FROM today, 28JUN13, I am not posting entire articles to this page, just links to the articles which are posted on my blog. Exceptions will be extremely large articles / series, and will be so noted. So click the links to view any of the articles after today, prior to today, the past full articles added to this page before 25OKT12, are below.
The Apple Fight Is About All of Us & Encryption, Privacy Are Larger Issues Than Fighting Terrorism, Clarke Says & Fact-checking a comparison of gun deaths and terrorism deaths 17&14MAR16&5OKT15 / Essay: Anatomy of the Deep State 21FEB14 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2014/03/essay-anatomy-of-deep-state-21feb14.html/CIA vs. Senate: Who Is Obama Protecting? 14MAR14 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2014/03/cia-vs-senate-who-is-obama-protecting.html / Sen. Feinstein: The CIA Scandal Began Because the Agency Misled Congress About Torture & Feinstein: CIA searched Intelligence Committee computers 12&11MAR14 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2014/03/sen-feinstein-cia-scandal-began-because.html /The Senate-CIA Blowup Threatens a Constitutional Crisis & Sen. Feinstein Accuses CIA of Searching Congressional Computers 11MAR14 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-senate-cia-blowup-threatens.html
/NATIONAL SECURITY, NSA SECRETS 9JUN13 THROUGH 14FEB14 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2014/02/national-security-nsa-secrets-9jun13.html
/Former CIA director: In order to spy on domestic dissidents, just call them terrorists 5FEB14 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2014/02/former-cia-director-in-order-to-spy-on.html
/ VIDEO:NSA Collects 'Word for Word' Every Domestic Communication, Says Former Analyst & Obama Administration Reveals Details of Secret NSA Phone Surveillance Program & Debate Over the Secret Court That Approves Surveillance 1AUG & 31JUL13 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2013/08/videonsa-collects-word-for-word-every.html / Company allegedly misled government about security clearance checks 27JUN13 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/company-allegedly-misled-government.html / Three Exchanges You Should Listen To About NSA Surveillance 12JUN13 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/three-exchanges-you-should-listen-to.html / Our Surveillance Society: What Orwell And Kafka Might Say & Newspaper Reveals Source For NSA Surveillance Stories 8&9JUN13 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/our-surveillance-society-what-orwell.html / President Obama: Justify your indiscriminate spying on Americans 7JUN13 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/president-obama-justify-your.html / Jon Stewart Tears Apart Obama Again! Can't Say You Found Out About News Same Time As US! 14MAI13 http://bucknacktssordidtawdryblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/jon-stewart-tears-apart-obama-again.html
Remote U.S. base at core of secret operations 25OKT12 / A CIA
veteran transforms U.S. counterterrorism policy 24OKT12 / Plan for
hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill
lists 23OKT12 /
Homeland Security’s ‘fusion centers’ defended
in response to sharply critical Senate report / U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa 13JUN12 / NEW MAP SHOWS 2,200 PRIVATE US MILITARY CONTRACTORS 5JAN11 / TOP SECRET AMERICA 19JUL10
Remote U.S. base at core of secret operations
By Craig Whitlock,This is the third of three articles.
DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — Around the clock, about 16 times a day, drones take off or land at a U.S. military base here, the combat hub for the Obama administration’s counterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
Some of the unmanned aircraft are bound for Somalia, the collapsed state whose border lies just 10 miles to the southeast. Most of the armed drones, however, veer north across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, another unstable country where they are being used in an increasingly deadly war with an al-Qaeda franchise that has targeted the United States.
Camp Lemonnier, a sun-baked Third World outpost established by the French Foreign Legion, began as a temporary staging ground for U.S. Marines looking for a foothold in the region a decade ago. Over the past two years, the U.S. military has clandestinely transformed it into the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, a model for fighting a new generation of terrorist groups.
The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the legal and operational details of its targeted-killing program. Behind closed doors, painstaking debates precede each decision to place an individual in the cross hairs of the United States’ perpetual war against al-Qaeda and its allies.
Increasingly, the orders to find, track or kill those people are delivered to Camp Lemonnier. Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases.
Secrecy blankets most of the camp’s activities. The U.S. military rejected requests from The Washington Post to tour Lemonnier last month. Officials cited “operational security concerns,” although they have permitted journalists to visit in the past.
After a Post reporter showed up in Djibouti uninvited, the camp’s highest-ranking commander consented to an interview — on the condition that it take place away from the base, at Djibouti's lone luxury hotel. The commander, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, answered some general queries but declined to comment on drone operations or missions related to Somalia or Yemen.
Despite the secrecy, thousands of pages of military records obtained by The Post — including construction blueprints, drone accident reports and internal planning memos — open a revealing window into Camp Lemonnier. None of the documents is classified and many were acquired via public-records requests.
Taken together, the previously undisclosed documents show how the Djibouti-based drone wars sharply escalated early last year after eight Predators arrived at Lemonnier. The records also chronicle the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to further intensify drone operations here in the coming months.
The documents point to the central role played by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which President Obama has repeatedly relied on to execute the nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions.
About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base.
Other counterterrorism work at Lemonnier is more overt. All told, about 3,200 U.S. troops, civilians and contractors are assigned to the camp, where they train foreign militaries, gather intelligence and dole out humanitarian aid across East Africa as part of a campaign to prevent extremists from taking root.
In Washington, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps to sustain the drone campaign for another decade, developing an elaborate new targeting database, called the “disposition matrix,” and a classified “playbook” to spell out how decisions on targeted killing are made.
Djibouti is the clearest example of how the United States is laying the groundwork to carry out these operations overseas. For the past decade, the Pentagon has labeled Lemonnier an “expeditionary,” or temporary, camp. But it is now hardening into the U.S. military’s first permanent drone war base.
In August, the Defense Department delivered a master plan to Congress detailing how the camp will be used over the next quarter-century. About $1.4 billion in construction projects are on the drawing board, including a huge new compound that could house up to 1,100 Special Operations forces, more than triple the current number.
Drones will continue to be in the forefront. In response to written questions from The Post, the U.S. military confirmed publicly for the first time the presence of remotely piloted aircraft — military parlance for drones — at Camp Lemonnier and said they support “a wide variety of regional security missions.”
Intelligence collected from drone and other surveillance missions “is used to develop a full picture of the activities of violent extremist organizations and other activities of interest,” Africa Command, the arm of the U.S. military that oversees the camp, said in a statement. “However, operational security considerations prevent us from commenting on specific missions.”
For nearly a decade, the United States flew drones from Lemonnier only rarely, starting with a 2002 strike in Yemen that killed a suspected ringleader of the attack on the USS Cole.
That swiftly changed in 2010, however, after al-Qaeda’s network in Yemen attempted to bomb two U.S.-bound airliners and jihadists in Somalia separately consolidated their hold on that country. Late that year, records show, the Pentagon dispatched eight unmanned MQ-1B Predator aircraft to Djibouti and turned Lemonnier into a full-time drone base.
The impact was apparent months later: JSOC drones from Djibouti and CIA Predators from a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula converged over Yemen and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric and prominent al-Qaeda member.
Today, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an expanding constellation of half a dozen U.S. drone and surveillance bases in Africa, created to combat a new generation of terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic. The U.S. military also flies drones from small civilian airports in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, but those operations pale in comparison to what is unfolding in Djibouti.
Lemonnier also has become a hub for conventional aircraft. In October 2011, the military boosted the airpower at the base by deploying a squadron of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, which can fly faster and carry more munitions than Predators.
In its written responses, Africa Command confirmed the warplanes’ presence but declined to answer questions about their mission. Two former U.S. defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the F-15s are flying combat sorties over Yemen, an undeclared development in the growing war against al-Qaeda forces there.
The drones and other military aircraft have crowded the skies over the Horn of Africa so much that the risk of an aviation disaster has soared.
Since January 2011, Air Force records show, five Predators armed with Hellfire missiles crashed after taking off from Lemonnier, including one drone that plummeted to the ground in a residential area of Djibouti City. No injuries were reported but four of the drones were destroyed.
Predator drones in particular are more prone to mishaps than manned aircraft, Air Force statistics show. But the accidents rarely draw public attention because there are no pilots or passengers.
As the pace of drone operations has intensified in Djibouti, Air Force mechanics have reported mysterious incidents in which the airborne robots went haywire.
In March 2011, a Predator parked at the camp started its engine without any human direction, even though the ignition had been turned off and the fuel lines closed. Technicians concluded that a software bug had infected the “brains” of the drone, but never pinpointed the problem.
“After that whole starting-itself incident, we were fairly wary of the aircraft and watched it pretty closely,” an unnamed Air Force squadron commander testified to an investigative board, according to a transcript. “Right now, I still think the software is not good.”
Djibouti is an impoverished former French colony with fewer than 1 million people, scarce natural resources and miserably hot weather.
But as far as the U.S. military is concerned, the country's strategic value is unparalleled. Sandwiched between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Camp Lemonnier enables U.S. aircraft to reach hot spots such as Yemen or Somalia in minutes. Djibouti’s port also offers easy access to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
“This is not an outpost in the middle of nowhere that is of marginal interest,” said Amanda J. Dory, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Africa. “This is a very important location in terms of U.S. interests, in terms of freedom of navigation, when it comes to power projection.”
The U.S. military pays $38 million a year to lease Camp Lemonnier from the Djiboutian government. The base rolls across flat, sandy terrain on the edge of Djibouti City, a somnolent capital with eerily empty streets. During the day, many people stay indoors to avoid the heat and to chew khat, a mildly intoxicating plant that is popular in the region.
Hemmed in by the sea and residential areas, Camp Lemonnier’s primary shortcoming is that it has no space to expand. It is forced to share a single runway with Djibouti’s only international airport, as well as an adjoining French military base and the tiny Djiboutian armed forces.
Passengers arriving on commercial flights — there are about eight per day — can occasionally spy a Predator drone preparing for a mission. In between flights, the unmanned aircraft park under portable, fabric-covered hangars to shield them from the wind and curious eyes.
Behind the perimeter fence, construction crews are rebuilding the base to better accommodate the influx of drones. Glimpses of the secret operations can be found in an assortment of little-noticed Pentagon memoranda submitted to Congress.
Last month, for example, the Defense Department awarded a $62 million contract to build an airport taxiway extension to handle increased drone traffic at Lemonnier, an ammunition storage site and a combat-loading area for bombs and missiles.
In an Aug. 20 letter to Congress explaining the emergency contract, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said that 16 drones and four fighter jets take off or land at the Djibouti airfield each day, on average. Those operations are expected to increase, he added, without giving details.
In a separate letter to Congress, Carter said Camp Lemonnier is running out of space to park its drones, which he referred to as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), and other planes. “The recent addition of fighters and RPAs has exacerbated the situation, causing mission delays,” he said.
Carter’s letters revealed that the drones and fighter aircraft at the base support three classified military operations, code-named Copper Dune, Jupiter Garret and Octave Shield.
Copper Dune is the name of the military’s counterterrorism operations in Yemen. Africa Command said it could not provide information about Jupiter Garret and Octave Shield, citing secrecy restrictions. The code names are unclassified.
The military often assigns similar names to related missions. Octave Fusion was the code name for a Navy SEAL-led operation in Somalia that rescued an American and a Danish hostage on Jan. 24.
Another window into the Djibouti drone operations can be found in U.S. Air Force safety records.
Whenever a military aircraft is involved in a mishap, the Air Force appoints an Accident Investigation Board to determine the cause. Although the reports focus on technical questions, supplementary documents make it possible to re-create a narrative of what happened in the hours leading up to a crash.
Air Force officers investigating the crash of a Predator on May 17, 2011, found that things started to go awry at Camp Lemonnier late that night when a man known as Frog emerged from the Special Operations compound.
The camp’s main power supply had failed and the phone lines were down. So Frog walked over to the flight line to deliver some important news to the Predator ground crew on duty, according to the investigators’ files, which were obtained by The Post as part of a public-records request.
“Frog” was the alias chosen by a major assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command. At Lemonnier, he belonged to a special collection of Navy SEALs, Delta Force soldiers, Air Force commandos and Marines known simply as “the task force.”
JSOC commandos spend their days and nights inside their compound as they plot raids against terrorist camps and pirate hideouts. Everybody on the base is aware of what they do, but the topic is taboo. “I can’t acknowledge the task force,” said Baker, the Army general and highest-ranking commander at Lemonnier.
Frog coordinated Predator hunts. He did not reveal his real name to anyone without a need to know, not even the ground-crew supervisors and operators and mechanics who cared for the Predators. The only contact came when Frog or his friends occasionally called from their compound to say it was time to ready a drone for takeoff or to prepare for a landing.
Information about each Predator mission was kept so tightly compartmentalized that the ground crews were ignorant of the drones’ targets and destinations. All they knew was that most of their Predators eventually came back, usually 20 or 22 hours later, earlier if something went awry.
On this particular night, Frog informed the crew that his Predator was returning unexpectedly, 17 hours into the flight, because of a slow oil leak.
It was not an emergency. But as the drone descended toward Djibouti City it entered a low-hanging cloud that obscured its camera sensor. Making matters worse, the GPS malfunctioned and gave incorrect altitude readings.
The crew operating the drone was flying blind. It guided the Predator on a “dangerously low glidepath,” Air Force investigators concluded, and crashed the remote-controlled plane 2.7 miles short of the runway.
The site was in a residential area and fire trucks rushed to the scene. The drone had crashed in a vacant lot and its single Hellfire missile had not detonated.
