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The Washington Post on Monday published the mutlimedia results of a two-year investigation into what it's calling the fourth branch of American government, the one that's emerged since 9/11: "Top Secret America."
I haven't spent a lot of time on the Web site, but it looks like a pretty spectacular exercise in showing what journalism can do when it's mastered the technology and is willing to spend the money. In this case, The Post says 12 reporters led by Dana Priest and William Arkin worked for two years to get their hands around something that no one can get his hands around. "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," the Post reports, and "an estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances."
But don't be misled by statistics. The Post says "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....The system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine."
Redundancy, says the Post, is not simply wasteful — it's dangerous. "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."
If I knew there was another guy at the Reader doing the same thing I do, I'd probably knock off for the day and leave it to him to do it. Of course, he'd be thinking the same thing. The redundancies built into top-secret America may or may not make us safer — check out the Web site and decide for yourself — but if things go as wrong as they went nine years ago, at least everyone will have somebody else to blame.
Here's the Atlantic commenting on the Post's package and how it apparently rattled the American intelligence community even before it appeared.