Dana Priest’s highly anticipated Washington Post exposé about the secretive world of intelligence contracts arrived this morning to more buzz than any newspaper article in recent memory. But the lead revelation, that “the top-secret world the government created . . . 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,” is no revelation to journalists who have been covering the beat for almost nine years, or the thousands of Washingtonians—and Americans elsewhere—who work in that expanding industry.
But there’s a more fundamental problem with the Post’s investigation and how it presents its reporting. It’s the massive online database that the paper bills as taking us deep into the shadowy world of intelligence contractors. The existence of the database is a genuine public service for many Americans outside of Washington for whom the story may be a revelation. But the Post is leaving out crucial details about who works for whom, and it’s not telling its readers why. In the process, they’re acting like the secretive organizations they mean to expose, and they’re undermining the authority of their own reporting.
For a basic example, go to the Top Secret America Web site and type in “Northrop Grumman,” one of the largest and most influential contractors. First you’ll see a long article about the company that’s largely pulled from its own Web site. Scroll down and you’ll find some tantalizing numbers under the heading “Top Secret Work.”
Number of Locations: 98
Number of Government Clients: 27
But there’s nothing else. There are no maps telling you where these locations are or what employees do there. You can’t see a list of Northrop Grumman’s government clients. You’re only getting half the story.
Further down, there’s a column with 18 specific types of intelligence work that Northrop Grumman performs for these anonymous agencies. Click on “Counterintelligence,” for example, and you’ll get a list of three dozen government organizations that do that work. You’ll see the number of locations where they do it and the number of companies that assist them. But you won’t get geographic locations or company names. This is another half of the story. The Post gives you no way to connect the two.
Why is this important? Because if we don’t know who’s doing the work, where, and for what agency, we’re assessing this nebulous world with only partial information. The ostensible reason for the Post’s series is to shed light on the inner workings of this public-private machinery. And trying to draw conclusions about what those numbers mean without knowing which organizations work together is like trying to drive cross-country with only the first and last 30 miles of directions as a guide.
The Post apparently obtained this very information from public documents, but for reasons its editors haven’t fully explained, they chose not to publish it. An editors’ note accompanying the database says, “Because of the nature of this project, we allowed government officials to see the Web site several months ago and asked them to tell us of any specific concerns.” That’s a major concession on the paper’s part. They didn’t have to do it. So why did they decide to give government a first look? And what, if anything, did the paper change as a result?
The Post says only two government organizations pushed back. In response to one of them, the paper removed some information from the site, but we don’t know what it was, or its significance. The editors offer only that “one government body objected to certain data points on the site and explained why; we removed those items.”
The editors give us few details on what internal calculations they made in deciding not to publish some of the data they spent two years collecting. They say, “We made other public safety judgments about how much information to show on the Web site.”
The paper published only the addresses of company headquarters, which are usually available on their Web sites, and not the locations of all of a company’s secret facilities. Similarly, the Post’s maps show the headquarters’ buildings of “the largest” agencies doing top-secret work, but not all of them. Nor are the agencies’ field offices identified by name. And you can’t zoom all the way in on the maps.
Public safety, presumably, means the Post didn’t want to make any of these locations targets for terrorists or others who could do harm to the employees there. That’s a valid reason not to publish. But the Post should say so if that’s the case.
Back in 2005, the editors chose not to name the locations by country of a number of secret prisons that the CIA used to interrogate terrorists. The editors agreed with the government’s concern that revealing that knowledge would turn those countries into terrorist targets and that it’d harm the CIA’s relationship with foreign-intelligence services.
But it’s harder to argue that by publishing the list of who Northrop Grumman works for, or who the CIA employs, that the paper is jeopardizing “public safety.” The irony here is palpable. The Post is committing the very sin of obfuscation for which it excoriates government agencies and the companies working for them. If releasing this information would harm national security, the Post should explain how.
The editors close their note this way: “Within a responsible framework, our objective is to provide as much information as possible, so readers gain a real, granular understanding of the scale and breadth of the top-secret world we are describing.” We don’t know much more about what that “responsible framework” entails, and whether Post staff debated it before publication. I asked the newspaper’s spokeswoman to explain why the government and contractor data weren’t connected. She pointed to the line in the editors’ note about “public safety” considerations. Beyond that, she said, “I can’t get into that level of detail.”
As someone who has covered the intelligence world for more than a decade, I do feel I better understand “the scale and breadth” of secretive contracting because of the Post’s efforts. But do I have a “granular understanding” of why some work is contracted out and who gets chosen to do it? Not really. And I don’t understand why the Post left out so much valuable information, either.