The Predator splintered apart and was a total loss. With a $3 million price tag, it had cost less than one-tenth the price of an F-15 Strike Eagle.
But in terms of spilling secrets, the damage was severe. Word spread quickly about the mysterious insect-shaped plane that had dropped from the sky. Hundreds of Djiboutians gathered and gawked at the wreckage for hours until the U.S. military arrived to retrieve the pieces.
One secret that survived, however, was Frog’s identity. The official Air Force panel assigned to investigate the Predator accident couldn’t determine his real name, much less track him down for questioning.
“Who is Frog?” one investigator demanded weeks later while interrogating a ground crew member, according to a transcript. “I’m sorry, I was just getting more explanation as to who Frog — is that a person? Or is that like a position?”
The crew member explained that Frog was a liaison officer from the task force. “He’s a Pred guy,” he shrugged. “I actually don’t know his last name.”
The accident triggered alarms at the upper echelons of the Air Force because it was the fourth drone in four months from Camp Lemonnier to crash.
Ten days earlier, on May 7, 2011, a drone carrying a Hellfire missile had an electrical malfunction shortly after it entered Yemeni airspace, according to an Air Force investigative report. The Predator turned back toward Djibouti. About one mile offshore, it rolled uncontrollably to the right, then back to the left before flipping belly up and hurtling into the sea.
“I’ve never seen a Predator do that before in my life, except in videos of other crashes,” a sensor operator from the ground crew told investigators, according to a transcript. “I’m just glad we landed it in the ocean and not someplace else.”
Flying every sortie
The remote-control drones in Djibouti are flown, via satellite link, by pilots 8,000 miles away in the United States, sitting at consoles in air-conditioned quarters at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.
At Camp Lemonnier, conditions are much less pleasant for the Air Force ground crews that launch, recover and fix the drones.
In late 2010, after military cargo planes transported the fleet of eight Predators to Djibouti, airmen from the 60th Air Force Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron unpacked the drones from their crates and assembled them.
Soon after, without warning, a microburst storm with 80-mph winds struck the camp.
The 87-member squadron scrambled to secure the Predators and other exposed aircraft. They managed to save more than half of the “high-value, Remotely Piloted Aircraft assets from destruction, and most importantly, prevented injury and any loss of life,” according to a brief account published in Combat Edge, an Air Force safety magazine.
Even normal weather conditions could be brutal, with summertime temperatures reaching 120 degrees on top of 80 percent humidity.
“Our war reserve air conditioners literally short-circuited in the vain attempt to cool the tents in which we worked,” recalled Lt. Col. Thomas McCurley, the squadron commander. “Our small group of security forces personnel guarded the compound, flight line and other allied assets at posts exposed to the elements with no air conditioning at all.”
McCurley’s rare public account of the squadron’s activities came in June, when the Air Force awarded him a Bronze Star. At the ceremony, he avoided any explicit mention of the Predators or Camp Lemonnier. But his narrative matched what is known about the squadron’s deployment to Djibouti.
“Our greatest accomplishment was that we flew every single sortie the Air Force asked us to fly, despite the challenges we encountered,” he said. “We were an integral part in taking down some very important targets, which means a lot to me.”
He did not mention it, but the unit had gotten into the spirit of its mission by designing a uniform patch emblazoned with a skull, crossbones and a suitable nickname: “East Africa Air Pirates.”
The Air Force denied a request from The Post to interview McCurley.
The frequency of U.S. military flights from Djibouti has soared, overwhelming air-traffic controllers and making the skies more dangerous.
The number of takeoffs and landings each month has more than doubled, reaching a peak of 1,666 in July compared with a monthly average of 768 two years ago, according to air-traffic statistics disclosed in Defense Department contracting documents.
Drones now account for about 30 percent of daily U.S. military flight operations at Lemonnier, according to a Post analysis.
The increased activity has meant more mishaps. Last year, drones were involved in “a string of near mid-air collisions” with NATO planes off the Horn of Africa, according to a brief safety alert published in Combat Edge magazine.
Drones also pose an aviation risk next door in Somalia. Over the past year, remote-controlled aircraft have plunged into a refugee camp, flown perilously close to a fuel dump and almost collided with a large passenger plane over Mogadishu, the capital, according to a United Nations report.
Manned planes are crashing, too. An Air Force U-28A surveillance plane crashed five miles from Camp Lemonnier while returning from a secret mission on Feb. 18, killing the four-person crew. An Air Force investigation attributed the accident to “unrecognized spatial disorientation” on the part of the crew, which ignored sensor warnings that it was flying too close to the ground.
Baker, the two-star commander at Lemonnier, played down the crashes and near-misses. He said safety had improved since he arrived in Djibouti in May.
“We’ve dramatically reduced any incidents of concern, certainly since I’ve been here,” he said.
Last month, the Defense Department awarded a $7 million contract to retrain beleaguered air-traffic controllers at Ambouli International Airport and improve their English skills.
The Djiboutian controllers handle all civilian and U.S. military aircraft. But they are “undermanned” and “over tasked due to the recent rapid increase in U.S. military flights,” according to the contract. It also states that the controllers and the airport are not in compliance with international aviation standards.
Resolving those deficiencies may not be sufficient. Records show the U.S. military is also scrambling for an alternative place for its planes to land in an emergency.
Last month, it awarded a contract to install portable lighting at the only backup site available: a tiny, makeshift airstrip in the Djiboutian desert, several miles from Lemonnier.
A CIA veteran transforms U.S. counterterrorism policy
By Karen DeYoung,This is the second of three articles.
In his windowless White House office, presidential counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan is compiling the rules for a war the Obama administration believes will far outlast its own time in office, whether that is just a few more months or four more years.
The “playbook,” as Brennan calls it, will lay out the administration’s evolving procedures for the targeted killings that have come to define its fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will cover the selection and approval of targets from the “disposition matrix,” the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.
“What we’re trying to do right now is to have a set of standards, a set of criteria, and have a decision-making process that will govern our counterterrorism actions — we’re talking about direct action, lethal action — so that irrespective of the venue where they’re taking place, we have a high confidence that they’re being done for the right reasons in the right way,” Brennan said in a lengthy interview at the end of August.
A burly 25-year CIA veteran with a stern public demeanor, Brennan is the principal architect of a policy that has transformed counterterrorism from a conventional fight centered in Afghanistan to a high-tech global effort to track down and eliminate perceived enemies one by one.
What was once a disparate collection of tactics — drone strikes by the CIA and the military, overhead surveillance, deployment of small Special Forces ground units at far-flung bases, and distribution of military and economic aid to threatened governments — has become a White House-centered strategy with Brennan at its core.
Four years ago, Brennan felt compelled to withdraw from consideration as President Obama’s first CIA director because of what he regarded as unfair criticism of his role in counterterrorism practices as an intelligence official during the George W. Bush administration. Instead, he stepped into a job in the Obama administration with greater responsibility and influence.
Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency. Still, during Brennan’s tenure, the CIA has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and opened a new base for armed drones in the Arabian Peninsula.
Although he insists that all agencies have the opportunity to weigh in on decisions, making differing perspectives available to the Oval Office, Brennan wields enormous power in shaping decisions on “kill” lists and the allocation of armed drones, the war’s signature weapon.
When operations are proposed in Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, it is Brennan alone who takes the recommendations to Obama for a final sign-off.
As the war against al-Qaeda and related groups moves to new locations and new threats, Brennan and other senior officials describe the playbook as an effort to constrain the deployment of drones by future administrations as much as it provides a framework for their expanded use in what has become the United States’ permanent war.
“This needs to be sustainable,” one senior administration official said, “and we need to think of it in ways that contemplate other people sitting in all the chairs around the table.”
A critical player
There is widespread agreement that Obama and Brennan, one of the president’s most trusted aides, are like-minded on counterterrorism policy.
“Ever since the first couple of months, I felt there was a real similarity of views that gave me a sense of comfort,” Brennan said. “I don’t think we’ve had a disagreement.”
But the concentration of power in one person, who is unelected and unconfirmed by Congress, does not sit well with critics.
To many in the international legal community and among human rights and civil liberties activists, Brennan runs a policy so secret that it is impossible for outsiders to judge whether it complies with the laws of war or U.S. values — or even determine the total number of people killed.
“Brennan says the administration is committed to ‘greater transparency,’ ” Human Rights Watch said in response to a speech he gave in May about drones. But despite “administration assertions that ‘innocent civilians’ have not been injured or killed, except in the ‘rarest of circumstances,’ there has been no clear accounting of civilian loss or opportunity to meaningfully examine the administration’s assertions.”
Although outsiders have criticized the policy itself, some inside the administration take issue with how Brennan has run it. One former senior counterterrorism official described Brennan as the “single point of failure” in the strategy, saying he controls too much and delegates too little.
A former top Defense Department official sounded a similar note. “He holds his cards incredibly close,” he said. “If I ask for the right one to be seen, he’ll show it to me. But he’s not going to show me everything he’s got in his hand.”
Michael E. Leiter, who headed the National Counterterrorism Center until mid-2011, described Brennan as a forceful leader and “a critical player in getting this president comfortable with the tools of the trade.”
Leiter said that he and Brennan “disagreed not infrequently” on fleeting issues, including interpretations of a piece of intelligence or how to respond to a specific threat. But there was a more significant issue: Leiter said Brennan was less focused on root causes of radicalization, in part because of how Brennan and the White House defined his job.
Leiter was one of the few people who allowed his name to be used among the nearly dozen current and former senior national security officials interviewed for this article. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity under restrictions imposed by the administration or because they were not authorized to discuss certain issues.
For each of Brennan’s critics, there are many associates who use the words “moral compass” to describe his role in the White House. It is Brennan, they say, who questions the justification for each drone attack, who often dials back what he considers excessive zeal by the CIA and the military, and who stands up for diplomatic and economic assistance components in the overall strategy.
Brennan’s bedrock belief in a “just war,” they said, is tempered by his deep knowledge of the Middle East, Islam and the CIA, and the critical thinking forged during a classic Jesuit education.
Some White House aides describe him as a nearly priest-like presence in their midst, with a moral depth leavened by a dry Irish wit.
One CIA colleague, former general counsel John Rizzo, recalled his rectitude surfacing in unexpected ways. Brennan once questioned Rizzo’s use of the “BCC” function in the agency’s e-mail system to send a blind copy of a message to a third party without the primary recipient’s knowledge.
“He wasn’t joking,” Rizzo said. “He regarded that as underhanded.”
Brennan, 57, was born in the gritty New Jersey town of North Bergen, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan. His Irish-immigrant parents, now in their early 90s, were strict and devout Catholics, traits his brother Tom said Brennan embodied from an early age. “It was almost like I had two fathers,” Tom Brennan said.
John Brennan’s formative experiences at Fordham University, where he earned a degree in political science, included a summer in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, and a junior year at the American University in Cairo, where he studied Arabic and the region that would dominate his intelligence career and greatly influence his White House tenure.
In 1980, soon after receiving a master’s degree in government from the University of Texas at Austin, Brennan answered a CIA recruitment ad in a newspaper. By the middle of the decade, he had spent two years in Saudi Arabia and was among the agency’s leading Middle Eastern analysts.
“He was probably the hardest-working human being I ever encountered,” said a former senior CIA official who worked for Brennan on the Middle East desk. Brennan, he said, was regarded as insightful, even imaginative, but had a seriousness that set him apart.
In 1999, after a second tour in Saudi Arabia as CIA station chief, he returned to headquarters as chief of staff for then-Director George J. Tenet. In 2001, he became deputy executive director, just months before a team of al-Qaeda operatives — most of them from Saudi Arabia — used four hijacked U.S. airliners to kill nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11.
‘I . . . do what I think is right’
Brennan’s belief in his competence and probity has sometimes led to political blind spots. Tenet tapped him in 2003 to build the new CIA-based Terrorist Threat Integration Center to bridge pre-Sept. 11 intelligence gaps. But Brennan was bypassed by the Bush administration a year later for two key jobs — head of the National Counterterrorism Center and deputy to the new director of national intelligence — largely because of his criticism of the Iraq war.
As a private citizen after leaving government, Brennan spoke publicly about counterterrorism controversies of the day. He defended the CIA’s rendition of suspected terrorists as “an absolutely vital tool” but described waterboarding as within “the classic definition of torture.” Brennan also criticized the military as moving too far into traditional intelligence spheres.
His career in government appeared to be over until he was invited in late 2007 to join the nascent presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Although Obama and Brennan did not meet until after the election, their first conversation during the transition revealed profound harmony on issues of intelligence and what the president-elect called the “war against al-Qaeda.”
But when Brennan’s name circulated as Obama’s choice to head the CIA, he again came under political fire — this time from liberals who accused him of complicity in the agency’s use of brutal interrogation measures under Bush. Spooked by the criticism, Obama quickly backtracked and Brennan withdrew.
“It has been immaterial to the critics that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration such as preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding,” he wrote in an angry withdrawal letter released to the media.
Several former intelligence colleagues said that, although Brennan had criticized the CIA interrogation methods after he left the government, they could not recall him doing so as a senior executive at the agency.
Brennan was given responsibility in the White House for counterterrorism and homeland security, a position that required no Senate confirmation and had no well-defined duties. At the outset, colleagues said they wondered what his job would be.
But to a young administration new to the secret details of national security threats and responsibilities, Brennan was a godsend.
