The system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

Share story

First of three parts

The top-secret world the government created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks is 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 or how many agencies do the same work.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation’s other findings:

• Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in some 10,000 U.S. locations.

• An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.

• In the Washington, D.C., area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.

• Many 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 reports each year; many are routinely ignored.

These issues greatly concern 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 DNI (Director of National Intelligence), but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense — is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

In the Defense Department, where more than two-thirds of intelligence programs reside, a handful of senior officials — called Super Users — even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated, 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 his initial briefing: Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled “Stop!”

Asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department’s most sensitive programs, retired Army Lt. Gen. John Vines said, “I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities.”

The result, he added, is that it’s impossible to tell whether the country is safer.

Gates said he does not believe the system has become too big to manage but that getting precise data is sometimes difficult. He said he intends to review intelligence units in the Defense Department for waste.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said he’s begun mapping a five-year plan for his agency because the spending since 9/11 is not sustainable. “Particularly with these deficits, we’re going to hit the wall. I want to be prepared for that,” he said.

Before resigning as director of national intelligence in May, retired Adm. Dennis 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,” said Blair, who expressed confidence that subordinates told him what he needed to know.

854,000 on a mission

Every day, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls.

Much information about this mission is classified. That is one reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion — 2 ½ times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. That 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 after 9/11. Many that existed before grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they could spend responsibly.

Nine days after the attacks, Congress committed $40 billion beyond what was in the federal budget. It followed that up with an additional $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. That was only a beginning.

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.

With so many more employees, units and organizations, lines of responsibility began to blur. To remedy this, at the recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, the Bush administration and Congress in 2004 created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to bring the colossal effort under control.

A couple of problems

The first problem: The law passed 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 Negroponte, was on the job, turf battles began. The Defense Department shifted billions of dollars out of one budget and into another so the ODNI could not touch it, according to two senior officials. The CIA reclassified some of its most sensitive information so the National Counterterrorism Center staff, part of the ODNI, would not be allowed to see it, former intelligence officers said.

Many intelligence officials say they remain unclear about what the ODNI is in charge of.

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 databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency.

The explanation for why these databases aren’t connected: It’s too hard, and some agency heads don’t want to give up their systems.

Clusters of top-secret work exist across the country, but about half of the post-9/11 enterprise is anchored in the Washington region. Many buildings sit within off-limits compounds or military bases. Others occupy business parks or are intermingled with neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers and go unnoticed by most people.

It’s not only the number of buildings that suggests the size and cost, it’s also what is inside: banks of television monitors. “Escort-required” badges. X-ray machines and lockers to store cellphones and pagers. Keypad door locks that open special rooms encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force. All these buildings have at least one of these rooms, known as a SCIF, for sensitive compartmented information facility.

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.

Among the most important people inside the SCIFs are the low-paid employees. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year.

The work is enhanced by computers. But analysis requires human judgment, and half the analysts are relatively inexperienced, a senior ODNI official said.

When hired, a typical analyst knows 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.

The problem, say officers who read these reports, is they simply re-slice the facts already in circulation.

The ODNI’s analysis office knows this is a problem. Yet its solution was another publication, a daily online newspaper, Intelligence Today.

Analysis is not the only area where serious overlap appears to be gumming up the national-security machinery.

Within the Defense Department alone, 18 commands and agencies conduct the most sensitive information operations, which aspire to manage foreign audiences’ perceptions of U.S. policy and military activities.

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.

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, and those have thousands of sub-programs with limits on the people authorized to know about them.

“There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs — that’s God,” said James Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence.

Near disaster in Detroit

A recent example shows the post-9/11 system at its best and its worst.

Last fall, word emerged that something was seriously amiss inside Yemen. President Obama signed an order sending dozens of commandos to target and kill leaders of an al-Qaida affiliate.

In Yemen, the commandos exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the U.S.

But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center for analysis, it was 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 it.

As chatter about a possible terrorist strike increased, 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.

But nobody put the clues together because, as officials would testify, the lines of responsibility had become hopelessly blurred.

And so a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to step aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam. As it neared Detroit, he allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear. The very expensive, very large 9/11 enterprise didn’t prevent disaster. It was a passenger who tackled him.

Blair’s solution: Create another team, more money and more analysts.

Washington Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.