Monday, January 06, 2014

"Top Secret America" by Priest and Arkin seems timely now

Authors:  Dana Priest and William M. Arkin (Priest is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post)

Title:Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

Publication: Boston: 2011, Back Bay Books. ISBN 978-0-316-18220-1, 326 pages, paper, with additional 26 page Introduction in roman numerals;  11 chapters, conclusion, indexed.
Amazon link
This book takes on timeliness now because of the Edward Snowden affair, but everything in the book predates his activities.  I picked it up on impulse from a stack at Kammerbooks near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.
The authors often write about their investigations of the spook world in the first person, and it is sometimes not clear which author’s journey is being followed.
The most important point made by the book is to trace the huge proliferation of government agencies and numerous for-profit contractors that have grown since 9/11, with whole office-park communities sometimes concentrated in some particular areas, as between Fort Meade, MD (home the NSA) and the Baltimore Beltway, in northern Virginia, California, some western states, and some military bases, especially Fort Bragg, NC.  There is a lot of redundancy of function and not as much sharing of information as was promised after 9/11, due to extreme compartmentalization of classified information.

The authors describe the way the CIA can target suspect civilians overseas with drones, and then goes into the specialized targeting operations of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command (in a chapter called “Dark Matter”), finally leading to a discussion of the elimination of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011.  One of the authors, ironically, as on a trip to visit a civilian company, Tivera, near Pittsburgh, that helps private parties discover what tracking and spying is done on them.

The authors survey the entire security clearance world, with special attention to developments in lie detection technology, way beyond the polygraph and even the “no lie MRI”.  There is a laser devise which can transparently measure changes in the carotid artery during an interview.  I’ve always wondered, that if polygraphs are not acceptable in court or in most employment because of unreliability, then why are they OK in security clearance investigations? The authors discuss the strict policies on clearing employees with arrests that did not result in convictions, or with financial problems even if they have been resolved, including one particular employee who owned three rental houses and got into trouble when one tenant could not pay his rent.
The book does not discuss the controversy over sexual orientation and security clearances, which was an “old chestnut” (to borrow Dick Cheney’s term) from the days of the military gay ban.  President Clinton eliminated discrimination of homosexuals and transsexuals by Executive Order in 1995, and in early 1996 the CIA agreed not to fire or exclude gay employees. 
The book has some black and white pictures, including one of the 5-story National Countererrorism Center, in Tyson’s Corner, VA.   I would probably be able to get an external picture myself the next time I am in the area.  It isn’t clear if this agency stands alone under the president or is part of the CIA or NSA.  Apparently the NCC works on the targeting of overseas terrorists with drones, with the CIA or JSOC.  This activity clearly runs the risk of collateral damage on civilians (something exposed by Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and Bradley or "Chelsea" Manning). 
In 2008, there were at least two murders in Maryland of technicians working in the covert industry, Kanika Powell and Sean Green.   These are open cases and perhaps gone cold, inviting investigative journalism.  It is unclear whether either was work-related.   (Worthy of note: It's possible or at least credible that Jason Thomas Scott, convicted for a Maryland crime spree that amounts to domestic terrorism, or the psychopathic variety like Aurora or Boston, as described here, could be connected to either or both of these cases.)  These cases aren't addressed in the book.  

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