And for the man passed over for other posts, it was vindication. “I’ve been crucified by the left and the right, equally so,” and rejected by the Bush administration “because I was not seen as someone who was a team player,” Brennan said in the interview.
“I’m probably not a team player here, either,” he said of the Obama administration. “I tend to do what I think is right. But I find much more comfort, I guess, in the views and values of this president.”
Brennan and others on the inside found that Obama, hailed as a peacemaker by the left and criticized by the right as a naive pacifist, was willing to move far more aggressively than Bush against perceived extremists.
Yemen is a ‘model’
From the outset, Brennan expressed concern about the spread of al-Qaeda beyond South Asia, particularly to Yemen, according to administration officials involved in the early talks.
U.S. counterterrorism policy had long been concentrated on Pakistan, where the Bush administration had launched sporadic CIA drone attacks against senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Within two years, Obama had more than tripled the number of strikes in Pakistan, from 36 in 2008 to 122 in 2010, according to the New America Foundation.
Eventually, Obama and Brennan decided the program was getting out of hand. High-value targets were becoming elusive, accusations of civilian deaths were rising, and strikes were increasingly directed toward what the angry Pakistanis called mere “foot soldiers.”
But with Pakistan’s adamant refusal to allow U.S. military operations on its soil, taking what was considered a highly successful program out of CIA hands was viewed as counterproductive and too complicated. Although CIA strikes in other countries and military strikes outside Afghanistan require Obama’s approval, the agency has standing permission to attack targets on an approved list in Pakistan without asking the White House.
Although the administration has “wrestled with” the Pakistan program, it was always considered an initiative of the previous administration, a senior official said. In Yemen, the Obama team began to build its own counterterrorism architecture.
The turning point came on Christmas Day in 2009, when a Nigerian trained by Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group, penetrated post-Sept. 11 defenses and nearly detonated a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound airliner.
In the wake of the failed attack, Brennan “got more into tactical issues,” said Leiter, the former NCTC head. “He dug into more operational stuff than he had before.”
Brennan made frequent visits to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, its closest neighbor and the dominant regional power. He used his longtime contacts in the region to cement a joint U.S.-Saudi policy that would ultimately — with the help of Yemen’s Arab Spring revolt — bring a more cooperative government to power. He often spoke of the need to address “upstream” problems of poverty and poor governance that led to “downstream” radicalization, and pushed for economic aid to buttress a growing military and intelligence presence.
Yemen quickly became the place where the United States would “get ahead of the curve” on terrorism that had become so difficult to round in Pakistan, one official said. As intelligence and military training programs were expanded, the military attacked AQAP targets in Yemen and neighboring Somalia using both fixed-wing aircraft and drones launched from a base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
Despite Brennan’s professed dismay at the transformation of the CIA into a paramilitary entity with killing authority, the agency was authorized to operate its own armed aircraft out of a new base in the Arabian Peninsula.
Beginning in 2011, discussions on targeting, strikes and intelligence that had been coordinated by a committee set up by Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were gradually drawn into the White House under Brennan, who, according to several accounts, struggled to pare back increasingly expansive target lists in Yemen. At one meeting last year, one senior official said, Obama weighed in to warn that Yemen was not Afghanistan, and that “we are not going to war in Yemen.”
Today, Brennan said, “there are aspects of the Yemen program that I think are a true model of what I think the U.S. counterterrorism community should be doing” as it tracks the spread of al-Qaeda allies across Northern Africa.
As targets move to different locations, and new threats “to U.S. interests and to U.S. persons and property” are identified in Africa and elsewhere, Brennan described a step-by-step program of escalation. “First and foremost, I would want to work through local authorities and see whether or not we can provide them the intelligence, and maybe even give them some enhanced capability, to take action to bring that person to justice,” he said.
For those governments that are “unwilling or unable” to act, he said, “then we have an obligation as a government to protect our people, and if we need then to take action ourselves . . . we look at what those options are as well.”
In late August, Brennan said he saw no need “to go forward with some kind of kinetic action in places like Mali,” where al-Qaeda allies have seized control of a broad swath of territory. Since then, Brennan and other officials have begun to compare the situation in Mali to Somalia, where drone and other air attacks have supplemented a U.S.-backed African military force.
An opaque process
Where Obama and Brennan envision a standardized counterterrorism program bound by domestic and international law, some others see a secretive killing machine of questionable legality and limitless expansion.
Many civil libertarians and human rights experts disdain claims by Brennan and others that the drone program has become increasingly transparent, noting that the administration has yet to provide even minimal details about targeting decisions or to take responsibility for the vast majority of attacks.
“For more than two years, senior officials have been making claims about the program both on the record and off. They’ve claimed that the program is effective, lawful and closely supervised,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said last month in appealing repeated court refusals to force the administration to release more information.
Some critics have described it as immoral, rejecting the administration’s claims that few civilians have been among the nearly 3,000 people estimated to have been killed in drone attacks. There is ample evidence in Pakistan that the more than 300 strikes launched under Obama have helped turn the vast majority of the population vehemently against the United States.
None of the United States’ chief allies has publicly supported the targeted killings; many of them privately question the administration’s claim that it comports with international law and worry about the precedent it sets for others who inevitably will acquire the same technology.
To the extent that it aspires to make the program’s standards and processes more visible, the playbook has been a source of friction inside the administration. “Other than the State Department, there are not a lot of advocates for transparency,” one official said. Some officials expressed concern that the playbook has become a “default” option for counterterrorism.
The CIA, which declined to comment for this article, is said to oppose codifying procedures that might lock it into roles it cannot expand or maneuver around in the future. Directors at most national security agencies agree on targeting rules that are already in place, an official close to Brennan said. But “when it’s written down on paper, institutions may look at it in a different way.”
The CIA, which is preparing a proposal to increase its drone fleet, considers Brennan “a rein, a constrainer. He is using his intimate knowledge of intelligence and the process to pick apart their arguments that might be expansionary,” a senior official outside the White House said.
Two administration officials said that CIA drones were responsible for two of the most controversial attacks in Yemen in 2011 — one that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and a second a few days later that killed his 16-year-old son, also an American citizen. One of the officials called the second attack “an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him.”
Both operations remain secret and unacknowledged, because of what officials said were covert-
action rules that tied their hands when it came to providing information.
Some intelligence officials said Brennan has made little substantive effort to shift more responsibility to the military. But Brennan and others described a future in which the CIA is eased out of the clandestine-killing business, and said the process will become more transparent under Defense Department oversight and disclosure rules.
“Deniable missions” are not the military norm, one official said.
Said Brennan: “I think the president always needs the ability to do things under his chief executive powers and authorities, to include covert action.” But, he added, “I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that.”
One official said that “for a guy whose reputation is focused on how tough he is on counterterrorism,” Brennan is “more focused than anybody in the government on the legal, ethical and transparency questions associated with all this.” By drawing so much decision-making directly into his own office, said another, he has “forced a much better process at the CIA and the Defense Department.”
Even if Obama is reelected, Brennan may not stay for another term. That means someone else is likely to be interpreting his playbook.
“Do I want this system to last forever?” a senior official said. “No. Do I think it’s the best system for now? Yes.”
“What is scary,” he concluded, “is the apparatus set up without John to run it.”
Greg Miller and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists
By Greg Miller,Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.”
The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.
Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.
Among senior Obama administration officials, there is a broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade. Given the way al-Qaeda continues to metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.
“We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” a senior administration official said. “It’s a necessary part of what we do. . . . We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’ ”
That timeline suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism. Targeting lists that were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to zero.
Meanwhile, a significant milestone looms: The number of militants and civilians killed in the drone campaign over the past 10 years will soon exceed 3,000 by certain estimates, surpassing the number of people al-Qaeda killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Obama administration has touted its successes against the terrorist network, including the death of Osama bin Laden, as signature achievements that argue for President Obama’s reelection. The administration has taken tentative steps toward greater transparency, formally acknowledging for the first time the United States’ use of armed drones.
Less visible is the extent to which Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war. Spokesmen for the White House, the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA and other agencies declined to comment on the matrix or other counterterrorism programs.
Privately, officials acknowledge that the development of the matrix is part of a series of moves, in Washington and overseas, to embed counterterrorism tools into U.S. policy for the long haul.
White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan is seeking to codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus is pushing for an expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, U.S. officials said. The proposal, which would need White House approval, reflects the agency’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-Sept. 11 focus on gathering intelligence.
The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out the raid that killed bin Laden, has moved commando teams into suspected terrorist hotbeds in Africa. A rugged U.S. outpost in Djibouti has been transformed into a launching pad for counterterrorism operations across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
JSOC also has established a secret targeting center across the Potomac River from Washington, current and former U.S. officials said. The elite command’s targeting cells have traditionally been located near the front lines of its missions, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. But JSOC created a “national capital region” task force that is a 15-minute commute from the White House so it could be more directly involved in deliberations about al-Qaeda lists.
The developments were described by current and former officials from the White House and the Pentagon, as well as intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
These counterterrorism components have been affixed to a legal foundation for targeted killing that the Obama administration has discussed more openly over the past year. In a series of speeches, administration officials have cited legal bases, including the congressional authorization to use military force granted after the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the nation’s right to defend itself.
Critics contend that those justifications have become more tenuous as the drone campaign has expanded far beyond the core group of al-Qaeda operatives behind the strikes on New York and Washington. Critics note that the administration still doesn’t confirm the CIA’s involvement or the identities of those who are killed. Certain strikes are now under legal challenge, including the killings last year in Yemen of U.S.-born al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son.
Counterterrorism experts said the reliance on targeted killing is self-perpetuating, yielding undeniable short-term results that may obscure long-term costs.
“The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. “You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”
An evolving database
The United States now operates multiple drone programs, including acknowledged U.S. military patrols over conflict zones in Afghanistan and Libya, and classified CIA surveillance flights over Iran.
Strikes against al-Qaeda, however, are carried out under secret lethal programs involving the CIA and JSOC. The matrix was developed by the NCTC, under former director Michael Leiter, to augment those organizations’ separate but overlapping kill lists, officials said.
The result is a single, continually evolving database in which biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations are all catalogued. So are strategies for taking targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols.
Obama’s decision to shutter the CIA’s secret prisons ended a program that had become a source of international scorn, but it also complicated the pursuit of terrorists. Unless a suspect surfaced in the sights of a drone in Pakistan or Yemen, the United States had to scramble to figure out what to do.
“We had a disposition problem,” said a former U.S. counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix.
The database is meant to map out contingencies, creating an operational menu that spells out each agency’s role in case a suspect surfaces in an unexpected spot. “If he’s in Saudi Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” the former official said. “If traveling overseas to al-Shabaab [in Somalia] we can pick him up by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.”
Officials declined to disclose the identities of suspects on the matrix. They pointed, however, to the capture last year of alleged al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame off the coast of Yemen. Warsame was held for two months aboard a U.S. ship before being transferred to the custody of the Justice Department and charged in federal court in New York.
“Warsame was a classic case of ‘What are we going to do with him?’ ” the former counterterrorism official said. In such cases, the matrix lays out plans, including which U.S. naval vessels are in the vicinity and which charges the Justice Department should prepare.
“Clearly, there were people in Yemen that we had on the matrix,” as well as others in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the former counterterrorism official said. The matrix was a way to be ready if they moved. “How do we deal with these guys in transit? You weren’t going to fire a drone if they were moving through Turkey or Iran.”
Officials described the matrix as a database in development, although its status is unclear. Some said it has not been implemented because it is too cumbersome. Others, including officials from the White House, Congress and intelligence agencies, described it as a blueprint that could help the United States adapt to al-Qaeda’s morphing structure and its efforts to exploit turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East.
A year after Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared the core of al-Qaeda near strategic defeat, officials see an array of emerging threats beyond Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — the three countries where almost all U.S. drone strikes have occurred.
The Arab spring has upended U.S. counterterrorism partnerships in countries including Egypt where U.S. officials fear al-Qaeda could establish new roots. The network’s affiliate in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has seized territory in northern Mali and acquired weapons that were smuggled out of Libya.
“Egypt worries me to no end,” a high-ranking administration official said. “Look at Libya, Algeria and Mali and then across the Sahel. You’re talking about such wide expanses of territory, with open borders and military, security and intelligence capabilities that are basically nonexistent.”
Streamlining targeted killing
The creation of the matrix and the institutionalization of kill/capture lists reflect a shift that is as psychological as it is strategic.
Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States recoiled at the idea of targeted killing. The Sept. 11 commission recounted how the Clinton administration had passed on a series of opportunities to target bin Laden in the years before the attacks — before armed drones existed. President Bill Clinton approved a set of cruise-missile strikes in 1998 after al-Qaeda bombed embassies in East Africa, but after extensive deliberation, and the group’s leader escaped harm.
Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it.
This year, the White House scrapped a system in which the Pentagon and the National Security Council had overlapping roles in scrutinizing the names being added to U.S. target lists.
Now the system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president.
Video-conference calls that were previously convened by Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been discontinued. Officials said Brennan thought the process shouldn’t be run by those who pull the trigger on strikes.
“What changed is rather than the chairman doing that, John chairs the meeting,” said Leiter, the former head of the NCTC.
The administration has also elevated the role of the NCTC, which was conceived as a clearinghouse for threat data and has no operational capability. Under Brennan, who served as its founding director, the center has emerged as a targeting hub.
Other entities have far more resources focused on al-Qaeda. The CIA, JSOC and U.S. Central Command have hundreds of analysts devoted to the terrorist network’s franchise in Yemen, while the NCTC has fewer than two dozen. But the center controls a key function.
