The top-secret world the United States government created in response to the Al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large 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.
And it is impossible to determine whether it is actually keeping the country safer, according to a two-year-long investigation by the Washington Post.
What is certain is this: an alternative geography of the United States now exists. It is a powerful Top Secret America hidden from public view but responsible for carrying out the nation's most sensitive work. Among our other findings:
* An estimated 854,000 people, near- ly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, DC, hold top-secret security clearances.
* 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 US.
* 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 US 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 US 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.
"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 Washington Post last week.
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."
This parallel universe is also a wealthy one. While communities across the US face record foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment rates, the men and women of Top Secret America are steadily employed. They bring home lavish paychecks and their children attend some of the finest public schools in the nation.
In fact, six of the ten richest counties in the US, according to Census Bureau data, are also counties where top secret government work is clustered and they encircle the nation's capital.
Loudoun County, Virginia, ranked as the wealthiest county in the country, helps supply the workforce of the nearby National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) headquarters, which manages spy satellites. Fairfax County, Virginia, the second-wealthiest, is home to the NRO, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Arlington County, Va., ranked ninth, hosts the Pentagon and major intelligence agencies. Montgomery County, Maryland ranked tenth, is home to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. And Howard County, Maryland, ranked third, is home to 8,000 National Security Agency employees.
One major reason for this concentration of wealth is that Top Secret America is heavily dependent on contractors who are employed by most huge, private corporations and live near where they work.
The Washington Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. They do what federal employees used to do, and there is no better example of this than at the CIA.
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, Va. headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency's training facility in Virginia, they are helping mold a new generation of American spies.
"For too long, we've depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done by CIA employees," said CIA director Leon Panetta in an interview.
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.
Making it more difficult to replace contractors with federal employees: The government doesn't know how many are on the federal payroll. Defense Secretary Robert 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.
Of the 1,931 companies identified by The Washington Post that work on top-secret contracts, about 110 of them do roughly 90 percent of the work on the corporate side of the defense-intelligence world.
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.
The US intelligence budget, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, is 2 1/2 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.
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. 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.
These people live and work in the clusters of Top Secret America where 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.
Inside these heavily guarded work places 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 and a comfortable spot within the growing world that is Top Secret America.
Dana Priest is a reporter for the Washington Post. This summary is from the Post’s multi-media investigation "Top
Secret America," which she headed with William M. Arkin.