A Philosopher's Blog

Secret America

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2010
NSA Eagle
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After 9/11 there was a huge spike in the “top secret sector.”This situation is ably covered by a recent Washington Post investigation.While there is a need for top secrecy, this spike does raise some important concerns. I will focus mainly on the privatization of secrecy.

One concern is purely economic. While some folks argue that the private sector is able to do its tasks cheaper than the “bloated” and “wasteful” government, the reality seems to be quite different. To be specific, the spike in the private sector intelligence operations made people with clearance a valuable commodity. These people were often able to leave the public sector and take jobs in the private sector at a significant salary increase. This is, of course, nothing new. Over the years I have heard of numerous cases of the state trying to save money by privatizing and then paying private contractors significantly more than they paid the former state workers.  Naturally, this concern only applies in cases in which privatizing is more expensive than keeping the operation entirely within the government. While some private companies no doubt do exemplary work, it would be rather unusual if some intelligence contractors were not using the situation as a gravy train.

A second concern is that these sort of operations seem to arguable fall under the domain of the state. Privatizing intelligence gathering seems comparable to privatizing the police or the military. Blackwater serves as an excellent example of cautionary tale about this sort of approach. Since the United States is supposed to be a democracy, such private sector secrecy is worrisome. State agencies are at least supposed to be servants of the nation, but the business of private business is just that-business.

A third concern is with the vast size of this shadowy empire of secrecy. While having a robust intelligence community is useful, having such a large number of people with such clearance increases the odds of leaks. Also, as history has shown, people who work in intelligence have sometimes been willing to sell secrets. As such, having a vast system of secrecy increases our vulnerability. The challenge is comparable to the classic problem of having enough cooks, but not so many that the soup is spoiled.

A fourth concern is based on the classic problem of the ivory tower in academics. This problem is the tendency of professors and other academics to become insular and isolated within the confines of the academy. In the case of the intelligence community, the same sort of effect can easily occur. For example, professionals in the filed can easily fall into a closed circle of interaction that nicely replicates the closed circles of the academy. The top secret community also is well hidden from the public eye, thus making it even easier for people to become isolated in the shadowy caves. This can lead to a serious disconnection from the actual world and lead to serious problems.

A fifth concern is that these dwellers in the shadowy caves can become arrogant and develop a sense that they are privileged. As was shown in the Blackwater incidents, this can lead to rather serious problems. History shows, unfortunately, that Socrates was right-those who are able to act without criticism will tend to act badly. There are, obviously enough, few better ways to avoid criticism than being able to hide behind the shield of top secrecy.

This is not to say that there is not a place for private contractors in the intelligence business. However, it seems that there is a need to reign in the ever expanding shadows of secrecy-hopefully before some sort of disaster arises.

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  2. magus71 said, on July 25, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    The number of Top Secret clearances given is slightly deceptive. Not all people with top Sectret Clearance levels have access to all levels of information. There are caveats with TS and the individual must have a “need to know”.

    From what I’ve seen working in the Army intel field, the military uses civilian contractors for a couple of reasons:

    1) The civilians have proven resumes. An 18 year old can recruit into the Army as an intelligence analyst. He probably won’t be any good unless he’s especially talented. The Army only has a 25% retention rate after the first enlistment term, thus mitigating its ability to devolop good analysts. The military can hire a civilian and know what they’re getting, based on a resume. With soldiers, it’s a crapshoot.

    2) Much of the federal government and especially the military works as an archaic hiarchy structure, where as many other successful organizations now work as networks. The Army is fearful of giving more power to people at the bottom, and las with children, you get what you require of them (the bottom). Civilians work outside the military structure and are more trusted than soldiers in some respects, even in the military.

    There are several negatives:

    1) Civilians can quit. In the middle of a war that’s bad.

    2) Civilians may not have the ability to work in combat areas.

    3) Civilians cost a lot. In the technical fields this seems to be fine. Civilians in today’s world are the best in the computer and communications fields, but the cost to effect ratio is bad when it comes to actual combat arms jobs. Blackwater doesn’t seem as a good a deal as a civilian computer guy.

    I think you’re going to far with the shadow government thing. Mostly, these agencies don’t talk with each other or share enough info to maximize potential. That’s why the government, as it always does, just keeps adding more. What it really needs to do is elliminate agencies with redundant jobs, like DIA. In addition, the government is bedazzled with hi-tech, when in reality , most good intel comes from human sources, which is massively underfunded in the CIA and military.

    I’ll go with Harlan’s Razor again: Never attribute to evil what can be attributed to incompetance.

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