Top Secret America | Dana Priest

Summary of: Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State
By: Dana Priest


Step into a world where secrecy, power, and control reign supreme. ‘Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State’ by Dana Priest unveils a hidden side of the United States government, where agencies like the NSA and JSOC have grown immensely without accountability, leading to erosions of personal rights and weakening democracy. This book summary delves into the rapid expansion of this security state post-9/11, its impacts on ordinary citizens, and the questionable effectiveness of the measures taken. Discover how privatization of security services has influenced the economy, the challenges that come with managing massive amounts of secret information, and potential solutions that can make a difference.

Unraveling the Mystery of Top Secret America

Americans are beginning to question the power and actions of their politicians and civil servants due to increasing government activities taking place in secret. In their book, the authors reveal how secret agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have grown immensely in recent years, and how this has resulted in a severe lack of accountability and visibility in government. These agencies are allowed to do whatever they please, and many of their documents are classified as top secret, making them inaccessible to outsiders. Even those who can access them find it hard to make sense of them due to restrictions on note-taking and consulting experts. The authors emphasize how this lack of supervision has had serious consequences and call for the need to unravel the mystery of Top Secret America.

The Erosion of Rights Post 9/11

Following 9/11, the authorities’ expanded their power, blurring the line between criminal cases and intelligence investigations. This led to the erosion of suspects’ rights and the growth of a surveillance culture. Laws were stripped or abandoned, and ordinary people entered the surveillance lists of the FBI and other agencies. Crimes were seen as having potential links to terrorism, leading to innocent people being suspected terrorists. The fear of missing potential threats led to authorities associating regular crimes with terrorism. As a result, regular crimes in the capitol region were investigated by the FBI instead of the police.

The Culture of Surveillance

The government resorts to using modern technology to monitor citizens for potential danger since security agencies depend on public vigilance. The citizens’ awareness keeps authorities informed about the possibility of danger, encouraging the use of sophisticated technologies such as license plate readers and secret cameras, among others. The government plays up the danger through media reports on terrorism, posters, and press conferences, reinforcing ubiquitous surveillance. With the introduction of technology for warfare into the public sphere, authorities resorted to biometric identification such as iris scanners or body-heat detectors. Although applied initially to locate and eliminate terrorists, this technology is used on regular citizens. The surveillance culture involves the integration of various sets of data, and police officers feed all their data into a coordinating office called Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), available in real-time, so analysts use it to determine areas that need more police coverage and redistribute the police throughout the city.

The Privatization of National Security

The expansion of government surveillance has led to the growth of Top Secret America, a sector that has provided many lucrative job opportunities. To work in this sector, an individual requires top secret security clearance, which offers good pay and job security, even in tough economic times. Private agencies also benefit from clearances, making it profitable to obtain them. The privatization of security services became very profitable after 9/11, leading to the government outsourcing jobs to private firms. While this has provided new opportunities for private companies, it does come with consequences. The government hoped that outsourcing would save money, but it turns out that it costs more. A study conducted in 2008 indicates that contractors made up 28% of the intelligence agency workforce, but cost equivalent to 49% of their personnel budgets. The book highlights how the privatization of national security has created a new economy but also exposes some of its negative impacts.

The Paradox of Modern Intelligence Gathering

The book explains how humans remain crucial to the security system despite the myth of complete computer involvement. The role of personnel in the security agency has to be limited since every human acts as a security risk. However, this dependence on humans makes the system inefficient, creating a lack of oversight and excessive monitoring. The book highlights how the rapid expansion of Top Secret America, including inexperienced staff, complicates the issue. Employees have to give up their private lives as they are monitored to prevent abuse of the system. The authors discuss how the paradox of human dependency is both the strength and weakness of Top Secret America, and it exposes its Achilles’ heel.

America’s Disorganized Intelligence Agencies

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States government invested heavily in intelligence and security agencies. However, despite pouring immense resources into these agencies, there was a lack of coordination and a proliferation of redundancy and wasted resources. Agencies feared leaks and were hesitant to share information, rendering meetings unproductive. The post of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was created to address the issues arising from this disorganization; however, the DNI has limited power to make the various agencies act in a coordinated manner. In summary, Top Secret America remains plagued by a lack of unity that impairs its intelligence-gathering efforts and makes the coordinated response to threats difficult.

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