The Post covers spy town

At the Atlantic, the independent investigative reporter, Tim Shorrock, slams the Washington Post‘s Top Secret America series:

Priest and Arkin offer an incredibly simplistic explanation for how the contracting bandwagon took off under President Bush, who they say manipulated “the federal budget process” to make it easier for agencies to hire contractors. Is that why Blackwater suddenly appeared on the scene in Afghanistan days after 9/11, signed up by counterterrorism official named Cofer Black who later joined the company? Is that how CACI International, a favorite of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, got the interrogation work at Abu Ghraib prison through an “IT” contract outsourced to the Interior Department? The Post also completely ignored the huge growth of contracting during the Clinton administration, which “reinvented” government by downsizing and outsourcing the federal workforce — including spies and surveillance teams in places like Bosnia. Many of the companies that are big wheels today got some of their first contracts during the late 1990s.

Worse, there is virtually nothing in the series about the deeper political questions raised by privatization, including the obvious issue of the revolving door. Unbelievably, Priest and Arkin don’t even mention that President Bush’s DNI, Mike McConnell, and President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, were both prominent contractors before taking their jobs. Why is that relevant? Well, McConnell came directly from Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the IC’s top contractors and an adviser to the NSA (and he’s back at Booz now). Brennan was an executive at The Analysis Corporation, which built a key terrorist database for the National Counterterrorism Center (which Brennan used to run).

There was not even a hint that Lt. Gen. James Clapper (ret.), who appeared before the Senate for his DNI confirmation hearing on the second day of the series, once had close ties to major contractors. Clapper once directed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which has extensive contracts with a satellite firm contracted by the government. Nor was there mention of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the largest association for NSA and CIA contractors, for which McConnell, Brennan, and Clapper have all served as chairman. That’s not part of the story? Could Clapper’s experience have influenced his strong defense of contractors during his testimony? Or would mentioning such ties hurt the Post’s access to the ODNI and the White House?

Despite Arkin’s much-vaunted reputation in collecting data, not even the charts are very good. The Post’s enormous database of contractors will be a useful tool for researchers and journalists, and certainly reveals the incredible scope of the industry (nothing new there though). But it does little to inform the public about what private corporations such as Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and Northrop Grumman actually do for the CIA and the dozens of intelligence units within the Pentagon. That’s partly because — as the authors admit in a note to readers — they removed certain “data points” at the suggestion of intelligence officials.

Therefore, you can look up a company like Booz Allen and see which agencies it holds contracts with and what kind of counter-terrorism, intelligence, or homeland security work it does; but you can’t learn what special tasks it carries out for specific agencies. Now some may applaud the Post for the omission, but I just see a failure to disclose.

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2 thoughts on “The Post covers spy town

  1. Christopher Hoare

    And these same people have the gall to accuse the Afghan government of corruption?
    The key to defining corruption is whether it contravenes the manner in which government agencies are supposed (and presumed) to function. Afghanistan is a tribal society that has always depended upon personal power and position. The US is supposed to be an open democracy, under the rule of law.

  2. Vicente V. Jungstedt

    Noam Chomsky always mentions that we learn a lot from what they don’t say than from what is said.
    That story about the war criminal Richard Perle should be front page scandal.

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