FRONTLINE recently aired a revealing documentary called "Top Secret America" about the expansion of the US security, defense and intelligence apparatus since the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, with very questionable results. In exchange, Americans have surrendered many of their privacy rights.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11th, 2001, the US government initiated the largest covert action program since the height of the Cold War; some in the CIA say it was the biggest ever. And the entire program has been shrouded in secrecy.
The National Security Agency (NSA) created a global electronic dragnet capable of reaching into America’s communication networks, capturing 1.7 billion intercepts every day. The amount of information coming in from all over the world is overwhelming, so the NSA turned to private contractors to help them wage their covert war.
The NSA spent billions of dollars on more than 480 private companies, including CACI, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman and Boeing. Exactly how much money the NSA was spending in the years after 9/11 is one of the government’s most closely guarded secrets. The agency’s budget, like its work, is a state secret.
Despite the enormous spending on intelligence gathering, there have been repeated and considerable failures.
No WMDs were ever discovered in Iraq. Consequently, the 9/11 commission suggested that the US should have a director of intelligence to make sure that all the different agencies would share their information, be efficient and avoid overlaps.
Soon after, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was established to oversee America’s $80 billion intelligence community.
The DNI headquarters now occupies 500,000 square feet of some of the priciest real estate in the Washington area. It's the size of five Wal-Marts stacked on top of one another.
In 2009, the massive Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began construction of their new $3.4 billion headquarters. It will rival the Pentagon as the largest government complex ever built in Washington. And DHS has continued a nationwide spending spree, sending billions of dollars to state and local police. The DHS funded high-tech terrorism centers around the country. Every state has at least one. There are 74 in total.
Yet, there are questions about its effectiveness.
"You can look, if you’re objective, at all of this money and all of this effort and say, 'What would have happened if we hadn’t done that?”, asks Richard Clarke, White House Terrorism Advisor from 1998-2001. "And in almost every case, nothing would have happened. It’s true that there hasn’t been another attack. It’s not true that all of this expenditure and all these people have stopped it."
The Counterterrorism Center, alone, gets 5,000 pieces of information every day. This means that each day they are looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Despite all of this information and all of the billions spent, US intelligence didn't pick up on the "underwear bomber" that tried to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam at Christmas of 2009. Nor did it discover the Times Square bomber five months later, or the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013.
"We’re all very glad that bin Laden has finally been caught, but it was a handful of people," says Richard Clarke. "It wasn’t this enormous, bloated, tens of thousands of people apparatus that we’ve set up. It was a small, highly-skilled, highly dedicated group of intelligence analysts. That’s who found him. Not all of these contractors, not these giant agencies and giant centers."
There are close to a million people fighting America's shadowy War on Terror. Their numbers rival the active Army.
Looking at over a decade's worth of federal budget material, the National Priorities Project has calculated the total amount the U.S. government has allocated for homeland security since 9/11 at more than $791 billion.
"Every year, three dozen entirely new federal organizations, 1,900 private companies, billions and billions of dollars of waste, 17,000 locations ─ these are gigantic edifices that are going to stay here," says Dana Priest, author of Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. "This world is growing up behind a black wall."
The question is this: has all of this massive spending, all of this snooping and all of this secrecy, made us any safer? And what have we surrendered as a society along the way?
Journalist and columnist Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional and civil rights litigator, makes some very salient points about government secrecy:
The surveillance state destroys the notion of privacy, which is the area in which human creativity and dissent and challenges to orthodoxy all reside. The way things are supposed to work is we're supposed to know everything that the government does with rare exception. That's why they're called the public sector. And they're supposed to know almost nothing about us, which is why we're private individuals — unless there's evidence that we've committed a crime. This has been completely reversed, so that we know almost nothing about what the government does. It operates behind this impenetrable wall of secrecy, while they know everything about what it is we're doing, with whom we're speaking and communicating, what we're reading. And this imbalance, this reversal of transparency and secrecy and the way things are supposed to work, has really altered the relationship between the citizenry and the government in very profound ways...
What history shows is that when governments are able to surveil people in the dark, generally the greatest outcome is that they abuse that power and it becomes tyrannical. If you talk to anybody who came from Eastern Europe, they'll tell you that the reason we left is because society's become deadened and soulless, when citizens have no privacy. And it's a difficult concept to understand, why privacy is so crucial, but people understand it instinctively. They put locks on their bedroom doors, not for security, but for privacy. They put passwords on their email accounts, because people know that only when you can engage in behavior without being watched is that where you can explore, where you can experiment, where you can engage in creative thinking, in creative behavior. A society that loses that privacy is a society that becomes truly conformist. And I think that's the real danger...
Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of government power. If people are able to operate in the dark, it is not likely or probable, but inevitable, that they will abuse their power. It's just human nature. And that's been understood for as long as politics has existed. That transparency is really the only guarantee that we have for checking those who exercise power.