Top Secret America

Top Secret America is an insightful and well-crafted narrative written by investigative reporter Dana Priest and columnist/reporter William M. Arkin about the U.S. government at the top-secret level.  It is an extremely ambitious work that took almost two years to create and “involved the review of hundreds of thousands of documents” by a team of twenty journalists at the Washington Post.  It was Priest and Arkin’s mission to answer basic questions regarding the work done by agencies at the top-secret level, what type of work they do, what private outsourcing is involved and where the physical locations of these agencies are. While Priest and Arkin largely address much regarding these agencies in their book, this is by no means a collection of regurgitated facts and data. Instead, Priest and Arkin frame the investigatory information captured in a way that presents a post 911 America that has gone radically out of control with regards to government spending on defense initiatives.

While much of this books sources are kept ‘top secret’, the reliability behind the story told is to a large degree kept in tact due in part to the exemplary track record which Dana Priest and William M. Arkin have both achieved in their well reputed careers.  For example, Dana Priest received the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 2006 “for her work on CIA secret prisons and counterterrorism operations overseas” as well as a Pulitzer for “The Other Walter Reed” later in 2008. Arkin on the other hand has worked both as a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post since 1998 and as an intelligence analyst reporting to a wide variety of government agencies from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the CIA from the 70s all the way up to 1991. Both Priest and Arkin’s positions at the Washington Post provided them not only with connections for their investigation but also with a wide variety of support and financing.  According to the official Top Secret America website which is hosted by the Washington Post, “45 government organizations engaged in top-secret work…[and] 1,931 companies” at the private-sector level were identified by the Post team of journalists in preparation for this book.

Top Secret America is organized into twelve sections beginning with an introduction that begins dramatically with Joy Whiteman, a seventy-six year old woman in a wheelchair that goes through a security scanner at the Boise Airport in Idaho.  While most people that witness Whiteman having to get up off of the wheelchair in order to pass through a security scanner in the book become sympathetic to the situation, Whiteman surprisingly claims, “I have no problem with it.  I don’t want to blow up.”… “I could be carrying a gun or something.” This comment sets the mood for what Priest and Arkin describe as the type of fear that a “decade of terrorism warnings” has ingrained in the American people since 911.

The chapters that ensue illustrate much of the top-secret culture in America by providing a growing list of acronym infested government and private sector agencies that Priest and Arkin elegantly weave into the story.  Fortunately for the reader, there is a glossary of terms and acronyms at the beginning of the book, which one can easily flip to for a brief description if one seeks a reminder during the read.  With clever chapter titles such as ‘Supersize.gov’ or ‘One Nation, One Map’, the organization of what could easily become a difficult read, especially due to the tremendous amount of acronyms, becomes effortless.

In the chapter entitled, ‘An Alternative Geography’, the plot thickens as Arkin’s character begins to discover that many of the addresses that he has been searching for are well hidden from public view and are usually even missing a floor, at least in the building registry.  As Arkin’s detective work continues, he begins to notice, “dots gathered and clumped” in his map. Arkin describes these dots as “a sort of alternative geography of the greater Washington region”.  It is the beginning of a longer list of dots that begins to fill Arkin and Priest’s map of top-secret America.  It is not only evidence that a top-secret America does exist but as more investigations continue throughout the book, it illustrates the absurd amount of spending that is happening related to this growth in the intelligence industry since 911.  Arkin and Priest illustrate how companies such as General Dynamics, which in 2001 were preparing for the boom in the intelligence business by developing large-scale contracts with nine of the sixteen major agencies in the US, are now showing tremendous economic growth.  General Dynamics “reported $31.9 billion in revenue in 2009, a staggering rise from the $10.4 billion it reported in 2000” according to Arkin and Priest’s data.

These figures and many others are presented as evidence for Priest and Arkin’s claim that defense and intelligence spending has gone out of control since 911.  They not only argue that this increase is occurring but they also paint the picture of an intelligence community that is not necessarily even benefitting from this increase in spending.  They argue that the complexity behind top-secret clearances and the very infrastructure of intelligence in the US has somehow become inefficient and in many ways redundant.

This book provides both an informative and excitingly plot-driven experience for readers seeking to learn more about where American spending is really taking place.  While it would be great to have more with regards to specific sources that were interviewed for this book, the well organized index, reviewed source materials provided at the back and external website at the Washington Post help to fill these gaps to a large degree.  Overall this book is an excellent read and an exciting tale of what may in fact really be going on in Top Secret America.

- Review by. Ricardo Khayatte

Top Secret America: The Rise Of The New American Security State

Dana Priest and William M.Arkin

Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-316-18221-8, LCCN: 2011933644, 296 pages, $29.99 in Canada