“It is the keeper of the criteria,” a former U.S. counterterrorism official said, meaning that it is in charge of culling names from al-Qaeda databases for targeting lists based on criteria dictated by the White House.
The criteria are classified but center on obvious questions: Who are the operational leaders? Who are the key facilitators? A typical White House request will direct the NCTC to generate a list of al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen involved in carrying out or plotting attacks against U.S. personnel in Sanaa.
The lists are reviewed at regular three-month intervals during meetings at the NCTC headquarters that involve analysts from other organizations, including the CIA, the State Department and JSOC. Officials stress that these sessions don’t equate to approval for additions to kill lists, an authority that rests exclusively with the White House.
With no objections — and officials said those have been rare — names are submitted to a panel of National Security Council officials that is chaired by Brennan and includes the deputy directors of the CIA and the FBI, as well as top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the NCTC.
Obama approves the criteria for lists and signs off on drone strikes outside Pakistan, where decisions on when to fire are made by the director of the CIA. But aside from Obama’s presence at “Terror Tuesday” meetings — which generally are devoted to discussing terrorism threats and trends rather than approving targets — the president’s involvement is more indirect.
“The president would never come to a deputies meeting,” a senior administration official said, although participants recalled cases in which Brennan stepped out of the situation room to get Obama’s direction on questions the group couldn’t resolve.
The review process is compressed but not skipped when the CIA or JSOC has compelling intelligence and a narrow window in which to strike, officials said. The approach also applies to the development of criteria for “signature strikes,” which allow the CIA and JSOC to hit targets based on patterns of activity — packing a vehicle with explosives, for example — even when the identities of those who would be killed is unclear.
A model approach
For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.
During Monday’s presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney made it clear that he would continue the drone campaign. “We can’t kill our way out of this,” he said, but added later that Obama was “right to up the usage” of drone strikes and that he would do the same.
As Obama nears the end of his term, officials said the kill list in Pakistan has slipped to fewer than 10 al-Qaeda targets, down from as many as two dozen. The agency now aims many of its Predator strikes at the Haqqani network, which has been blamed for attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, the number of militants on the list has ranged from 10 to 15, officials said, and is not likely to slip into the single digits anytime soon, even though there have been 36 U.S. airstrikes this year.
The number of targets on the lists isn’t fixed, officials said, but fluctuates based on adjustments to criteria. Officials defended the arrangement even while acknowledging an erosion in the caliber of operatives placed in the drones’ cross hairs.
“Is the person currently Number 4 as good as the Number 4 seven years ago? Probably not,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the process until earlier this year. “But it doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous.”
In focusing on bureaucratic refinements, the administration has largely avoided confronting more fundamental questions about the lists. Internal doubts about the effectiveness of the drone campaign are almost nonexistent. So are apparent alternatives.
“When you rely on a particular tactic, it starts to become the core of your strategy — you see the puff of smoke, and he’s gone,” said Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center. “When we institutionalize certain things, including targeted killing, it does cross a threshold that makes it harder to cross back.”
For a decade, the dimensions of the drone campaign have been driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American soil.
Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.
“We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite,” Pillar said. “We have to pay particular attention, maybe more than we collectively have so far, to the longer-term pros and cons to the methods we use.”
Obama administration officials at times have sought to trigger debate over how long the nation might employ the kill lists. But officials said the discussions became dead ends.
In one instance, Mullen, the former Joint Chiefs chairman, returned from Pakistan and recounted a heated confrontation with his counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Mullen told White House and counterterrorism officials that the Pakistani military chief had demanded an answer to a seemingly reasonable question: After hundreds of drone strikes, how could the United States possibly still be working its way through a “top 20” list?
The issue resurfaced after the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden. Seeking to repair a rift with Pakistan, Panetta, the CIA director, told Kayani and others that the United States had only a handful of targets left and would be able to wind down the drone campaign.
A senior aide to Panetta disputed this account, and said Panetta mentioned the shrinking target list during his trip to Islamabad but didn’t raise the prospect that drone strikes would end. Two former U.S. officials said the White House told Panetta to avoid even hinting at commitments the United States was not prepared to keep.
“We didn’t want to get into the business of limitless lists,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spent years overseeing the lists. “There is this apparatus created to deal with counterterrorism. It’s still useful. The question is: When will it stop being useful? I don’t know.”
Karen DeYoung, Craig Whitlock and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Homeland Security’s ‘fusion centers’ defended in response to sharply critical Senate reportsharply critical Senate report said the offices were wasteful and inept.
A national network of fusion centers was begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to serve as clearinghouses of intelligence for local, state and federal authorities. The aim was to discover and share information about potential terrorist threats.
The report, the result of a two-year review by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations, concluded that the 77 centers nationwide had not produced useful intelligence to support counterterrorism efforts. The report also said the tactics sometimes violated civil liberties.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, acknowledged in a statement that the centers have some problems. But he said the report focused too narrowly on intelligence going to federal officials in Washington and ignored broader benefits, including better information sharing with state law enforcement agencies.
“I strongly disagree with the report’s core assertion that fusion centers have been unable to meaningfully contribute to federal counterterrorism efforts,” he said in a statement.
Lieberman was a driving force behind the creation of the centers. The report was issued by the subcommittee, not the full committee.
Several law enforcement groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association and the National Fusion Center Association, also said the report did not address the significant benefits that fusion centers provide to state, local and tribal law enforcement.
“Additionally, the report incorrectly asserts that a majority of the information or intelligence released by fusion centers is untimely, inaccurate and of little use. This assertion is false,” the groups said in a joint statement.
DHS spokesman Matt Chandler said that the report was “inaccurate and misleading” and that Senate investigators “refused to review relevant data,” including classified material.
A subcommittee official said that investigators reviewed redacted versions of classified intelligence reports as part of their examination. But they did not refuse to look at any relevant documents, the official said.
Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, accused DHS of hindering the investigation and trying to avoid accountability for the fusion center problems.
“The Department opted not to inform Congress or the public of serious problems plaguing its fusion centers and broader intelligence efforts,” he said. “ I hope this report will help generate the reforms that will help keep our country safe.”
U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa 13JUN12
At the heart of the surveillance operations are small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes. Equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals, the planes refuel on isolated airstrips favored by African bush pilots, extending their effective flight range by thousands of miles.
About a dozen air bases have been established in Africa since 2007, according to a former senior U.S. commander involved in setting up the network. Most are small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports.
The nature and extent of the missions, as well as many of the bases being used, have not been previously reported but are partially documented in public Defense Department contracts. The operations have intensified in recent months, part of a growing shadow war against al-Qaeda affiliates and other militant groups. The surveillance is overseen by U.S. Special Operations forces but relies heavily on private military contractors and support from African troops.
The surveillance underscores how Special Operations forces, which have played an outsize role in the Obama administration’s national security strategy, are working clandestinely all over the globe, not just in war zones. The lightly equipped commando units train foreign security forces and perform aid missions, but they also include teams dedicated to tracking and killing terrorism suspects.
The establishment of the Africa missions also highlights the ways in which Special Operations forces are blurring the lines that govern the secret world of intelligence, moving aggressively into spheres once reserved for the CIA. The CIA has expanded its counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering operations in Africa, but its manpower and resources pale in comparison with those of the military.
U.S. officials said the African surveillance operations are necessary to track terrorist groups that have taken root in failed states on the continent and threaten to destabilize neighboring countries.
A hub for secret network
A key hub of the U.S. spying network can be found in Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-DOO-goo), the flat, sunbaked capital of Burkina Faso, one of the most impoverished countries in Africa.
Under a classified surveillance program code-named Creek Sand, dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors have come to Ouagadougou in recent years to establish a small air base on the military side of the international airport.
The unarmed U.S. spy planes fly hundreds of miles north to Mali, Mauritania and the Sahara, where they search for fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional network that kidnaps Westerners for ransom.
The surveillance flights have taken on added importance in the turbulent aftermath of a March coup in Mali, which has enabled al-Qaeda sympathizers to declare an independent Islamist state in the northern half of the country.
Elsewhere, commanders have said they are increasingly worried about the spread of Boko Haram, an Islamist group in Nigeria blamed for a rash of bombings there. U.S. forces are orchestrating a regional intervention in Somalia to target al-Shabab, another al-Qaeda affiliate. In Central Africa, about 100 American Special Operations troops are helping to coordinate the hunt for Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of a brutal guerrilla group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The results of the American surveillance missions are shrouded in secrecy. Although the U.S. military has launched airstrikes and raids in Somalia, commanders said that in other places, they generally limit their involvement to sharing intelligence with allied African forces so they can attack terrorist camps on their own territory.
The creeping U.S. military involvement in long-simmering African conflicts, however, carries risks. Some State Department officials have expressed reservations about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy on the continent. They have argued that most terrorist cells in Africa are pursuing local aims, not global ones, and do not present a direct threat to the United States.
The potential for creating a popular backlash can be seen across the Red Sea, where an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen is angering tribesmen and generating sympathy for an al-Qaeda franchise there.
In a response to written questions from The Washington Post, the U.S. Africa Command said that it would not comment on “specific operational details.”
“We do, however, work closely with our African partners to facilitate access, when required, to conduct missions or operations that support and further our mutual security goals,” the command said.
Surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations, it added, are “simply a tool we employ to enable host nation militaries to better understand the threat picture.”
Uncovering the details
The U.S. military has largely kept details of its spy flights in Africa secret. The Post pieced together descriptions of the surveillance network by examining references to it in unclassified military reports, U.S. government contracting documents and diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group.
Further details were provided by interviews with American and African officials, as well as military contractors.
In addition to Burkina Faso, U.S. surveillance planes have operated periodically out of nearby Mauritania. In Central Africa, the main hub is in Uganda, though there are plans to open a base in South Sudan. In East Africa, U.S. aircraft fly out of bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles.
Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, which is responsible for military operations on the continent, hinted at the importance and extent of the air bases while testifying before Congress in March. Without divulging locations, he made clear that, in Africa, he wanted to expand “ISR,” the military’s acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“Without operating locations on the continent, ISR capabilities would be curtailed, potentially endangering U.S. security,” Ham said in a statement submitted to the House Armed Services Committee. “Given the vast geographic space and diversity in threats, the command requires increased ISR assets to adequately address the security challenges on the continent.”
Some of the U.S. air bases, including ones in Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Seychelles, fly Predator and Reaper drones, the original and upgraded models, respectively, of the remotely piloted aircraft that the Obama administration has used to kill al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Yemen.
“We don’t have remotely piloted aircraft in many places other than East Africa, but we could,” said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “If there was a need to do so and those assets were available, I’m certain we could get the access and the overflight [permission] that is necessary to do that.”
Most of the spy flights in Africa, however, take off the old-fashioned way — with pilots in the cockpit. The conventional aircraft hold two big advantages over drones: They are cheaper to operate and far less likely to draw attention because they are so similar to the planes used throughout Africa.
The bulk of the U.S. surveillance fleet is composed of single-engine Pilatus PC-12s, small passenger and cargo utility planes manufactured in Switzerland. The aircraft are not equipped with weapons. They often do not bear military markings or government insignia.
The Pentagon began acquiring the planes in 2005 to fly commandos into territory where the military wanted to maintain a clandestine presence. The Air Force variant of the aircraft is known as the U-28A. The Air Force Special Operations Command has about 21 of the planes in its inventory.
In February, a U-28A crashed as it was returning to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Four airmen from the Air Force Special Operations Command were killed. It was the first reported fatal incident involving a U-28A since the military began deploying the aircraft six years ago.
Air Force officials said that the crash was an accident and that they are investigating the cause. Military officials declined to answer questions about the flight’s mission.
Because of its strategic location on the Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier is a hub for spy flights in the region. It is about 500 miles from southern Somalia, an area largely controlled by the al-Shabab militia. Lemonnier is even closer — less than 100 miles — to Yemen, where another al-Qaeda franchise has expanded its influence and plotted attacks against the United States.
Elsewhere in Africa, the U.S. military is relying on private contractors to provide and operate PC-12 spy planes in the search for Kony, the fugitive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group known for mutilating victims, committing mass rape and enslaving children as soldiers.
Ham, the Africa Command chief, said in his testimony to Congress in March that he was seeking to establish a base for surveillance flights in Nzara, South Sudan. Although that would bolster the hunt for Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, it would also enable the U.S. military to keep an eye on the worsening conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. The two countries fought a civil war for more than two decades and are on the verge of war again, in part over potentially rich oil deposits valued by foreign investors.
Other aviation projects are in the offing. An engineering battalion of Navy Seabees has been assigned to complete a $10 million runway upgrade this summer at the Manda Bay Naval Base, a Kenyan military installation on the Indian Ocean. An Africa Command spokeswoman said the runway extension is necessary so American C-130 troop transport flights can land at night and during bad weather.
About 120 U.S. military personnel and contractors are stationed at Manda Bay, which Navy SEALs and other commandos have used as a base from which to conduct raids against Somali pirates and al-Shabab fighters.
About 6,000 miles to the west, the Pentagon is spending $8.1 million to upgrade a forward operating base and airstrip in Mauritania, on the western edge of the Sahara. The base is near the border with strife-torn Mali.
The Defense Department also set aside $22.6 million in July to buy a Pilatus PC-6 aircraft and another turboprop plane so U.S.-trained Mauritanian security forces can conduct rudimentary surveillance operations, according to documents submitted to Congress.
