Top Secret America: 2-year investigation by Washington Post into huge, post-9/11 security buildup

The Washington Post today unveiled a two-year investigative journalism project, "Top Secret America."

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.

Top Secret America project home. Story archive here, and interactive map here. More about the project here.


  1. Nice to see the unwieldy problems that plagued U.S. intelligence prior to 9/11 have been… oh wait…

  2. I guess that’s it for the Washington Post. DHS will probably shut them down now for allowing this vital information to fall into terrorist hands.

  3. I am of the longstanding opinion that the US keeps what are essentially loyalty scores on each American, similar to credit ratings. To a greater or lesser extent quantifying the ability to raise or lower the influence, economic, and political power of certain networks and individuals. Of course, this has always been done on an informal basis, using awkward mechanisms like race, religion, or social standing. But now it makes compiling this data on an unprecedented scale much more convenient. Now, before a group of laborers can even form a union, you can simply deny them employment in the first place thus making subverting said union a moot point.

  4. The worry is that contractors will have a divided loyalty because they work for a private company. This is less of a problem that it might seem; because for the most part, the companies don’t treat their employees in a way that woulnd engender any real loyalty.

    1. The worry is that contractors will have a divided loyalty because they work for a private company. This is less of a problem that it might seem; because for the most part, the companies don’t treat their employees in a way that woulnd engender any real loyalty.

      No, the worry is not that the contractors will have divided loyalty, it is that the companies the contractors work for will have divided loyalty. There is a difference. Regardless of the individual contract workers’ loyalties, they are putting sensitive government information into the hands of private entities beholden to shareholders. If the shareholders put profits before patriotism (or aren’t even American to begin with), that is a problem.

  5. If there were no terrorists, the Deep State would have to invent them. If they haven’t.

  6. My family has lived in DC for decades. My son just graduated with a BS in computer science, and I’m a career systems integrator. My wife read two paragraphs of this article in the Post yesterday morning and said, “You boys should be sending your resumes to these companies. There must be tons of jobs.”

    Let’s see. We’re natural born US citizens, we have technical degrees, and we can pass the pee-in-a-cup test. I think she’s right.

    But would I be able to read liberal blogs like BB at work anymore? Decisions, decisions…

    1. “But would I be able to read liberal blogs like BB at work anymore? Decisions, decisions…”

      Well, probably not, but only because classified networks aren’t connected to the rest of the world. On unclass networks, most places will block porn but not politics.

  7. “…we can pass the pee-in-a-cup test…”

    In an allegedly free country should it be necessary to be able to pass the pee in the cup test? Shouldn’t your technical degree and reasonable GPA be more than sufficient?

  8. Considering that this is only what the reporters could uncover and reveal, it’s safe to assume we’re looking at perhaps half of what’s out there.

    And the WTC was brought down by fewer guys than were in your High School home room, armed with nothing more than box-cutters and a willingness to die.

  9. So much for that small government thingy a certain political party chatters about all the time.

    1. Don’t worry, it’s only “big gummint” if a democrat does it, or if there is a risk that one of them negroid welfare queens that Saint Reagan warned us about might get a slice.

      These are just patriotic corporations, attracted by the chance to do well by doing good.


  10. See that circle in northern Alabama that’s a little bigger than the ones around it? That’s Huntsville– my hometown. Rocket City– full of people paranoid about the massive government presence there, or working for it.

  11. that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

    I’m still trying to identify the goal, nevermind the correct metric to measure it.

  12. The terrorists won, HUGE. These agencies and contractors are carrying out the terrorist’s mandate to the letter by fundamentally altering the once-victimized society.

    How can anyone involved in these activities ignore that fact? Oh, right: they’re getting paid.

    Damn every war-hawking, fearmongering opportunist to HELL.

    1. @ Maggie: I’ve something to confess, too. I’ve been suspecting you since you were here.

  13. Maybe I’m missing something. I clicked on the map and it said there was something in my town but even zoomed in it wouldn’t tell me what it was. Then I did a search but it kept saying there was nothing in my town. So now I’m really curious what it is that is here but can’t figure out how to find out what it is.

