Top Secret America

The Rise of the New American Security State


By Dana Priest

By William M. Arkin

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The top-secret world that the government created in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks has become so enormous, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs or exactly how many agencies duplicate work being done elsewhere. The result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe may be putting us in greater danger. In Top Secret America, award-winning reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncover the enormous size, shape, mission, and consequences of this invisible universe of over 1,300 government facilities in every state in America; nearly 2,000 outside companies used as contractors; and more than 850,000 people granted “Top Secret” security clearance.

A landmark exposé of a new, secret “Fourth Branch” of American government, Top Secret America is a tour de force of investigative reporting-and a book sure to spark national and international alarm.


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A Perpetual State of Yellow

Though she could barely walk anymore at age seventy-six, Joy Whiteman remained calm as she fumbled to remove her new white tennis shoes, lift herself out of her wheelchair, and grab the side of the X-ray machine. She teetered slowly, in socks, through the security scanner at the Boise Airport in Idaho. Airport security guards folded her wheelchair and rolled it through the scanner, keeping an eye on the frail woman in a bright flowered jacket.

"Can you make it without pain?" a guard asked her.

"Oh, sure," she replied.

Whiteman followed instructions, lifted her hands above her head, emptied her pockets of crumpled pieces of paper, then apologized for having left her driver's license in her purse rather than having it in hand for the guards to examine with her plane ticket. The line slowed behind her. Some people sighed at the inconvenience. Others smiled in sympathy at the awkward sight. I grimaced. What were the odds that she was a terrorist?

But Whiteman didn't mind at all. "I have no problem with it. I don't want to blow up," she said when I asked about the hassle. "I could be carrying a gun or something."

"Yeah," her husband, Bill, 72, said. "These people are always one step ahead of us."

Whiteman's smile faded. "Last time, they wheeled me through without looking at the X-ray," she said. "I could have had a bomb or explosives."

A decade of terrorism warnings about possible attacks in the United States had convinced Whiteman that she had much to fear. Walking through a body scanner without her wheelchair was a small price to pay for safety. Never mind that no terrorist had ever fit her profile or been foiled walking through a security scanner. Never mind that the Department of Homeland Security, which was responsible for setting airport security policy, was ridiculed by people at every other intelligence agency because it hadn't learned to hone its focus and still saw threats everywhere.1

The scene of Joy Whiteman holding herself up with the walls of the body scanner while a crew of security guards, paid by taxpayers, made sure she didn't fall, seemed a perfect metaphor for what has transpired in the United States over the past ten years. Having been given a steady diet of vague but terrifying information from national security officials about the possibility of dirty bombs, chemical weapons, biotoxins, exploding airliners, and suicide bombers, a nation of men and women like the Whitemans have shelled out hundreds of billions dollars to turn the machine of government over to defeating terrorism without ever really questioning what they were getting for their money. And even if they did want an answer to that question, they would not be given one, both because those same officials have decided it would gravely harm national security to share such classified information—and because the officials themselves don't actually know.

In the panic-filled chaos of late 2001 through 2002, this dragnet approach to terrorism was understandable, given how little the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence agencies knew then about al-Qaeda. But in ten years, they have made vast strides in technical surveillance capabilities and intelligence analysis. They have killed so many al-Qaeda operatives that only hundreds are left in the world (in addition to the organization's post-9/11 affiliates). The dragnet approach no longer makes much sense.

One reason America is stuck at Yellow Alert2—"Significant Risk" of terrorist attack accompanied by no specific information—and stuck with such an enormous complex of organizations and agencies trying to defend the country is that being wrong is too costly for politicians in Washington. "Who wants to be the guy that says we don't need this anymore and then three weeks later something happens?" asked Obama national security adviser James Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps. "I don't think you can ever get it back" to a smaller size.

We believe the primary reason for this is that the government has still not engaged the American people in an honest conversation about terrorism and the appropriate U.S. response to it. We hope our book will promote one.

Many people in the intelligence community wish this book were not being published at all. Before publishing our initial series on Top Secret America in the Washington Post in July 2010, we showed the government a database of government organizations and private companies working at the top secret level, assembled over several years as part of our research. We described how the data had been culled from publicly available information, and asked to hear any national security concerns. After detailed discussions with most of the sixteen agencies of the intelligence community,3 the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is supposed to lead those agencies, returned with a surprising request: don't publish the database. It might harm national security, we were told. The office declined to offer specifics and issued a warning to contractors about the impending publication of the series. The Post, meanwhile, had already begun to identify possible national security issues, and executive editor Marcus Brauchli ordered appropriate changes.

