

After mapping the sites and trying to determine who worked where and why, Arkin and Priest were astounded to divine the sheer volume of national security programs that rest in the hands of private contractors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrup Grumman.

“Almost half of the one million Americans who hold top-secret clearances today work for private companies. [They are] these so called contractors. And when I say ‘contractors’ here I don’t mean the guys carrying guns for Blackwater in Bagdhad, I mean the contractors who are doing intelligence analysis, who are manning the actual watch centers, who are writing policy documents, who are sprinkled all over the government. People who work for private, for-profit companies so that our government can tell us that we are not growing government.

“And what is the incentive for these corporations to reduce? Zero. Their job is to make money. So not only does each individual employee cost more than somebody who is on the federal payroll–almost twice as much–but there’s an incentive for compartmentalization and competition because that’s how one private company beats another.

“Two thousand companies do work for various arms of the government, and one half of those companies were established since 9/11. And since 2008 they are being eaten up by the big guys like you wouldn’t believe. General Dynamics, which used to make something called submarines, has purchased over 40 companies in the last three years and is now the largest intelligence contractor by far [known as] General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems Incorporated headquartered in McLean, Virginia.”

Today’s network of intelligence contractors “is so big, so secret, so utterly unexamined by Congress that no one knows whether or not it works or doesn’t work, and no one knows what it does,” Arkin told the audience of students, faculty, staff, and townspeople.

Or, as Arkin and Priest wrote in their 2010 Washington Post series, “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.”

During his 45-minute talk presented without the aid or notes or slides, the former Army intelligence analyst also discussed “the subtle reordering of the National Guard” which now flies predator drones in the world’s hot spots in addition to protecting citizens at home, and the shift in philosophy from building a “military industrial complex” with finite goals to today’s “military information complex” in which no one knows just how much information is enough, nor could all of it ever be analyzed. (“690,000,000 communications are processed every day by the intelligence community,” he said.)

In addition to his public lecture presented by the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs, William Arkin spent the day at Middlebury speaking with students and faculty as the guest of Stan Sloan, a retired foreign and defense policy analyst who is teaching the course “American Power: Use and Abuse” during this month’s winter term.

Arkin closed by characterizing the intelligence community today in terms of its “incompetence of gigantism,” and compared it to years ago when intelligence officers in the federal government knew each other, served together, and shared a common purpose. No one person or agency today “has the ability to see the big picture because national security has gotten so compartmentalized and so huge,” he said, “and I see nothing happening that’s going to change that trend. The information that we live by is choking us in our national security.”

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