News & Politics

The Lion That Squeaked

Intelligence contractors expected a hurricane from the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” story. They got a drizzle.

Curious how influential this week’s Washington Post series on “Top Secret America” has been within the intelligence community? Talk to the flacks, the spokespersons for big Beltway intelligence contractors and the public-affairs officers who represent the intelligence agencies to the press. We did, and we got some provocative reflections.

These high-level spin-meisters had been bracing for a blockbuster since as early as February, when reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin were knee-deep in their investigation. In Priest, they knew they were dealing with a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner who had exposed outrageous, potentially criminal activities by the intelligence community and the military. Crouched and puckered, the flacks polished their talking points and waited for Hurricane Priest-Arkin to make landfall.

It seems the storm was milder than expected. While the paper painted an embarrassing picture of an intelligence apparatus so bloated that even its leaders can’t get a handle on it, that picture was full of broad strokes and short on the specifics that make flacks sweat in front of reporters and stop answering their phones. Based on our utterly unscientific sampling of corporate and government news hounds—who, granted, have an interest in playing it cool—here are the big winners and losers from “Top Secret America.”


The National Security Agency

Rumor had it that Priest knew the classified names of some current programs at the surveillance agency and that she’d gone up to its Ft. Meade headquarters one night with a photographer to document her findings. No explosive story emerged. Instead, atmospheric anecdotes reenforced the NSA’s reputation as a secretive, kind of spooky, and frequently banal workplace. In one scene, the Post takes readers inside a Quiznos sandwich shop near an NSA work site, where one can spot the active-duty military by their Oakley sunglasses and desert boots.

General Dynamics

The Post portrayed this large and successful contractor as a king of the intelligence business, which is kind of funny, since there are bigger companies doing more secretive work that the Post chose not to cover. While the company comes off as a direct beneficiary of America’s war on terrorism, there are no smoking guns of scandal. The series even alludes to the company’s days as a ship-and-submarine builder with a kind of reverence for its blue-collar roots. Transformed into an Information Age powerhouse, General Dynamics comes across looking smart, strategic, and poised to make buckets of money. If you’re a company shareholder, what’s not to love here? Especially since the share price has held mostly steady the past three days.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Yes, Gates made the remarkable confession that he doesn’t even know how many contractors work in his office. But now he looks like a man on a mission, out to cut the fat from his workforce as the Pentagon tightens its budget. Washington is spending more time wondering if Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should lose his job for firing Shirley Sherrod than whether Gates should remain in control of intelligence spending. Gates performed masterfully for the Post. Recognize the problem. Acknowledge its severity. Promise to fix it. Game, set, match.

Most unforeseen winner:

Real-Estate agents

Apparently, Top Secret America is so hidden only the real-estate agents know how to find it. These brokers are now the unofficial tour guides of the Post’s “alternative geography” of the contractor world. And to the degree that Priest and Arkin relied upon one local agent in particular, Dennis Lane of Ryan Commercial, he’s now the go-to guy for companies that want for premium office space. Looking for a building next door to the big boys at General Dynamics? Call Lane!

Honorable Mention:

James Clapper, nominee for director of national intelligence

One government flack said the Post’s reporting was a godsend to Clapper, because it gave him a road map for all the questions senators were likely to ask at his confirmation hearing this week. It actually made the process easier since, like Gates, Clapper could acknowledge the problem and make broad promises about fixing it. Again, the series’ lack of specifics helped Clapper avoid getting caught up in the weeds. True, he did take the opportunity to slam the Post’s reporting as sensationalist, but he’d earlier confessed to the newspaper that the super-secret world of “special access programs” is so convoluted that only God can sort it out.


The Washington Post

The series came off as Pulitzer bait, but the flacks we talked to agreed that it didn’t deliver the goods. The Post has won considerable praise, mind you. But those insiders who’d been preparing for a battle royale thought that the paper threw punches it just couldn’t land.

The Washington Post’s print subscribers

The editors chose to launch the series on its Web site Monday, rather than run the first installment in the Sunday paper, which has the most paying subscribers. To turn away from that core base of the flagship product signals a major strategic shift by the Post’s managers and editors. The devoted print readers live and work in Washington, and they are sophisticated and experienced enough not to be that surprised by what they read in this series. It seems like the editors were telling them, “Yes, we know that. But this series isn’t really for you.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence

While James Clapper came out with minor cuts and bruises, the office he may take over got a real pounding. That’s because the ODNI was set up, per the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, to solve the very problems that the Post series correctly identified: bureaucratic overlap, opaque budgeting, and redundant systems. The ODNI came off looking bloated, out of touch, and leaderless. A lot of intelligence insiders have said that’s not far from the truth.

Most of the 90,000-plus employees of General Dynamics who don’t work in the company’s headquarters

After reading the Post, they’ll be outraged that their colleagues in Falls Church can ponder expensive artwork hanging in the lobby, and then dine in the bistro on china embossed with the company logo. Most of General Dynamics’ offices are hardly so posh. But to anyone who found these descriptions shocking: Have you been inside a K Street law firm?

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos