Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Top Secret America: Expensive, Chaotic and Dangerous
Last July the Washington Post published a three-part story on "the huge security buildup in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks." This week, the Post published "Monitoring America," the fourth installment of its "Top Secret America" series, describing security efforts at the local level.

After two years of research, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of hours poring over documents, the Washington Post investigation was unable to determine anything for sure — except, of course, that the security system is massive:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 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....

After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is [that] the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The system now spreads over more than 10,000 locations, employs an estimated 1 million people, and involves 1,300 government organizations and almost 2,000 private companies. And yet, it was virtually helpless in the face of the Fort Hood shooter or the Christmas Day bomber, both of whom had left tracks that had gotten buried under volumes and reams of incoming and irrelevant data.

The study did reveal Top Secret America’s mind-numbingly complex operations. In a moment of candor, retired U. S. Army Lt. General John Vines, who was asked to review just part of the system, exclaimed:

I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities. The complexity of this system defies description.

And the growth of the agencies tasked with keeping the country safe (the mission defined as “defeating transnational violent extremists”) is astonishing. The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency has more than doubled since 2002, the National Security Agency has doubled in size, and the number of FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces jumped from 35 to 106. The researchers could provide only rough estimates of the cost of the operation: $40 billion was committed by Congress nine days after the attacks, followed by an additional $36 billion in 2002, $44 billion in 2003 — “and that was only a beginning.” The number of agencies involved in "Top Secret America" (TSA) grew from 24 at the end of 2001, with 37 more being added in 2002, 36 new ones in 2003, and successively larger additions in the following years, for a total, so far, of 263 organizations created in the wake of the attacks. After reviewing the Washington Post’s findings last July, retired Admiral Dennis Blair succinctly summed up the effort: “After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did as we so often do in this country: the attitude was, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth overdoing.”

At the end of its study, one was left with the impression of enormous waste, inefficiency, and mind-boggling complexity — all in the name of freedom. As Warren Mass pointed out, the real danger of such a massive intelligence operation was ignored entirely: “the danger posed to our freedom by building [such a] powerful secret intelligence network that’s exempt from Congressional oversight ... the only power Congress maintains over them is control of their budgets.”

Thus was laid the groundwork for the next effort at the Washington Post which was published this week: “Monitoring America.” The dangers to individual citizens as a result of Top Secret America are now in full public view. The web of agencies involved in intelligence-gathering has grown to “4,058 federal, state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions,” and it now

collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U. S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing. [Emphasis added.]

The Post found that the technologies and techniques which were “honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America. The FBI is building a database with the names and ... personal information ... of thousands of U. S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously. (Emphasis added.)

The Post’s findings paint a picture of a country at a crossroads, where long-standing privacy principles are under challenge by these new efforts to keep the nation safe.

As one example, in Memphis the technology now allows police officers to “troll” for suspects through the use of a military-grade infrared camera mounted in the cruiser. The camera moves eerily from side to side, scanning for license plates and then analyzing the results instantly.

Suddenly, a red light flashed on the cruiser’s screen along with the word “warrant.”

“Got a live one!” an officer called out: “Let’s do it!”

The Maricopa, Arizona, County Sheriff’s Facial Recognition Unit uses the same technology provided by L-1 Identity Solutions in war zones to record 9,000 biometric digital mug shots every month. Predator drones fly over the Mexican and Canadian borders, courtesy of the U. S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, taking pictures with real-time, full-motion video cameras. When quizzed informally about these drones, the senior military official involved in directing military operations in Desert Shield and Desert Storm told the author that these drones “had the capability not only of seeing someone make an ATM withdrawal, but could determine the amount of the withdrawal and the name and address of the individual making the withdrawal.”

And these are just a few examples. Others exist but could be not revealed to the researchers. Memphis Police Department Director Larry Godwin said, “We have got things now that we didn’t have before. Some of them we can talk about. Some of them we can’t.”

There’s fingerprint technology as well. Fingerprints from crime records are entered into the FBI’s data base located in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Those fingerprints are stored along with others collected by American authorities from prisoners in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. As the authors chillingly observed: “There are 96 million sets of fingerprints in Clarksburg, a volume that government officials view not as daunting but as an opportunity.” (Emphasis added.)

Myra Gray, head of the Defense Department’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency, explained that this year, for the first time, the FBI, the DHS and the Defense Department will be able to search each other’s fingerprint databases: “Hopefully, our relationship with these federal agencies — along with state and local agencies will be completely symbiotic.”

And so, despite the enormous amounts of money unceremoniously dropped into the laps of agencies tasked to “defeating transnational violent extremists,” with no concern for or accountability about how that money is being spent, little attention is being paid to the jeopardy faced by innocent citizens who have been targeted for a “suspicious activity,” which the government has defined as “observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity.”

Being lost in all these efforts to keep citizens safe is the loss by those citizens of their rights to be “secure in the persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

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