Crowding the embassy
The U.S. military began building its presence in Burkina Faso in 2007, when it signed a deal that enabled the Pentagon to establish a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment in Ouagadougou. At the time, the U.S. military said the arrangement would support “medical evacuation and logistics requirements” but provided no other details.
By the end of 2009, about 65 U.S. military personnel and contractors were working in Burkina Faso, more than in all but three other African countries, according to a U.S. Embassy cable from Ouagadougou. In the cable, diplomats complained to the State Department that the onslaught of U.S. troops and support staff had “completely overwhelmed” the embassy.
In addition to Pilatus PC-12 flights for Creek Sand, the U.S. military personnel in Ouagadougou ran a regional intelligence “fusion cell” code-named Aztec Archer, according to the cable.
Burkina Faso, a predominantly Muslim country whose name means “the land of upright men,” does not have a history of radicalism. U.S. military officials saw it as an attractive base because of its strategic location bordering the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara where al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate is active.
Unlike many other governments in the region, the one in Burkina Faso was relatively stable. The U.S. military operated Creek Sand spy flights from Nouakchott, Mauritania, until 2008, when a military coup forced Washington to suspend relations and end the surveillance, according to former U.S. officials and diplomatic cables.
In Ouagadougou, both sides have worked hard to keep the partnership quiet. In a July 2009 meeting, Yero Boly, the defense minister of Burkina Faso, told a U.S. Embassy official that he was pleased with the results. But he confessed he was nervous that the unmarked American planes might draw “undue attention” at the airport in the heart of the capital and suggested that they move to a more secluded hangar.
“According to Boly, the present location of the aircraft was in retrospect not an ideal choice in that it put the U.S. aircraft in a section of the airfield that already had too much traffic,” according to a diplomatic cable summarizing the meeting. “He also commented that U.S. personnel were extremely discreet.”
U.S. officials raised the possibility of basing the planes about 220 miles to the west, in the city of Bobo Dioulasso, according to the cable. Boly said that the Americans could use that airport on a “short term or emergency basis” but that a U.S. presence there “would likely draw greater attention.”
In an interview with The Post, Djibril Bassole, the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, praised security relations between his country and the United States, saying they were crucial to containing al-Qaeda forces in the region.
“We need to fight and protect our borders,” he said. “Once they infiltrate your country, it’s very, very difficult to get them out.”
Bassole declined, however, to answer questions about the activities of U.S. Special Operations forces in his country.
“I cannot provide details, but it has been very, very helpful,” he said. “This cooperation should be very, very discreet. We should not show to al-Qaeda that we are now working with the Americans.”
Discretion is not always strictly observed. In interviews last month, residents of Ouagadougou said American service members and contractors stand out, even in plainclothes, and are appreciated for the steady business they bring to bars and a pizzeria in the city center.
In April 2010, one American, in particular, drew attention. A U.S. contractor who had been assigned to support the surveillance missions in Ouagadougou was flying home from Africa on leave when he announced that he had been “in Ouaga illegally” and was carrying dynamite in his boots and laptop. As the contractor, Derek Stansberry, mumbled other incoherent stories about allegedly top-secret operations, he was grabbed by U.S. air marshals aboard the Paris-to-Atlanta flight. No explosives were found, but the incident drew international attention.
Stansberry, who did not respond to a request for comment, was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity; he said he was overstressed and had overdosed on the sleep aid Ambien.
A photograph on his Facebook page around the time of the incident showed him posing in the cockpit of a Pilatus aircraft. The caption read: “Flying a PC-12 ain’t that hard.”
THE WASHINGTON POST SERIES FOLLOWS THIS FROM WAR IS BUSINESS.......Finally! Here’s a rough version of a feature I’ve had in mind for this site since its launch late last year: Military contractor maps.
The closest comparable online project is a part of the Washington Post’s Top Secret America series, by Dana Priest and Bill Arkin. Aided by a team of researchers and computer geeks, Priest and Arkin did an impressive job at sketching out the nationwide network of US military and intelligence contractors. Unfortunately, the Post chose to censor the results of their research, even though the “secrets” had been gleaned through public records. As an editor’s note to the series explained, users can “see the cities and towns where the government conducts top-secret work in the United States, but not the specific locations, companies or agencies involved.”
The “national security” justification, in that case, was unconvincing.
The new War Is Business map, by contrast, is designed specifically to show the locations of companies doing business with the Pentagon, because the point of this website is to reveal who profits from war spending. To that end, the map links up to our DIY investigations form, so not only can users easily find nearby military companies, they are given the tools to find out who owns those companies.
Revealing this information is not—repeat not—a threat to members of the armed forces or their civilian colleagues. On the contrary. As an eight-month Congressional investigation recently determined, US national security is gravely threatened by system-wide ignorance regarding the ownership of military contractors.
Anyway, enough with the introduction—give it a try!
Send suggestions and comments to editor-at-warisbusiness.com. And if anyone has the time and expertise to help build a more expansive version of this project based on OpenStreetMap, please get in touch.
A hidden world, growing beyond control
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 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.
The investigation's other findings include:
* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
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They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation's security.
"There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that - not just for the CIA, for the secretary of defense - is a challenge," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.
In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials - called Super Users - have the ability to even know about all the department's activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation's most sensitive work.
"I'm not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything" was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn't take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ''Stop!" in frustration.
"I wasn't remembering any of it," he said.
Underscoring the seriousness of these issues are the conclusions of retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who was asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department's most sensitive programs. Vines, who once commanded 145,000 troops in Iraq and is familiar with complex problems, was stunned by what he discovered.
"I'm not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities," he said in an interview. "The complexity of this system defies description."
The result, he added, is that it's impossible to tell whether the country is safer because of all this spending and all these activities. "Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste," Vines said. "We consequently can't effectively assess whether it is making us more safe."
The Post's investigation is based on government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records, and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials. Most requested anonymity either because they are prohibited from speaking publicly or because, they said, they feared retaliation at work for describing their concerns.
The Post's online database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records. The investigation focused on top-secret work because the amount classified at the secret level is too large to accurately track.
Today's article describes the government's role in this expanding enterprise. Tuesday's article describes the government's dependence on private contractors. Wednesday's is a portrait of one Top Secret America community. On the Web, an extensive, searchable database built by The Post about Top Secret America is available at washingtonpost.com/topsecretamerica.
Defense Secretary Gates, in his interview with The Post, said that he does not believe the system has become too big to manage but that getting precise data is sometimes difficult. Singling out the growth of intelligence units in the Defense Department, he said he intends to review those programs for waste. "Nine years after 9/11, it makes a lot of sense to sort of take a look at this and say, 'Okay, we've built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?' " he said.
CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was also interviewed by The Post last week, said he's begun mapping out a five-year plan for his agency because the levels of spending since 9/11 are not sustainable. "Particularly with these deficits, we're going to hit the wall. I want to be prepared for that," he said. "Frankly, I think everyone in intelligence ought to be doing that."
In an interview before he resigned as the director of national intelligence in May, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair said he did not believe there was overlap and redundancy in the intelligence world. "Much of what appears to be redundancy is, in fact, providing tailored intelligence for many different customers," he said.
Blair also expressed confidence that subordinates told him what he needed to know. "I have visibility on all the important intelligence programs across the community, and there are processes in place to ensure the different intelligence capabilities are working together where they need to," he said.
Weeks later, as he sat in the corner of a ballroom at the Willard Hotel waiting to give a speech, he mused about The Post's findings. "After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did as we so often do in this country," he said. "The attitude was, if it's worth doing, it's probably worth overdoing."
Outside a gated subdivision of mansions in McLean, a line of cars idles every weekday morning as a new day in Top Secret America gets underway. The drivers wait patiently to turn left, then crawl up a hill and around a bend to a destination that is not on any public map and not announced by any street sign.
Liberty Crossing tries hard to hide from view. But in the winter, leafless trees can't conceal a mountain of cement and windows the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of one another rising behind a grassy berm. One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.
Past the armed guards and the hydraulic steel barriers, at least 1,700 federal employees and 1,200 private contractors work at Liberty Crossing, the nickname for the two headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its National Counterterrorism Center. The two share a police force, a canine unit and thousands of parking spaces.
Liberty Crossing is at the center of the collection of U.S. government agencies and corporate contractors that mushroomed after the 2001 attacks. But it is not nearly the biggest, the most costly or even the most secretive part of the 9/11 enterprise.
In an Arlington County office building, the lobby directory doesn't include the Air Force's mysteriously named XOIWS unit, but there's a big "Welcome!" sign in the hallway greeting visitors who know to step off the elevator on the third floor. In Elkridge, Md., a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building. In Arnold, Mo., the location is across the street from a Target and a Home Depot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., it's in a modest brick bungalow in a run-down business park.
This is not exactly President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex," which emerged with the Cold War and centered on building nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union. This is a national security enterprise with a more amorphous mission: defeating transnational violent extremists.
Much of the information about this mission is classified. That is the reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is being spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.
At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending.
The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106. It was phenomenal growth that began almost as soon as the Sept. 11 attacks ended.
Nine days after the attacks, Congress committed $40 billion beyond what was in the federal budget to fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda. It followed that up with an additional $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. That was only a beginning.
With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.
With so many more employees, units and organizations, the lines of responsibility began to blur. To remedy this, at the recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, the George W. Bush administration and Congress decided to create an agency in 2004 with overarching responsibilities called the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to bring the colossal effort under control.
While that was the idea, Washington has its own ways.
The first problem was that the law passed by Congress did not give the director clear legal or budgetary authority over intelligence matters, which meant he wouldn't have power over the individual agencies he was supposed to control.
The second problem: Even before the first director, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, was on the job, the turf battles began. The Defense Department shifted billions of dollars out of one budget and into another so that the ODNI could not touch it, according to two senior officials who watched the process. The CIA reclassified some of its most sensitive information at a higher level so the National Counterterrorism Center staff, part of the ODNI, would not be allowed to see it, said former intelligence officers involved.
And then came a problem that continues to this day, which has to do with the ODNI's rapid expansion.
When it opened in the spring of 2005, Negroponte's office was all of 11 people stuffed into a secure vault with closet-size rooms a block from the White House. A year later, the budding agency moved to two floors of another building. In April 2008, it moved into its huge permanent home, Liberty Crossing.
Today, many officials who work in the intelligence agencies say they remain unclear about what the ODNI is in charge of. To be sure, the ODNI has made some progress, especially in intelligence-sharing, information technology and budget reform. The DNI and his managers hold interagency meetings every day to promote collaboration. The last director, Blair, doggedly pursued such nitty-gritty issues as procurement reform, compatible computer networks, tradecraft standards and collegiality.
But improvements have been overtaken by volume at the ODNI, as the increased flow of intelligence data overwhelms the system's ability to analyze and use it. Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.
The practical effect of this unwieldiness is visible, on a much smaller scale, in the office of Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Leiter spends much of his day flipping among four computer monitors lined up on his desk. Six hard drives sit at his feet. The data flow is enormous, with dozens of databases feeding separate computer networks that cannot interact with one another.
There is a long explanation for why these databases are still not connected, and it amounts to this: It's too hard, and some agency heads don't really want to give up the systems they have. But there's some progress: "All my e-mail on one computer now," Leiter says. "That's a big deal."
To get another view of how sprawling Top Secret America has become, just head west on the toll road toward Dulles International Airport.
As a Michaels craft store and a Books-A-Million give way to the military intelligence giants Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, find the off-ramp and turn left. Those two shimmering-blue five-story ice cubes belong to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes images and mapping data of the Earth's geography. A small sign obscured by a boxwood hedge says so.
Across the street, in the chocolate-brown blocks, is Carahsoft, an intelligence agency contractor specializing in mapping, speech analysis and data harvesting. Nearby is the government's Underground Facility Analysis Center. It identifies overseas underground command centers associated with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups, and advises the military on how to destroy them.
Clusters of top-secret work exist throughout the country, but the Washington region is the capital of Top Secret America.
About half of the post-9/11 enterprise is anchored in an arc stretching from Leesburg south to Quantico, back north through Washington and curving northeast to Linthicum, just north of the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Many buildings sit within off-limits government compounds or military bases.
Others occupy business parks or are intermingled with neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers and go unnoticed by most people who live or play nearby.
Many of the newest buildings are not just utilitarian offices but also edifices "on the order of the pyramids," in the words of one senior military intelligence officer.
Not far from the Dulles Toll Road, the CIA has expanded into two buildings that will increase the agency's office space by one-third. To the south, Springfield is becoming home to the new $1.8 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters, which will be the fourth-largest federal building in the area and home to 8,500 employees. Economic stimulus money is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for this kind of federal construction across the region.
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."
SCIFs are not the only must-have items people pay attention to. Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.
"You can't find a four-star general without a security detail," said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. "Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, 'If he has one, then I have to have one.' It's become a status symbol."
Among the most important people inside the SCIFs are the low-paid employees carrying their lunches to work to save money. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year, whose job is at the core of everything Top Secret America tries to do.
At its best, analysis melds cultural understanding with snippets of conversations, coded dialogue, anonymous tips, even scraps of trash, turning them into clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.
Their work is greatly enhanced by computers that sort through and categorize data. But in the end, analysis requires human judgment, and half the analysts are relatively inexperienced, having been hired in the past several years, said a senior ODNI official. Contract analysts are often straight out of college and trained at corporate headquarters.
When hired, a typical analyst knows very little about the priority countries - Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming, say current and former intelligence officials who try to cull them every day. The ODNI doesn't know exactly how many reports are issued each year, but in the process of trying to find out, the chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness. "Like a zombie, it keeps on living" is how one official describes the sites.
The problem with many intelligence reports, say officers who read them, is that they simply re-slice the same facts already in circulation. "It's the soccer ball syndrome. Something happens, and they want to rush to cover it," said Richard H. Immerman, who was the ODNI's assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards until early 2009. "I saw tremendous overlap."
Even the analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is supposed to be where the most sensitive, most difficult-to-obtain nuggets of information are fused together, get low marks from intelligence officials for not producing reports that are original, or at least better than the reports already written by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency or Defense Intelligence Agency.
When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. "I told him that after 41/2 years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!" he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.
Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington's bureaucracy. "Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn't gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?" he said. "Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn't produce the same thing?"
He's hardly the only one irritated. In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer was dealing with his own frustration. Seated at his computer, he began scrolling through some of the classified information he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WIRe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight . . .
It's too much, he complained. The inbox on his desk was full, too. He threw up his arms, picked up a thick, glossy intelligence report and waved it around, yelling.
"Jesus! Why does it take so long to produce?"
"Why does it have to be so bulky?"
"Why isn't it online?"
The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them. Some policymakers and senior officials don't dare delve into the backup clogging their computers. They rely instead on personal briefers, and those briefers usually rely on their own agency's analysis, re-creating the very problem identified as a main cause of the failure to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.
Analysis is not the only area where serious overlap appears to be gumming up the national security machinery and blurring the lines of responsibility.
Within the Defense Department alone, 18 commands and agencies conduct information operations, which aspire to manage foreign audiences’ perceptions of U.S. policy and military activities overseas.
And all the major intelligence agencies and at least two major military commands claim a major role in cyber-warfare, the newest and least-defined frontier.
"Frankly, it hasn't been brought together in a unified approach," CIA Director Panetta said of the many agencies now involved in cyber-warfare.
"Cyber is tremendously difficult" to coordinate, said Benjamin A. Powell, who served as general counsel for three directors of national intelligence until he left the government last year. "Sometimes there was an unfortunate attitude of bring your knives, your guns, your fists and be fully prepared to defend your turf." Why? "Because it's funded, it's hot and it's sexy."
Launch Gallery »
But none of this reached the one organization charged with handling counterintelligence investigations within the Army. Just 25 miles up the road from Walter Reed, the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group had been doing little to search the ranks for potential threats. Instead, the 902's commander had decided to turn the unit's attention to assessing general terrorist affiliations in the United States, even though the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI's 106 Joint Terrorism Task Forces were already doing this work in great depth.
The 902nd, working on a program the commander named RITA, for Radical Islamic Threat to the Army, had quietly been gathering information on Hezbollah, Iranian Republican Guard and al-Qaeda student organizations in the United States. The assessment "didn't tell us anything we didn't know already," said the Army's senior counterintelligence officer at the Pentagon.
Secrecy and lack of coordination have allowed organizations, such as the 902nd in this case, to work on issues others were already tackling rather than take on the much more challenging job of trying to identify potential jihadist sympathizers within the Army itself.
Beyond redundancy, secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness in other ways, say defense and intelligence officers. For the Defense Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is extremely limited and monitored by specially trained security officers.
These are called Special Access Programs - or SAPs - and the Pentagon's list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authorized to know anything about them. All this means that very few people have a complete sense of what's going on.
"There's only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs - that's God," said James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Obama administration's nominee to be the next director of national intelligence.
Such secrecy can undermine the normal chain of command when senior officials use it to cut out rivals or when subordinates are ordered to keep secrets from their commanders.
One military officer involved in one such program said he was ordered to sign a document prohibiting him from disclosing it to his four-star commander, with whom he worked closely every day, because the commander was not authorized to know about it. Another senior defense official recalls the day he tried to find out about a program in his budget, only to be rebuffed by a peer. "What do you mean you can't tell me? I pay for the program," he recalled saying in a heated exchange.
Another senior intelligence official with wide access to many programs said that secrecy is sometimes used to protect ineffective projects. "I think the secretary of defense ought to direct a look at every single thing to see if it still has value," he said. "The DNI ought to do something similar."
The ODNI hasn't done that yet. The best it can do at the moment is maintain a database of the names of the most sensitive programs in the intelligence community. But the database does not include many important and relevant Pentagon projects.
Because so much is classified, illustrations of what goes on every day in Top Secret America can be hard to ferret out. But every so often, examples emerge. A recent one shows the post-9/11 system at its best and its worst.
Last fall, after eight years of growth and hirings, the enterprise was at full throttle when word emerged that something was seriously amiss inside Yemen. In response, President Obama signed an order sending dozens of secret commandos to that country to target and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda affiliate.
In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the United States.
That was the system as it was intended. But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis, it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data that are reviewed each day. Analysts had to switch from database to database, from hard drive to hard drive, from screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.
As military operations in Yemen intensified and the chatter about a possible terrorist strike increased, the intelligence agencies ramped up their effort. The flood of information into the NCTC became a torrent.
Somewhere in that deluge was even more vital data. Partial names of someone in Yemen. A reference to a Nigerian radical who had gone to Yemen. A report of a father in Nigeria worried about a son who had become interested in radical teachings and had disappeared inside Yemen.
These were all clues to what would happen when a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left Yemen and eventually boarded a plane in Amsterdam bound for Detroit. But nobody put them together because, as officials would testify later, the system had gotten so big that the lines of responsibility had become hopelessly blurred.
"There are so many people involved here," NCTC Director Leiter told Congress.
"Everyone had the dots to connect," DNI Blair explained to the lawmakers. "But I hadn't made it clear exactly who had primary responsibility."
And so Abdulmutallab was able to step aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. As it descended toward Detroit, he allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear. It wasn't the very expensive, very large 9/11 enterprise that prevented disaster. It was a passenger who saw what he was doing and tackled him. "We didn't follow up and prioritize the stream of intelligence," White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan explained afterward. "Because no one intelligence entity, or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation."
Blair acknowledged the problem. His solution: Create yet another team to run down every important lead. But he also told Congress he needed more money and more analysts to prevent another mistake.
More is often the solution proposed by the leaders of the 9/11 enterprise. After the Christmas Day bombing attempt, Leiter also pleaded for more - more analysts to join the 300 or so he already had.
The Department of Homeland Security asked for more air marshals, more body scanners and more analysts, too, even though it can't find nearly enough qualified people to fill its intelligence unit now. Obama has said he will not freeze spending on national security, making it likely that those requests will be funded.
More building, more expansion of offices continues across the country. A $1.7 billion NSA data-processing center will be under construction soon near Salt Lake City. In Tampa, the U.S. Central Command’s new 270,000-square-foot intelligence office will be matched next year by an equally large headquarters building, and then, the year after that, by a 51,000-square-foot office just for its special operations section.
Just north of Charlottesville, the new Joint-Use Intelligence Analysis Facility will consolidate 1,000 defense intelligence analysts on a secure campus.
Meanwhile, five miles southeast of the White House, the DHS has broken ground for its new headquarters, to be shared with the Coast Guard. DHS, in existence for only seven years, already has its own Special Access Programs, its own research arm, its own command center, its own fleet of armored cars and its own 230,000-person workforce, the third-largest after the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
Soon, on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths mental hospital in Anacostia, a $3.4 billion showcase of security will rise from the crumbling brick wards. The new headquarters will be the largest government complex built since the Pentagon, a major landmark in the alternative geography of Top Secret America and four times as big as Liberty Crossing.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
National Security Inc.
The intent of the memorial is to publicly honor the courage of those who died in the line of duty, but it also conceals a deeper story about government in the post-9/11 era: Eight of the 22 were not CIA officers at all. They were private contractors.
To ensure that the country's most sensitive duties are carried out only by people loyal above all to the nation's interest, federal rules say contractors may not perform what are called "inherently government functions." But they do, all the time and in every intelligence and counterterrorism agency, according to a two-year investigation by The Washington Post.
What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency that calls into question whether the federal workforce includes too many people obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest -- and whether the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities. In interviews last week, both Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta said they agreed with such concerns.
The Post investigation uncovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America created since 9/11 that is hidden from public view, lacking in thorough oversight and so unwieldy that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
It is also a system in which contractors are playing an ever more important role. The Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. There is no better example of the government's dependency on them than at the CIA, the one place in government that exists to do things overseas that no other U.S. agency is allowed to do.
Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. At Langley headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency's training facility in Virginia, they are helping mold a new generation of American spies.
Through the federal budget process, the George W. Bush administration and Congress made it much easier for the CIA and other agencies involved in counterterrorism to hire more contractors than civil servants. They did this to limit the size of the permanent workforce, to hire employees more quickly than the sluggish federal process allows and because they thought - wrongly, it turned out - that contractors would be less expensive.
"For too long, we've depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done" by CIA employees, Panetta said. But replacing them "doesn't happen overnight. When you've been dependent on contractors for so long, you have to build that expertise over time."
A second concern of Panetta's: contracting with corporations, whose responsibility "is to their shareholders, and that does present an inherent conflict."
Or as Gates, who has been in and out of government his entire life, puts it: "You want somebody who's really in it for a career because they're passionate about it and because they care about the country and not just because of the money."
Contractors can offer more money - often twice as much - to experienced federal employees than the government is allowed to pay them. And because competition among firms for people with security clearances is so great, corporations offer such perks as BMWs and $15,000 signing bonuses, as Raytheon did in June for software developers with top-level clearances.
The idea that the government would save money on a contract workforce "is a false economy," said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official and now president of his own intelligence training academy.
As companies raid federal agencies of talent, the government has been left with the youngest intelligence staffs ever while more experienced employees move into the private sector. This is true at the CIA, where employees from 114 firms account for roughly a third of the workforce, or about 10,000 positions. Many of them are temporary hires, often former military or intelligence agency employees who left government service to work less and earn more while drawing a federal pension.
Across the government, such workers are used in every conceivable way.
Contractors kill enemy fighters. They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks. They help craft war plans. They gather information on local factions in war zones. They are the historians, the architects, the recruiters in the nation's most secretive agencies. They staff watch centers across the Washington area. They are among the most trusted advisers to the four-star generals leading the nation's wars.
So great is the government's appetite for private contractors with top-secret clearances that there are now more than 300 companies, often nicknamed "body shops," that specialize in finding candidates, often for a fee that approaches $50,000 a person, according to those in the business.
Making it more difficult to replace contractors with federal employees: The government doesn't know how many are on the federal payroll. Gates said he wants to reduce the number of defense contractors by about 13 percent, to pre-9/11 levels, but he's having a hard time even getting a basic head count.
"This is a terrible confession," he said. "I can't get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense," referring to the department's civilian leadership.
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The privatization of national security work has been made possible by a nine-year "gusher" of money, as Gates recently described national security spending since the 9/11 attacks.
With so much money to spend, managers do not always worry about whether they are spending it effectively.
"Someone says, 'Let's do another study,' and because no one shares information, everyone does their own study," said Elena Mastors, who headed a team studying the al-Qaeda leadership for the Defense Department. "It's about how many studies you can orchestrate, how many people you can fly all over the place. Everybody's just on a spending spree. We don't need all these people doing all this stuff."
Most of these contractors do work that is fundamental to an agency's core mission. As a result, the government has become dependent on them in a way few could have foreseen: wartime temps who have become a permanent cadre.
Just last week, typing "top secret" into the search engine of a major jobs Web site showed 1,951 unfilled positions in the Washington area, and 19,759 nationwide: "Target analyst," Reston. "Critical infrastructure specialist," Washington, D.C. "Joint expeditionary team member," Arlington.
"We could not perform our mission without them. They serve as our 'reserves,' providing flexibility and expertise we can't acquire," said Ronald Sanders, who was chief of human capital for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence before retiring in February. "Once they are on board, we treat them as if they're a part of the total force."
The Post's investigation is based on government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records, and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials. Most requested anonymity either because they are prohibited from speaking publicly or because, they said, they feared retaliation at work for describing their concerns.
The investigation focused on top-secret work because the amount classified at the secret level is too large to accurately track. A searchable database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records. [For an explanation of the newspaper's decision making behind this project, please see the Editor's Note.]
The national security industry sells the military and intelligence agencies more than just airplanes, ships and tanks. It sells contractors' brain power. They advise, brief and work everywhere, including 25 feet under the Pentagon in a bunker where they can be found alongside military personnel in battle fatigues monitoring potential crises worldwide.
Late at night, when the wide corridors of the Pentagon are all but empty, the National Military Command Center hums with purpose. There's real-time access to the location of U.S. forces anywhere in the world, to granular satellite images or to the White House Situation Room.
The purpose of all this is to be able to answer any question the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff might have. To be ready 24 hours a day, every day, takes five brigadier generals, a staff of colonels and senior noncommissioned officers - and a man wearing a pink contractor badge and a bright purple shirt and tie.
Erik Saar's job title is "knowledge engineer." In one of the most sensitive places in America, he is the only person in the room who knows how to bring data from far afield, fast. Saar and four teammates from a private company, SRA International, teach these top-ranked staff officers to think in Web 2.0. They are trying to push a tradition-bound culture to act differently, digitally.
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Since 9/11, contractors have made extraordinary contributions - and extraordinary blunders - that have changed history and clouded the public's view of the distinction between the actions of officers sworn on behalf of the United States and corporate employees with little more than a security badge and a gun.