We are grateful to Little, Brown for allowing us to put this case before readers in much greater detail.

Despite all the unauthorized disclosures of classified information and programs in scores of articles since September 11, 2001, our military and intelligence sources cannot think of an instance in which security has been seriously damaged by the release of information. On the contrary, much harm has been done to the counterterrorism effort itself, and to the American economy and U.S. strategic goals, by allowing the government to operate in the dark, by continuing to dole out taxpayer money to programs that have no value and to employees, many of them private contractors, who are making no significant contribution to the country's safety. Allowing outsiders like us to signal shortcomings is one of the great protections the U.S. Constitution gives to the media.

Calling the reaction to al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack a "war" ensured that the government could justify classifying everything associated with fighting it. Under President George Bush, journalists' efforts to figure out how the United States was waging this war against al-Qaeda were often criticized by senior administration leaders, members of Congress, cable television pundits, even the public. Many of those journalists hoped that would change under the presidency of Barack Obama. It is true the president and his cabinet members have not publicly disparaged the news media as much as his predecessor did. But behind the scenes, the situation is actually much worse. President Obama's Justice Department has taken a more aggressive tack against the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by pursuing more so-called leak investigations than the Bush administration. Recent indictments were issued against a former CIA employee who allegedly talked to book author James Risen, a New York Times reporter, about a botched attempt to slip faulty nuclear plans to Iran; and a former National Security Agency official, Thomas Drake, who helped a Baltimore Sun reporter detail the waste of billions of dollars at his agency. In early June 2011, the government was forced to offer Drake a deal because its lawyers said they did not want to reveal classified information related to the case in court. Drake accepted the prosecution's offer to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor of misusing a government computer to provide information to an unauthorized person. He is expected to serve no prison time. Then there is the case of former Justice Department official Thomas Tamm. In August 2007, eighteen FBI agents, some with their guns drawn, burst into his home with only his wife and children present, to raid his files during an investigation into his alleged role in helping the New York Times develop its seminal warrantless surveillance story in 2004. The government dropped his case nearly four years later, in April 2011, after Tamm's career had been ruined and he faced financial peril.

The Justice Department is also mulling an indictment on espionage charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing tens of thousands of pages of classified U.S. diplomatic cables and war-related field reports, some of them allegedly provided by a young army private first class, who is also under arrest. Regardless of Assange's publicly stated bias against U.S. policies and the allegations against his personal behavior, this unprecedented trove of material has allowed reporters around the world to write some of the most insightful and revealing stories of our time. In some cases those revelations even fueled brave public protests against undemocratic, corrupt regimes, developments the U.S. government says it supports in the name of promoting democracy.

Congress has jumped on the secrecy bandwagon, too. Maryland senator Benjamin Cardin—whose state is home to the National Security Agency, the nation's eavesdroppers—introduced a bill in 2011 making it a felony to disclose classified information to an unauthorized person. This legislation expands considerably the current law that makes it illegal to disclose information on nuclear codes, cryptography, electronic intercepts, nuclear weapons designs, and the identities of covert agents. But most important, it places even greater power into the hands of the executive branch to just declare something classified rather than to have to demonstrate that harm would be done if the information were to be made public.

Had Cardin's law been on the books shortly after 9/11, newspapers would have had a much harder time publishing stories about the CIA's covert prisons and waterboarding and other harsh treatment of detainees. Journalists may have been kept from revealing that many of the captives held at the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, turned out not to be terrorists at all; that U.S. Army soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison; that the National Security Agency was collecting communications of people living in the United States without the required permission; and even that in 2011 Pakistan had rounded up men in their country they believed had helped U.S. authorities find Osama bin Laden.

The laws under consideration also would have made it illegal for government employees to help reporters research articles in 2002 and 2003 about the weakness of evidence surrounding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction or, seven years later, the stunning admission by the key one-time German intelligence source, code-named Curveball, that his story was entirely fabricated.

Another piece of legislation now under consideration would criminalize the disclosure and publication of information about human intelligence—spies and informants. That law may have made it illegal for newspapers to have published articles about Canadian citizen Maher Arar, whom U.S. authorities turned over to the infamously inhumane Syrian police in 2002 after mistakenly deciding he was a terrorist. Or the CIA's bungled operation in Macedonia, where case officers mistook German citizen Khalid al-Masri for someone else and disappeared him for months, something that has cost him his sanity. He is a broken man today, one without even a public apology from the United States.

