Even people who aren't allowed to tell their spouses what they do and undergo lie-detector tests as part of their job description go to work every day in what looks like a typical suburban office park.
In a cluster of ordinary-looking office buildings outside Washington, the nation's intelligence workers intercept and handle top-secret information in 681 locations, in between taking breaks for Quiznos sandwiches, write Dana Priest and William Arkin in the final installment of the Washington Post's three-part series on the nation's intelligence system.
Arkin and Priest say in the series that the nation's sprawling top-secret intelligence complex is so bloated and riddled with redundancies and inefficiencies — and cloaked in secrecy — that no one in the government actually knows if it's making Americans safer. It's become a "fourth branch" of government, they say, accountable to no one.
We've been flagging the most interesting revelations from the series here at the Upshot. (See our summary of Part 1 and of Part 2). Now that the full investigation has been published, here's your cheat sheet to the top 10 findings from the project. (You should also read all three articles!)
1. The U.S. intelligence system has exploded in size since the Sept. 11 attacks. Its budget was $75 billion last year, 2.5 times what it was before the attacks, and more than 850,000 people hold top-secret security clearances. More than 30 top-secret intelligence complexes have been built or are being built in the D.C. area since 2001, and at least 263 government intelligence organizations have been created or reorganized since 9/11.
2. Only a few officials in the Department of Defense have access to all of the top-secret activities and information. Two "super users" in the department told the Post that it's impossible for them to keep track of the mountains of top-secret info they're exposed to. "I'm not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything," one said.
3. Agencies are collecting so much data that they don't have enough translators or researchers to analyze it. Every day, the National Security Agency's systems "intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications."
4. Turf wars among agencies can prevent the sharing of information. Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2004 so that someone would be in charge of the sprawling national intelligence apparatus. But Congress didn't give the director clear legal or budgetary control over all the agencies. As a result, the office, the Defense Department and the CIA have engaged in counterproductive power struggles.
5. This confusion has had real consequences. The reporters say secrecy and lack of coordination prevented intelligence workers from stopping an Army major's attack on Ft. Hood and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's alleged attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airplane last fall.
6. Contractors are not supposed to perform what federal rules define as "inherently government functions," but they do. In every single intelligence agency, contractors are performing the same functions as federal employees, and often for higher pay. Contractors for the CIA "have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals."
7. Out of the 854,000 people who have top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. That's about a third of the total workforce in the nation's intelligence agencies. About 2,000 small to midsize private companies do top-secret work.
8. The booming corporate intelligence industry is siphoning off the most skilled workers from the government with better pay and shiny bonuses. Contractors can offer twice as much money to experienced federal employees as the government can, and at least one corporate executive was spotted recruiting in the CIA's cafeteria during working hours.
9. Hiring contractors is also really expensive for the government, despite the Bush administration's hopes it would be cheaper than hiring more federal employees. "Contractors made up 29 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies but cost the equivalent of 49 percent of their personnel budgets," the Post says. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that federal workers are 25 percent cheaper than contractors.
10. Employees with top-secret clearance who work in a cluster of ordinary-looking office building outside of Washington must submit to strict rules. They take multiple lie-detector tests, are coached to avoid questions from neighbors and friends, and can lose their jobs for borrowing too much money or having friends from certain countries. Some assume false identities.