  14. I work for one of the companies on the list. If you’re a nerd, you’ve probably heard of us. Since I’m not authorized to speak to the media on behalf of my employer, I’m going to be anonymous here, but there’s nothing in the least bit spooky about my job, and I doubt there’s anything really spooky about my employer. There are large numbers of big-name tech companies on the list: IBM, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Motorola, AT&T, Verizon, Xerox. Perhaps they all have spook divisions, but I think it’s equally plausible that this report is including every company with which security agencies have a contractual relationship, even if that’s no different than the relationships those companies have with myriad non-spooky public and private sector customers. I searched for tech companies that one would expect to have some relationship with any government agency, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this list includes smaller companies: HVAC contractors, landscapers, etc. Looking up the data for my employer, I found one rather egregious error, which makes me even more skeptical of this report.

    1. “I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this list includes smaller companies: HVAC contractors, landscapers, etc.”

      The list on covers those with Top Secret clearance and above. Secret and below were not included becasue the shear volume is overwhelming

  15. I doubt that there is much spying done on americans… among other things, america and europe are so unusual in that they require so much information by default that if there are any patterns of behavior that you have that could indicate you as being a threat or not, they already have them. If anything, it seems more likely that these contractors exist based on the possibility that they can do something moderately useful, and- especially in the area surrounding DC- I’d bet money that a large number of them are small startups trying, hoping, wishing for a contract to go build a miracle bomb or a robot helicopter of doom with machineguns and whatever. these guys will show up on this map, and they are usually one-to-three man operations who haven’t done anything worth noticing (although, if you find robot helicopters of doom, let me know). DC is the militant version of silicon valley or redmond.

  16. Following 9/11 Bush II set into motion counter-surveillance networks, that allowed NSA illegal wiretaps and surveillance of Americans private emails—allegedly to prevent terrorists attacking America. Subsequently U.S. Government counter-surveillance networks have become huge, supported by thousands of government employees and private contractors, many duplicating work. There are now tens of thousands of U.S. Government counter-surveillance agents, employees and private contractors monitoring U.S. Citizens private records and communications with no Congress or U.S. Citizens’ oversight. It is probable spies have already infiltrated private contractor industries stealing or buying vast amounts of intelligence information.
    What this report does not mention, in the U.S., government-private contractors and their operatives work so close with police exchanging information to arrest Americans and or share in the forfeiture of their assets, they appear to have merged with police. Similarly in 1933 after the German Parliament building was set afire, Hitler used the fire as vehicle to use taxpayer money to expand his private police, the Gestapo and increasing merged it with German national security. Even before the Gestapo was consolidated with the German Government, the Gestapo arrested Citizens and confiscated private property with no legal authority.” However U.S. Government has already granted that power to private contractors. In 1939 all German Police agencies including the Gestapo were put under the control of the “Reich Main Security Office” the equivalent of U.S. Homeland Security.
    Can History repeat itself? It is foreseeable that should there be a radical change in U.S. Government, many of the current government private contractors would continue working for e.g. a fascist U.S. Government; communist or other despot government against the interests of Americans. Consider the German police first work for a democracy; then under Hitler worked for the Nazi Fascists; then worked for the Soviet Union running the East German Police (Stasi) believed to be the world most oppressive police force until the German Wall came down.

    Now consider the power Congress, perhaps negligently has given police and Black Box counter-surveillance entities; including private contractors to spy on U.S. Citizens. Under Bush II NSA illegally wiretapped your phone, fax and private email communications: Now NSA will monitor your Internet. In 2008 Telecoms were granted government immunity after they helped U.S. Government spy on millions of Americans’ electronic communications. Since, Government has not disclosed what happened to NSA’s millions of collected emails, faxes and phone call information that belong to U.S. Citizens? Could those wiretaps perhaps illegal, become a problem for some Americans? Neither Congress nor the courts—determined what NSA electronic surveillance could be used by police or introduced into court by the government to prosecute Citizens.

    In 2004, former Attorney General John Ashcroft asked government prosecutors to review thousands of old intelligence files including wiretaps to retrieve information prosecutors could use in “ordinary” criminal prosecutions. That was shortly after a court case lowered a barrier that prior, blocked prosecutors from using illegal-wire tap evidence in Justice Dept. “Intelligence Files” to prosecute ordinary crimes. It would appear this information, may also be used by government to prosecute civil asset forfeitures.

    Considering that court case, it appears NSA can share its electronic-domestic-spying with government contractors and private individuals that have security clearances to facilitate the arrest and forfeiture of Americans’ property—-to keep part of the bounty. Police too easily can take an innocent person’s hastily written email, fax, phone call or web post out of context to allege a crime or violation was committed to cause an arrest or asset forfeiture.

