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The Business of Intelligence

The best detail in Dana Priest’s blockbuster on the spy industry

Even before the first installment was published this morning, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest's investigation into intelligence spending in the post 9/11 era had set the city abuzz. The first story itself should come as no surprise to the huge number of Washingtonians who work directly or peripherally for the intelligence community, or who have encountered it as outside observers, whether from journalistic, academic, or think-tank perspectives. What Priest does well, though, is to quantify the expansion that so many of us have experienced. And it's details like this that make the piece an engaging, if not earthshaking, read:

 It's not only the number of buildings that suggests the size and cost of this expansion, it's also what is inside: banks of television monitors. "Escort-required" badges. X-ray machines and lockers to store cellphones and pagers. Keypad door locks that open special rooms encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force capable of responding within 15 minutes. Every one of these buildings has at least one of these rooms, known as a SCIF, for sensitive compartmented information facility. Some are as small as a closet; others are four times the size of a football field.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. "In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF," said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. "They've got the penis envy thing going. You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF."

The fact that building secure rooms is actually an expanding industry is the kind of telling detail that helps folks outside of Washington cut through the incomprehensible numbers and really understand the scale Priest is exploring. And when you're talking about the intelligence community's expansion, it's the scale, not the fact of the expansion itself, that counts.

 

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