This book offers a counterproposal: that only more transparency and debate will make us safe from terrorism and the other serious challenges the United States faces. Terrorism is not just about indiscriminate violence. As its name suggests, it is about instilling paranoia and profound anxiety. It aims to disrupt economies and inspire government clampdowns. It is time to close the decade-long chapter of fear, to confront the colossal sum of money that could have been saved or better spent, to remember what we are truly defending, and in doing so, to begin a new era of openness and better security against our enemies.

A Note on Methodology

Our investigation focused on top secret work because the staggering amount of work classified one rung below, at the secret level, was simply too large to accurately track. We conducted several hundred interviews with current and former military, defense, and intelligence officials and private contractors, and visited at least a hundred places where top secret work is carried out.

To create a database of organizations and private companies working with top secret clearances involved compiling hundreds of thousands of public records about government organizations and private-sector companies over a period of two and a half years. These records included government documents, contracts and task orders, corporate and government job descriptions, property and budget records, corporate and social networking websites, corporate databases, and other material.

The people in this book are referred to by the title or rank they held when they were interviewed. Our reporting cannot be more fully described without breaking the promises of confidentiality requested by the vast majority of current and former officials who agreed to answer our questions and offer their observations and assessments of this hidden universe. Most of those who helped us did so with the knowledge that they were breaking some internal agency rule in doing so; they proceeded anyway because they wanted us to have a more complete picture of the inner workings of the post-9/11 world we sought to describe and because they, too, believe too much information is classified for no good reason. They spoke because they, too, were alarmed that one of the greatest secrets of Top Secret America is its disturbing dysfunction.

Our anonymous sources come in a couple of varieties: people interviewed with the approval of the government on the condition that they not be identified; people who agreed to explain things and give their assessments without official approval on the promise that they not be named. Some of the latter also requested that their military branch, agency, rank, and/or particular office be kept private. In most cases, anecdotes and other facts shared by anonymous sources were verified by at least one other person and often by several others. Many government offices were also contacted for comment and input. Most responded. A few declined.

We have carefully considered the national security implications of our work and have left out some information. The point of describing this overgrown jungle of top secret organizations and corporations is to enhance national security and the public's understanding of it.

Liberty Crossing, in McLean, Virginia, houses the headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center. (Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post)


Top Secret America

Small fires were still smoldering under the rubble of the Pentagon crash site when President George Bush's senior staff approached Congress for emergency money for cleanup and retaliation. The first request was bolder than anything anyone on Capitol Hill could ever remember receiving: "… and such sums as necessary for an indefinite period of time." Scott Lilly, then Democratic minority staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, which under law helps Congress decide what executive branch programs to fund and in what amount, likened the first post-9/11 supplemental budget to "a repeal of the Constitution." While the committee members knew the administration would have to come back to them for more money, in the dazed shock that followed the attacks, no one questioned that a war against al-Qaeda would necessarily involve a massive infusion of funds.

Negotiations were brief, given the nation's state. Emergency preparations to respond to another attack were under way throughout Washington and it was considered unsafe to be on Capitol Hill, rumored to be the one target al-Qaeda had missed that day. Authorities had quickly simulated what various types of explosives would do to the nation's most recognizable buildings. In the case of the Capitol, of particular concern were the panes of nineteenth-century glass. One powerful bomb could easily cause three thousand deaths as a result of the shrapnel of flying glass. Other scenarios were just as devastating and prompted the closing of streets around the area.

In a matter of days, a bipartisan group of leaders approved an additional $40 billion—two-thirds of total federal spending for education that year and twice as much as Bush had ended up requesting—to counter the attack. Wisconsin representative David R. Obey, Lilly's boss and the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called the measure "a down payment" on a "long twilight struggle against terrorism. This is going to be a very nasty enterprise."

Less than three weeks later, by the end of the month, congressional leaders approved another $40 billion. Some of the money was devoted to quickly reconstructing the Pentagon, and cleaning up the World Trade Center site, as well as to fortifying the Capitol and other federal buildings. "We were single-minded," said Jim Dyer, Republican House Appropriations Committee staff director. "We were going to show the bad guys how quickly we could respond, that we were strong enough to take a hit and bounce right back."

