A review of Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Note: This review first appeared here on September 11, 2011 (yes, 9/11/11). In view of the recent news about the NSA’s Prism program and other widespread and long-standing efforts to amass personal information about the American public, I’m posting it again. This superb book deserves a far wider audience than it received in 2011.
If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.
Even then — even if we somehow reined in the known alphabet agencies — we would only be scratching the surface. Here’s Priest writing about the work of her co-author: “After two years of investigating, Arkin had come up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States — all of them working at the top secret classification level.” There is an additional three thousand “state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions.”
Perhaps there’s one saving grace in this brouhaha of activity. Priest again: “Post 9/11, government agencies annually published some 50,000 separate serialized intelligence reports under 1,500 titles, the classified equivalent of newspapers, magazines, and journals. Some were distributed daily; others came out once a week, monthly, or annually.” There is so much “information” generated by the counterterrorism establishment that senior managers frequently ignore it all and instead ask their aides to talk to people to find out what’s really meaningful.
Don’t be mollified by the belief that all this activity is carried out by designated intelligence agencies. The nation’s warriors have their own alphabet-soup of agencies, departments, and units devoted to the same ends. The Pentagon created a major new entity called the Northern Command headed by a four-star general (the military’s highest rank) to protect the “homeland.” However, the Northern Command has no troops of its own and, to take any action, must ask permission from the leaders of each state’s National Guard and other agencies on whom it depends for personnel.
Priest and Arkin clearly take a dim view of all this:
- Many, if not all, of the Federal Government’s most closely guarded secrets are vulnerable to theft through simple file-sharing software installed on 20 million computers.
- The Director of National Intelligence, a new position created in 2004 to coordinate the work of the 16 major U.S. intellgence agencies, possesses no power to do so and is frequently ignored by them. But his staff numbers in the thousands, and they hold forth from a new, 500,000-square foot office building.
- The degree of duplication in the national security world is chilling. “Each large organization [engaged in counterterrorism] started its own training centers, supply depots, and transportation infrastructure. Each agency and subagency manned its own unit for hiding the identities of undercover employees and for creating cover names and addresses for them and for their most sensitive projects. Each ecosystem developed a set of regional and local offices.”
- Duplication of effort runs so deep that there are three separate lists of “High Value Targets,” one each for the CIA, the Pentagon, and the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (the people who killed Bin Laden). And “at least thirty-four major federal agencies and military commands, operating in sixteen U.S. cities, tracked the money flow to and from terrorist networks.”
The depth and quality of Priest and Arkin’s research is unexcelled, and their writing is brisk and easy to read. The book benefits from the straightforward, first-person approach Priest adopted. It’s written largely from her point of view, with Arkin’s contributions as a researcher noted in the third person.
Dana Priest has reported for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. She won the George Polk Award in 2005 for reporting on secret CIA detention facilities and the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for uncovering black sites prisons. Her exposure of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital helped the Washington Post win another Pulitzer in 2007. She deserves another Pulitzer for this illuminating book.
Bill Arkin served in U.S. Army intelligence in 1974 to 1978 and had worked as a consultant, political commentator, blogger, activist, and researcher for a number of progressive organizations before teaming up with Priest to write the widely-acclaimed series of Washington Post articles on which this book was based.
My top 20 nonfiction picks
For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright
The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”
Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney
Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
The seminal role of a long-forgotten ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan
Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman
The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre
The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan
A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.
The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.
Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy
A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.
The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward
An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake
A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.
Filed under Commentaries, FAQs & Commentaries
Tagged as Aravind, Ayn Rand, Ben McIntyre, Bill Knudsen, cancer, CIA, cia conspiracy, Cleopatra, cyber warfare, D-Day, Dana Priest, Erik Larson, eye care, geopolitics, Henrietta Lacks, Henry J. Kaiser, hollywood celebrities, John Elkington, John F. Kennedy, Katherine Boo, Lawrence Wright, Lehman Brothers, libertarian ideology, mary pinchot meyer, mass incarceration, michelle alexander, military-intelligence complex, Mumbai, Nazi Germany, Pamela Hartigan, poverty, racism, Rebecca Skloot, Renaissance, Richard A. Clarke, Robert D. Kaplan, rugged individualism, scientology, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Stacy Schiff, Stephen Greenblatt, Steve Jobs, The Swerve, Vicky Ward, Walter Isaacson, War on Drugs, William S. Knudsen, World War II