Contractor misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt U.S. credibility in those countries as well as in the Middle East. Abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, some of it done by contractors, helped ignite a call for vengeance against the United States that continues today. Security guards working for Blackwater added fuel to the five-year violent chaos in Iraq and became the symbol of an America run amok.
Contractors in war zones, especially those who can fire weapons, blur "the line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of force, which is just what our enemies want," Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College and the author of "One Nation Under Contract," told the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting at a hearing in June.
Misconduct happens, too. A defense contractor formerly called MZM paid bribes for CIA contracts, sending Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was a California congressman on the intelligence committee, to prison. Guards employed in Afghanistan by ArmorGroup North America, a private security company, were caught on camera in a lewd-partying scandal.
But contractors have also advanced the way the military fights. During the bloodiest months in Iraq, the founder of Berico Technologies, a former Army officer named Guy Filippelli, working with the National Security Agency, invented a technology that made finding the makers of roadside bombs easier and helped stanch the number of casualties from improvised explosives, according to NSA officials.
Contractors have produced blueprints and equipment for the unmanned aerial war fought by drones, which have killed the largest number of senior al-Qaeda leaders and produced a flood of surveillance videos. A dozen firms created the transnational digital highway that carries the drones' real-time data on terrorist hide-outs from overseas to command posts throughout the United States.
Private firms have become so thoroughly entwined with the government's most sensitive activities that without them important military and intelligence missions would have to cease or would be jeopardized. Some examples:
*At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the number of contractors equals the number of federal employees. The department depends on 318 companies for essential services and personnel, including 19 staffing firms that help DHS find and hire even more contractors. At the office that handles intelligence, six out of 10 employees are from private industry.
*The National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, hires private firms to come up with most of its technological innovations. The NSA used to work with a small stable of firms; now it works with at least 484 and is actively recruiting more.
*The National Reconnaissance Office cannot produce, launch or maintain its large satellite surveillance systems, which photograph countries such as China, North Korea and Iran, without the four major contractors it works with.
*Every intelligence and military organization depends on contract linguists to communicate overseas, translate documents and make sense of electronic voice intercepts. The demand for native speakers is so great, and the amount of money the government is willing to pay for them is so huge, that 56 firms compete for this business.
*Each of the 16 intelligence agencies depends on corporations to set up its computer networks, communicate with other agencies' networks, and fuse and mine disparate bits of information that might indicate a terrorist plot. More than 400 companies work exclusively in this area, building classified hardware and software systems.
Hiring contractors was supposed to save the government money. But that has not turned out to be the case. A 2008 study published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that contractors made up 29 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies but cost the equivalent of 49 percent of their personnel budgets. Gates said that federal workers cost the government 25 percent less than contractors.
The process of reducing the number of contractors has been slow, if the giant Office of Naval Intelligence in Suitland is any example. There, 2,770 people work on the round-the-clock maritime watch floor tracking commercial vessels, or in science and engineering laboratories, or in one of four separate intelligence centers. But it is the employees of 70 information technology companies who keep the place operating.
They store, process and analyze communications and intelligence transmitted to and from the entire U.S. naval fleet and commercial vessels worldwide. "Could we keep this building running without contractors?" said the captain in charge of information technology. "No, I don't think we could keep up with it."
Vice Adm. David J. "Jack" Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, said he could save millions each year by converting 20 percent of the contractor jobs at the Suitland complex to civil servant positions. He has gotten the go-ahead, but it's been a slow start. This year, his staff has converted one contractor job and eliminated another - out of 589. "It's costing me an arm and a leg," Dorsett said.
Washington's corridors of power stretch in a nearly straight geographical line from the Supreme Court to the Capitol to the White House. Keep going west, across the Potomac River, and the unofficial seats of power - the private, corporate ones - become visible, especially at night. There in the Virginia suburbs are the brightly illuminated company logos of Top Secret America: Northrop Grumman, SAIC, General Dynamics.
To understand how these firms have come to dominate the post-9/11 era, there's no better place to start than the Herndon office of General Dynamics. One recent afternoon there, Ken Pohill was watching a series of unclassified images, the first of which showed a white truck moving across his computer monitor.
The truck was in Afghanistan, and a video camera bolted to the belly of a U.S. surveillance plane was following it. Pohill could access a dozen images that might help an intelligence analyst figure out whether the truck driver was just a truck driver or part of a network making roadside bombs to kill American soldiers.
To do this, he clicked his computer mouse. Up popped a picture of the truck driver's house, with notes about visitors. Another click. Up popped infrared video of the vehicle. Click: Analysis of an object thrown from the driver's side. Click: U-2 imagery. Click: A history of the truck's movement. Click. A Google Earth map of friendly forces. Click: A chat box with everyone else following the truck, too.
Ten years ago, if Pohill had worked for General Dynamics, he probably would have had a job bending steel. Then, the company's center of gravity was the industrial port city of Groton, Conn., where men and women in wet galoshes churned out submarines, the thoroughbreds of naval warfare. Today, the firm's commercial core is made up of data tools such as the digital imagery library in Herndon and the secure BlackBerry-like device used by President Obama, both developed at a carpeted suburban office by employees in loafers and heels.
The evolution of General Dynamics was based on one simple strategy: Follow the money.
The company embraced the emerging intelligence-driven style of warfare. It developed small-target identification systems and equipment that could intercept an insurgent's cellphone and laptop communications. It found ways to sort the billions of data points collected by intelligence agencies into piles of information that a single person could analyze.
It also began gobbling up smaller companies that could help it dominate the new intelligence landscape, just as its competitors were doing. Between 2001 and 2010, the company acquired 11 firms specializing in satellites, signals and geospatial intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, technology integration and imagery.
On Sept. 11, 2001, General Dynamics was working with nine intelligence organizations. Now it has contracts with all 16. Its employees fill the halls of the NSA and DHS. The corporation was paid hundreds of millions of dollars to set up and manage DHS's new offices in 2003, including its National Operations Center, Office of Intelligence and Analysis and Office of Security. Its employees do everything from deciding which threats to investigate to answering phones.
General Dynamics' bottom line reflects its successful transformation. It also reflects how much the U.S. government - the firm's largest customer by far - has paid the company beyond what it costs to do the work, which is, after all, the goal of every profit-making corporation.
The company reported $31.9 billion in revenue in 2009, up from $10.4 billion in 2000. Its workforce has more than doubled in that time, from 43,300 to 91,700 employees, according to the company.
Revenue from General Dynamics' intelligence- and information-related divisions, where the majority of its top-secret work is done, climbed to $10 billion in the second quarter of 2009, up from $2.4 billion in 2000, accounting for 34 percent of its overall revenue last year.
The company's profitability is on display in its Falls Church headquarters. There's a soaring, art-filled lobby, bistro meals served on china enameled with the General Dynamics logo and an auditorium with seven rows of white leather-upholstered seats, each with its own microphone and laptop docking station.
General Dynamics now has operations in every corner of the intelligence world. It helps counterintelligence operators and trains new analysts. It has a $600 million Air Force contract to intercept communications. It makes $1 billion a year keeping hackers out of U.S. computer networks and encrypting military communications. It even conducts information operations, the murky military art of trying to persuade foreigners to align their views with U.S. interests.
"The American intelligence community is an important market for our company," said General Dynamics spokesman Kendell Pease. "Over time, we have tailored our organization to deliver affordable, best-of-breed products and services to meet those agencies' unique requirements."
In September 2009, General Dynamics won a $10 million contract from the U.S. Special Operations Command's psychological operations unit to create Web sites to influence foreigners' views of U.S. policy. To do that, the company hired writers, editors and designers to produce a set of daily news sites tailored to five regions of the world. They appear as regular news Web sites, with names such as "SETimes.com: The News and Views of Southeast Europe." The first indication that they are run on behalf of the military comes at the bottom of the home page with the word "Disclaimer." Only by clicking on that do you learn that "the Southeast European Times (SET) is a Web site sponsored by the United States European Command."
What all of these contracts add up to: This year, General Dynamics' overall revenue was $7.8 billion in the first quarter, Jay L. Johnson, the company's chief executive and president, said at an earnings conference call in April. "We've hit the deck running in the first quarter," he said, "and we're on our way to another successful year."
In the shadow of giants such as General Dynamics are 1,814 small to midsize companies that do top-secret work. About a third of them were established after Sept. 11, 2001, to take advantage of the huge flow of taxpayer money into the private sector. Many are led by former intelligence agency officials who know exactly whom to approach for work.
Abraxas of Herndon, headed by a former CIA spy, quickly became a major CIA contractor after 9/11. Its staff even recruited midlevel managers during work hours from the CIA's cafeteria, former agency officers recall.
Other small and medium-size firms sell niche technical expertise such as engineering for low-orbit satellites or long-dwell sensors. But the vast majority have not invented anything at all. Instead, they replicate what the government's workforce already does.
A company called SGIS, founded soon after the 2001 attacks, was one of these.
In June 2002, from the spare bedroom of his San Diego home, 30-year-old Hany Girgis put together an information technology team that won its first Defense Department contract four months later. By the end of the year, SGIS had opened a Tampa office close to the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, had turned a profit and had 30 employees.
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By 2006, its revenue had multiplied tenfold, to $30.6 million, and the company had hired employees who specialized in government contracting just to help it win more contracts.
"We knew that's where we wanted to play," Girgis said in a phone interview. "There's always going to be a need to protect the homeland."
Eight years after it began, SGIS was up to revenue of $101 million, 14 offices and 675 employees. Those with top-secret clearances worked for 11 government agencies, according to The Post's database.
The company's marketing efforts had grown, too, both in size and sophistication. Its Web site, for example, showed an image of Navy sailors lined up on a battleship over the words "Proud to serve" and another image of a Navy helicopter flying near the Statue of Liberty over the words "Preserving freedom." And if it seemed hard to distinguish SGIS's work from the government's, it's because they were doing so many of the same things. SGIS employees replaced military personnel at the Pentagon's 24/7 telecommunications center. SGIS employees conducted terrorist threat analysis. SGIS employees provided help-desk support for federal computer systems.
Still, as alike as they seemed, there were crucial differences.
For one, unlike in government, if an SGIS employee did a good job, he might walk into the parking lot one day and be surprised by co-workers clapping at his latest bonus: a leased, dark-blue Mercedes convertible. And he might say, as a video camera recorded him sliding into the soft leather driver's seat, "Ahhhh . . . this is spectacular."
And then there was what happened to SGIS last month, when it did the one thing the federal government can never do.
It sold itself.
The new owner is a Fairfax-based company called Salient Federal Solutions, created just last year. It is a management company and a private-equity firm with lots of Washington connections that, with the purchase of SGIS, it intends to parlay into contracts.
"We have an objective," says chief executive and President Brad Antle, "to make $500 million in five years."
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Of all the different companies in Top Secret America, the most numerous by far are the information technology, or IT, firms. About 800 firms do nothing but IT.
Some IT companies integrate the mishmash of computer systems within one agency; others build digital links between agencies; still others have created software and hardware that can mine and analyze vast quantities of data.
The government is nearly totally dependent on these firms. Their close relationship was on display recently at the Defense Intelligence Agency's annual information technology conference in Phoenix. The agency expected the same IT firms angling for its business to pay for the entire five-day get-together, a DIA spokesman confirmed.
And they did.
General Dynamics spent $30,000 on the event. On a perfect spring night, it hosted a party at Chase Field, a 48,569-seat baseball stadium, reserved exclusively for the conference attendees. Government buyers and corporate sellers drank beer and ate hot dogs while the DIA director's morning keynote speech replayed on the gigantic scoreboard, digital baseballs bouncing along the bottom of the screen.
Carahsoft Technology, a DIA contractor, invited guests to a casino night where intelligence officials and vendors ate, drank and bet phony money at craps tables run by professional dealers.
The McAfee network security company, a Defense Department contractor, welcomed guests to a Margaritaville-themed social on the garden terrace of the hotel across the street from the convention site, where 250 firms paid thousands of dollars each to advertise their services and make their pitches to intelligence officials walking the exhibition hall.
Government officials and company executives say these networking events are critical to building a strong relationship between the public and private sectors.
"If I make one contact each day, it's worth it," said Tom Conway, director of federal business development for McAfee.
As for what a government agency gets out of it: "Our goal is to be open and learn stuff," said Grant M. Schneider, the DIA's chief information officer and one of the conference's main draws. By going outside Washington, where many of the firms are headquartered, "we get more synergy. . . . It's an interchange with industry."
These types of gatherings happen every week. Many of them are closed to anyone without a top-secret clearance.
At a U.S. Special Operations Command conference in Fayetteville, N.C., in April, vendors paid for access to some of the people who decide what services and gadgets to buy for troops. In mid-May, the national security industry held a black-tie evening funded by the same corporations seeking business from the defense, intelligence and congressional leaders seated at their tables.
Such coziness worries other officials who believe the post-9/11 defense-intelligence-corporate relationship has become, as one senior military intelligence officer described it, a "self-licking ice cream cone."
Another official, a longtime conservative staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee, described it as "a living, breathing organism" impossible to control or curtail. "How much money has been involved is just mind-boggling," he said. "We've built such a vast instrument. What are you going to do with this thing? . . . It's turned into a jobs program."
Even some of those gathered in Phoenix criticized the size and disjointedness of the intelligence community and its contracting base. "Redundancy is the unacceptable norm," Lt. Gen. Richard P. Zahner, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, told the 2,000 attendees. "Are we spending our resources effectively? . . . If we have not gotten our houses in order, someone will do it for us."