Three weeks later, envelopes of deadly anthrax emptied the Capitol and adjoining office buildings. Members and staff of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, locked out of their offices, spent their days at the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Energy, and the other agencies that were most immediately involved in the response. The displaced House Appropriations members added items not on the White House list: protection for the Statue of Liberty; a remote backup computer server site for the FBI, which had none at the time; preparation for mass vaccine production; more equipment and personnel for the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation's electronic surveillance agency;1 and much more money for domestic nuclear security. The list, anxiously compiled, was long. By December, Congress passed another supplemental spending bill. Supplementals are funds not included in the normal fiscal year budget of any department, and they would become a way of life for the federal government following the 2001 attacks. When the buildup to the war in Iraq began just a year later, massive infusions of cash again were requested and approved. Much of the new money, on top of the already existing multi-billion-dollar budgets of the intelligence community and the military agencies, went into classified budget annexes under a new catch-all category called "GWOT" (pronounced Gee-Watt), for the Global War on Terror.2 Given the fact that the country was now actively at war in Afghanistan, barely a member could speak out against more GWOT funds. "These were massive amounts no one could check," said Lilly. "It got so huge it overwhelmed the system. There was no way we could keep track of it. You'd no sooner be finished with one bill and you'd be given a request for a supplemental." Keeping tabs on the deluge of money was all the harder because much of the spending was also hidden from public view in what became a routine classified no-man's-land dealing with counterterrorism and homeland security, where it remains today.

The expansion of the classified portion of the federal budget reflected what was happening in the operations of the defense and intelligence agencies. On September 17, Bush signed a nearly open-ended Presidential Finding,3 a document legally required in order to authorize covert activities by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. (The term covert—as opposed to clandestine or secret—means the activities are supposed to remain concealed so that the United States could plausibly deny its involvement if necessary. Clandestine and secret activities are concealed, but, if they are discovered, their U.S. sponsorship can be acknowledged. Under law, military operations, even the most carefully concealed, are not meant to be covert.)4 As reported first by Bob Woodward for the Washington Post, Bush's Presidential Finding on al-Qaeda directed the CIA to undertake the most sweeping and lethal covert action since the agency was founded in 1947. The objective was to attack bin Laden's organization and to kill or capture those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and their supporters. Bush immediately gave the agency $1 billion and instructed the military to help the CIA in any way it could.

From the Presidential Finding grew dozens of frenzied programs to beef up the spy agency's paramilitary capabilities and support infrastructure around Afghanistan. Each one of them flew by the desk of John Rizzo, the CIA senior deputy legal counsel, for review.

"There was a flood of money and also a flood of authorities, a flood of responsibilities that we were directed to undertake, obviously immediately," said Rizzo, who by then had already spent a quarter-century at the agency. "It overwhelmed the infrastructure that was in place."

I had met Bill Arkin ten years before, during a much simpler operation: Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the first Gulf War. Arkin was a meticulous chronicler of the military and the national security establishment, writing about the nuclear arms race during the cold war and, later, about the airpower era of the 1990s. He conducted assessments on the ground in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia and then persuaded the air force to give him detailed bomb damage assessment data to develop authoritative accounts of accidental civilian deaths, known as collateral damage, inflicted during air campaigns.

From his converted office barn in Vermont, the former army intelligence analyst wrote books on how to research the military and how to use the Internet to unearth government secrets. In the 1980s, using only publicly available information, such as telephone books, Arkin had located the secret U.S. nuclear weapons sites in Europe, infuriating the Defense Department and causing a firestorm in Europe but also showing the government what a poor job it did keeping secrets.

To understand any national security question, he collected and cataloged troves of documents: budgets, contracts, military directives, program descriptions, hearing transcripts, job listings, phone directories, audits, and a brain-pickling list of other sources.

Shortly after September 11, Arkin began to notice numerous changes in the budgets, hearings, and military directives he had discovered. Colorfully random two-word titles began to appear, nonsensical phrases like Busy Lobster, Fervent Archer, and Scarlet Cloud. The names of military operations, such as Brave Warrior, Justice Assured, and Freedom Eagle, all made a statement about political purpose and resolve. But Titrant Ranger? What did that mean?