    There are over 200 U.S. laws and violations mentioned in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 and the Patriot Act that can subject property to civil asset forfeiture. Under federal civil forfeiture laws, a person or business need not be charged with a crime for government to forfeit their property. Again, in the U.S., private contractors and their operatives work so close with police exchanging information to arrest Americans and or share in the forfeiture of their assets, they appear to merge with police.

    Rep. Henry Hyde’s bill HR 1658 passed, the “Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000” and effectively eliminated the “statue of limitations” for Government Civil Asset Forfeiture. The statute now runs five years from when police allege they “learned” that an asset became subject to forfeiture. With such a weak statute of limitations and the low standard of civil proof needed for government to forfeit property “A preponderance of Evidence”, it is problematic law enforcement and private government contractors will want access to NSA and other government wiretaps perhaps illegal and Citizens’ private information U.S. Government agencies glean monitoring the Internet, to arrest Americans and to seize their homes, inheritances and businesses under Title 18USC and other laws. Of obvious concern, what happens to fair justice in America if police and government contractors become dependent on “Asset Forfeiture” to pay their salaries and operating costs?

    Under the USA Patriot Act, witnesses including government contractors can be kept hidden while being paid part of the assets they cause to be forfeited. The Patriot Act specifically mentions using Title 18USC asset forfeiture laws: those laws include a provision in Rep. Henry Hyde’s 2000 bill HR 1658—for “retroactive civil asset forfeiture” of “assets already subject to government forfeiture”, meaning “property already tainted by crime” provided “the property” was already part of or “later connected” to a criminal investigation in progress” when HR.1658 passed. That can apply to more than two hundred federal laws and violations Government can forfeit property—requiring only “A Preponderance of Civil Evidence” little more than hearsay.

  17. This is why professional journalism needs to survive in some form. How many blogs have the resources to keep a nationwide team of investigative journalists on a story like this for two years?

  18. “I doubt that there is much spying done on americans.”

    Of course.

    That’s why Congress (and Sen. Obama) voted for retroactive immunity for telecoms caught secretly spying on Americans.

  19. Only complete idiots ever believed this was about safety. It was ALWAYS about the money.

  20. This looks to me like a fairly clear-cut extension of the military-industrial complex from manufacturing to services. And why not? Why wouldn’t the amalgamation of government and industry be able to crunch data just as effectively as it designs / builds fighter jets and missiles?

    Of course, what this means is that there are now thousands of companies and potentially millions of employees (the article mentions that even getting a headcount is nearly impossible) with a stake in perpetuating the enormous homeland security apparatus. You can let go of any dreams you might have had of getting rid of it under some subsequent presidential administration.

    This thing has the inertia of a freight train, and it will keep inventing ways to make itself more money at the expense of freedom: yours or that of people on some distant corner of the globe.

  21. “a Top Secret America created since 9/11”

    Not hardly. Some of the companies in that list have (under one name or another) been around for over a century. Others are subsidiaries of the oldsters. While many others have been around since Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex.

    “that is hidden from public view”

    That part is distinctly true. Most of these companies have public faces and private faces. Want to find some interesting org’s that go way back, wiki-Google “Institute”s and “Lab”s. And then there are the companies that the gubbiment owns. (Not just pwns) This is not new stuff kids.

  22. This is highly misleading. The story is about new intelligence and counterterrorism organizations created since 9/11; but the map that accompanies the story clearly depicts every work location in the country that does any sort of work on behalf of the federal government that would require a “Top Secret” security clearance. (This is quite clear when you read the methodology section of the article.) This includes organizations that existed long before 9/11, most of which have nothing to do with intelligence or counterterrorism.

    The map includes every military base and defense contractor in the country. It also includes every federal law enforcement field office (FBI, ATF, DEA, etc.), which are located in just about every large and mid-size city in the U.S. It also includes a number of other federal agencies that have offices at various locations around the country and that do work that requires “Top Secret” security clearances. Most of this work isn’t even remotely related to intelligence or counterterrorism. So, to use this map as the centerpiece of a story about shadowy new spy operations created after 9/11 is extremely deceptive. My respect for the journalistic integrity of The Washington Post has just taken a huge hit.

  23. One overlooked aspect to contractors is that many identify with the client, the government in this case, rather than their employer. Having been one for years, contracting companies are often seen as the paycheck source only. Thus, work is effectively being done by federal staff.

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