On a day that also featured free back rubs, shoeshines, ice cream and fruit smoothies, another speaker, Kevin P. Meiners, a deputy undersecretary for intelligence, gave the audience what he called "the secret sauce," the key to thriving even when the Defense Department budget eventually stabilizes and stops rising so rapidly.
"Overhead," Meiners told them - that's what's going to get cut first. Overhead used to mean paper clips and toner. Now it's information technology, IT, the very products and services sold by the businesspeople in the audience.
"You should describe what you do as a weapons system, not overhead," Meiners instructed. "Overhead to them - I'm giving you the secret sauce here - is IT and people. . . . You have to foot-stomp hard that this is a war-fighting system that's helping save people's lives every day."
After he finished, many of the government officials listening headed to the exhibit hall, where company salespeople waited in display booths. Peter Coddington, chief executive of InTTENSITY, a small firm whose software teaches computers to "read" documents, was ready for them.
"You have to differentiate yourself," he said as they fanned out into the aisles. Coddington had glass beer mugs and pens twirling atop paperweight pyramids to help persuade officials of the nation's largest military intelligence agency that he had something they needed.
But first he needed them to stop walking so fast, to slow down long enough for him to start his pitch. His twirling pens seemed to do the job. "It's like moths to fire," Coddington whispered.
A DIA official with a tote bag approached. She spotted the pens, and her pace slowed. "Want a pen?" Coddington called.
She hesitated. "Ah . . . I have three children," she said.
"Want three pens?"
She stopped. In Top Secret America, every moment is an opportunity.
"We're a text extraction company. . . ," Coddington began, handing her the pens.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
The secrets next door
In suburbs across the nation, the intelligence community goes about its anonymous business. Its work isn’t seen, but its impact is surely felt.
Along the main street, the signs in the median aren't advertising homes for sale; they're inviting employees with top-secret security clearances to a job fair at Cafe Joe, which is anything but a typical lunch spot.
The new gunmetal-colored office building is really a kind of hotel where businesses can rent eavesdrop-proof rooms.
Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by concrete cylinders, it is an access point to a government cable. "TS/SCI," whispers an official, the abbreviations for "top secret" and "sensitive compartmented information" - and that means few people are allowed to know what information the cable transmits.
All of these places exist just outside Washington in what amounts to the capital of an alternative geography of the United States, one defined by the concentration of top-secret government organizations and the companies that do work for them. This Fort Meade cluster is the largest of a dozen such clusters across the United States that are the nerve centers of Top Secret America and its 854,000 workers.
Other locations include Dulles-Chantilly, Denver-Aurora and Tampa. All of them are under-the-radar versions of traditional military towns: economically dependent on the federal budget and culturally defined by their unique work.
The difference, of course, is that the military is not a secret culture. In the clusters of Top Secret America, a company lanyard attached to a digital smart card is often the only clue to a job location. Work is not discussed. Neither are deployments. Debate about the role of intelligence in protecting the country occurs only when something goes wrong and the government investigates, or when an unauthorized disclosure of classified information turns into news.
The existence of these clusters is so little known that most people don't realize when they're nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade's, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.
Once this happens, it means that ground zero - the National Security Agency - is close by. But it's not easy to tell where. Trees, walls and a sloping landscape obscure the NSA's presence from most vantage points, and concrete barriers, fortified guard posts and warning signs stop those without authorization from entering the grounds of the largest intelligence agency in the United States.
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From the road, it's impossible to tell how large the NSA has become, even though its buildings occupy 6.3 million square feet - about the size of the Pentagon - and are surrounded by 112 acres of parking spaces. As massive as that might seem, documents indicate that the NSA is only going to get bigger: 10,000 more workers over the next 15 years; $2 billion to pay for just the first phase of expansion; an overall increase in size that will bring its building space throughout the Fort Meade cluster to nearly 14 million square feet.
The NSA headquarters sits on the Fort Meade Army base, which hosts 80 government tenants in all, including several large intelligence organizations.
Together, they inject $10 billion from paychecks and contracts into the region's economy every year - a figure that helps explain the rest of the Fort Meade cluster, which fans out about 10 miles in every direction.
Just beyond the NSA perimeter, the companies that thrive off the agency and other nearby intelligence organizations begin. In some parts of the cluster, they occupy entire neighborhoods. In others, they make up mile-long business parks connected to the NSA campus by a private roadway guarded by forbidding yellow "Warning" signs.
The largest of these is the National Business Park - 285 tucked-away acres of wide, angular glass towers that go on for blocks. The occupants of these buildings are contractors, and in their more publicly known locations, they purposely understate their presence. But in the National Business Park, a place where only other contractors would have reason to go, their office signs are huge, glowing at night in bright red, yellow and blue: Booz Allen Hamilton, L-3 Communications, CSC, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, SAIC.
More than 250 companies - 13 percent of all the firms in Top Secret America - have a presence in the Fort Meade cluster. Some have multiple offices, such as Northrop Grumman, which has 19, and SAIC, which has 11. In all, there are 681 locations in the Fort Meade cluster where businesses conduct top-secret work.
Inside the locations are employees who must submit to strict, intrusive rules. They take lie-detector tests routinely, sign nondisclosure forms and file lengthy reports whenever they travel overseas. They are coached on how to deal with nosy neighbors and curious friends. Some are trained to assume false identities.
If they drink too much, borrow too much money or socialize with citizens from certain countries, they can lose their security clearances, and a clearance is the passport to a job for life at the NSA and its sister intelligence organizations.
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The old joke: "How can you tell the extrovert at NSA? He's the one looking at someone else's shoes."
"These are some of the most brilliant people in the world," said Ken Ulman, executive of Howard County, one of six counties in NSA's geographic sphere of influence. "They demand good schools and a high quality of life."
The schools, indeed, are among the best, and some are adopting a curriculum this fall that will teach students as young as 10 what kind of lifestyle it takes to get a security clearance and what kind of behavior would disqualify them.
Outside one school is the jarring sight of yellow school buses lined up across from a building where personnel from the "Five Eye" allies - the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - share top-secret information about the entire world.
The buses deliver children to neighborhoods that are among the wealthiest in the country; affluence is another attribute of Top Secret America. Six of the 10 richest counties in the United States, according to Census Bureau data, are in these clusters.
Loudoun County, ranked as the wealthiest county in the country, helps supply the workforce of the nearby National Reconnaissance Office headquarters, which manages spy satellites. Fairfax County, the second-wealthiest, is home to the NRO, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Arlington County, ranked ninth, hosts the Pentagon and major intelligence agencies. Montgomery County, ranked 10th, is home to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. And Howard County, ranked third, is home to 8,000 NSA employees.
"If this were a Chrysler plant, we'd be talking Chrysler in the bowling alley, Chrysler in the council meetings, Chrysler, Chrysler, Chrysler," said Kent Menser, a Defense Department employee helping Howard County adjust to the growth of nearby Fort Meade. "People who are not in the workforce of NSA don't fully appreciate the impact of it on their lives."
The impact of the NSA and other secretive organizations in this cluster is not just monetary. It shades even the flow of traffic one particular day as a white van pulls out of a parking lot and into midday traffic.
That white van is followed by five others just like it.
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But on this day, they are trainees connected to one another by radios and specially labeled street maps. Some 4,000 federal and military agents attend counterintelligence classes in the Fort Meade cluster every year, moving, as these agents are, past unsuspecting residents going about their business.
The agent riding shotgun in one white van holds the maps on her lap as she frantically moves yellow stickies around, trying to keep tabs on the other vans and the suspect, or "rabbit," as he is called.
Other agents gun their engines and race 60 mph, trying to keep up with the rabbit while alerting one another to the presence of local police, who don't know that the vans weaving in and out of traffic are driven by federal agents.
Suddenly, the rabbit moves a full block ahead of the closest van, passes through a yellow light, then drives out of sight as the agents get stuck at a red light.
"Go!" an agent yells in vain through the windshield as the light changes and the car in front of her pokes along. "Move! Move! Move!"
"We lost him," her partner groans as they do their best to catch up.
Finally, the agents end their surveillance on foot at a Borders bookstore in Columbia where the rabbit has reappeared. Six men in polo shirts and various shades of khaki pants scan the magazine racks and slowly walk the aisles.
Their instructor cringes. "The hardest part is the demeanor," he confides, watching as the agents follow the rabbit in the store, filled with women in shifts and children in flip-flops. "Some of them just can't relax enough to get the demeanor right. . . . They should be acting like they're browsing, but they are looking over the top of a book and never move."
Throughout the cluster are examples of how the hidden world and the public one intersect. A Quiznos sandwich shop in the cluster has the familiarity of any other restaurant in the national chain, except for the line that begins forming at 11 a.m. Those waiting wear the Oakley sunglasses favored by people who have worked in Afghanistan or Iraq. Their shoes are boots, the color of desert sand. Forty percent of the NSA's workforce is active-duty military, and this Quiznos is not far away from one of their work sites.
The building, sealed off behind fencing and Jersey barriers, is larger than a football field. It has no identifying sign. It does have an address, but Google Maps doesn't recognize it. Type it in, and another address is displayed, every time. "6700," it says.
No street name.
Inside such a building might be Justin Walsh, who spends hours each day on a ladder, peering into the false ceilings of the largest companies in Top Secret America. Walsh is a Defense Department industrial security specialist, and every cluster has a version of him, whether it's Fort Meade; or the underground maze of buildings at Crystal City in Arlington, near the Pentagon; or the high-tech business parks around the National Aerospace Intelligence Center in Dayton, Ohio.
When he's not on his ladder, Walsh is tinkering with a copy machine to make sure it cannot reproduce the secrets stored in its memory. He's testing the degausser, a giant magnet that erases data from classified hard drives. He's dissecting the alarm system, its fiber-optic cable and the encryption it uses to send signals to the control room.
The government regulates everything in Top Secret America: the gauge of steel in a fence, the grade of paper bag to haul away classified documents, the thickness of walls and the height of raised soundproof floors.
In the Washington area, there are 4,000 corporate offices that handle classified information, 25 percent more than last year, according to Walsh's supervisor, and on any given day Walsh's team has 220 buildings in its inspection pipeline. All existing buildings have things that need to be checked, and the new buildings have to be gone over from top to bottom before the NSA will allow their occupants to even connect to the agency via telephone.
Soon, there will be one more in the Fort Meade cluster: a new, four-story building, going up near a quiet gated community of upscale townhouses, that its builder boasts can withstand a car bomb. Dennis Lane says his engineers have drilled more bolts into each steel beam than is the norm to make the structure less likely to buckle were the unthinkable to happen.
Lane, senior vice president of Ryan Commercial real estate, has become something of a snoop himself when it comes to the NSA. At 55, he has lived and worked in its shadow all his life and has schooled himself on its growing presence in his community. He collects business intelligence using his own network of informants, executives like himself hoping to making a killing off an organization many of his neighbors don't know a thing about.
He notices when the NSA or a different secretive government organization leases another building, hires more contractors and expands its outreach to the local business community. He's been following construction projects, job migrations, corporate moves. He knows that local planners are estimating that 10,000 more jobs will come with an expanded NSA and an additional 52,000 from other intelligence units moving to the Fort Meade post.
Lane was up on all the gossip months before it was announced that the next giant military command, U.S. Cyber Command, would be run by the same four-star general who heads the NSA. "This whole cyber thing is going to be big," he says. "A cyber command could eat up all the building inventory out there."
Lane knows this because he has witnessed the post-9/11 growth of the NSA, which now ingests 1.7 billion pieces of intercepted communications every 24 hours: e-mails, bulletin board postings, instant messages, IP addresses, phone numbers, telephone calls and cellphone conversations.
In her own way, Jeani Burns has witnessed this, too.
Burns, a businesswoman in the Fort Meade cluster, is having a drink one night after work and gesturing toward some men standing in another part of the bar.
"I can spot them," she says. The suit. The haircut. The demeanor. "They have a haunted look, like they're afraid someone is going to ask them something about themselves."
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Burns would know - she's been living with one of those secretive men for 20 years. He used to work at the NSA. Now he's one of its contractors. He's been to war. She doesn't know where. He does something important. She doesn't know what.
She says she fell for him two decades ago and has had a life of adjustments ever since. When they go out with other people, she says, she calls ahead with cautions: "Don't ask him stuff." Sometimes people get it, but when they don't, "it's a pain. We just didn't go out with them again."
She describes him as "an observer. I'm the interloper," she says. "It bothers me he never takes me traveling, never thinks of anything exciting to do. . . . I feel cheated."
But she also says: "I really respect him for what's he's done. He's spent his whole life so we can keep our way of living, and he doesn't get any public recognition."
Outside the bar, meanwhile, the cluster hums along. At night, in the confines of the National Business Park, office lights remain on here and there. The 140-room Marriott Courtyard is sold out, as usual, with guests such as the man checking in who says only that he's "with the military."
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As employees just starting their shifts push the turnstiles forward, those who are leaving push their identity badges into the mouth of the key machine. A door opens. They drop their key box in, then go out through the turnstiles. They drive out slowly through the barriers and gates protecting the NSA, passing a steady stream of cars headed in. It's almost midnight in the Fort Meade cluster, the capital of Top Secret America, a sleepless place growing larger every day.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this story.
Correction: Jerome James was initially named incorrectly in this story as Jerome Jones.