Arkin's way of dealing with this proliferation of code names was to pull them into detailed computer files and study them as a whole. He had collected more than 3,500 of these odd phrases. To analyze them, he created a three-tiered classification system, a secrecy pyramid. At the base were designations that he already knew, and which were commonly used nicknames for military exercises and hardware and the like, phrases like Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. The next level contained classified names that could only be vaguely definable by cross-referencing them with a budget line, a contract, a cryptically written directive. (Anything associated with the Nimble Elder program, for example, turned out to have something to do with weapons of mass destruction and counterterrorism.) Then there was the upper layer, the 5 percent of names that appeared rarely and without any description and were probably associated with the most secret and compartmentalized activities.

After years of analysis, Arkin figured that his voluminous research on code names had excavated only the tip of the pyramid, but he was still surprised at the number of new code names that were being manufactured every day. As he began matching code names to other references he had kept over the years, he discovered a giant flaw in the government's security system. A lot of the code names, even those near the top of the secrecy pyramid, showed up in the descriptions on job-listing websites of positions available to candidates who held security clearances. He was surprised, and delighted, to see classified NSA program names among them, such as this first job announcement he collected from the Windermere Group, an obscure intelligence consulting company, which was looking for a "Senior Analytic Support Specialist" based in Columbia, Maryland, to work on "at least two of the following: ANCHORY, OCTAVE, SKYWRITER, SEMESTER, JAGUAR, ARCVIEW, e-WorkSpace, PINWALE, or HOMEBASE."

As massive online job boards such as replaced job listings that had appeared in newspapers, an astonishing number of these notices became searchable in their totality for the first time. Arkin began to catalog from four hundred to six hundred new job postings a day from the federal government and private companies looking for top secret–cleared workers with very specific skill sets. At any one time, he could find as many as 15,000 listings for very specialized positions that required a top secret clearance. Between 2006 and 2010 he cataloged 182,000 such job announcements in his files. As he did so, Arkin started to count government organizations and private companies working at the "secret" level of classification. Something is classified secret5 if its unauthorized disclosure would cause "serious damage" to national security. For instance, many of the State Department cables published by WikiLeaks are classified secret because they provide candid assessments of foreign leaders and agreements. Routine field reports from military units are also classified secret on the theory that they might provide useful tidbits to an enemy. He was quickly overwhelmed by the volume. There were simply too many organizations and companies to track. Had he been looking prior to September 11, he would have expected to see evidence of a significant number of such programs, but the post-9/11 quantity was mind-boggling.

Given the huge number of secret programs, he decided to track only those classified top secret. A classification of top secret6 meant that public disclosure would lead to "exceptionally grave harm" to national security. The classification generally went to intelligence sources and special capabilities, particularly those involving nuclear weapons or special operations. Top secret information might reveal sources who were secretly passing information to U.S. authorities, or sophisticated technologies used to listen in on the conversations of adversaries, or the content of those conversations. Virtually everything concerning spy satellites and the methods of NSA monitoring is classified top secret, whereas most of what the conventional military does during war is classified secret. Cross-referencing and reading the fine print of job announcements in the summer of 2008, when we first joined forces, he had a list of two hundred companies that did top secret work; several weeks later he had five hundred—and not just their names but their addresses, as well as specific program titles and descriptions that corresponded with those locations.


  • "A breathtaking investigative account of America's vast new secret world...An invaluable book."—Los Angeles Times
  • "Essential reading."—Cryptome
  • "Mind-boggling."—Washington Lawyer

On Sale
Sep 6, 2011
Page Count
320 pages

Dana Priest

About the Author

Dana Priest es una reportera de investigación del periódico Washington Post. Ha ganado numerosos premios, incluyendo el Premio Pulitzer por servicio público en 2008 por su cobertura sobre “The Other Walter Reed” (El Otro Walter Reed) y el Premio Pulitzer de reportera de fuente por su trabajo sobre las prisiones secretas de la CIA y las operaciones de contraterrorismo en el extranjero. Es la autora de The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military (La Misión: Librando Guerras y Manteniendo La Paz Con La Milicia Norteamericana).

William M. Arkin ha sido columnista y reportero del Washington Post desde 1998. Ha trabajado con asuntos de secreto gubernamental y seguridad nacional durante más de 30 años. Es el autor y co-autor de más de una docena de libros sobre las fuerzas militares de los Estados Unidos y seguridad nacional.

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William M. Arkin

About the Author

William M. Arkin is an American political commentator, best-selling author, journalist, activist, blogger, and former United States Army soldier. He has previously served as a military affairs analyst for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. He is the author of several works of non-fiction including  Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World and American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.

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