Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

By Dana Priest and Wil­liam Arkin; Reviewed by Mayer Nudell, CSC

*****Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. By Dana Priest and Wil­liam Arkin. Little, Brown and Company, 320 pages; $27.99.

Ten-plus years after the 9-11 attacks, 3,984 federal, state, and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions, collect, store, and analyze a vast and growing quantity of information in an effort to prevent acts of terrorism in the United States. How well this is being done is the focus of Top Secret America, by Washington Post journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin. The answer, they write, is murky and unsettling.

The authors spent two-and-a-half years attempting to document the top secret component of the govern­ment agencies dealing with counterterrorism and the private sector contractors supporting this effort (and on whom the government has become increasingly dependent). Less-classified efforts, they write, are “simply too large to accurately track.” After several hundred interviews, they pieced together a picture of well-intentioned, but inconsistent—and often wastefully ineffective—results that increasingly emphasize potential security over documentable reductions in privacy and civil liberties. Much of this is hidden by the secrecy surrounding counterterrorist activities, but senior government officials are quoted acknowledging that vast sums are spent on creating databases and developing and deploying technology that often adds little if anything of identifiable value to our security.

The authors acknowledge their concerns over the dubious balance emerging between security and civil liberties. Yet, before concluding that bias may have influenced their judgments, we should all recall previous examples of government and law enforcement abusing power in the name of national security. The infamous COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) conducted by the FBI during the 1960s and 1970s is but one example. And it pales in comparison to Patriot Act-era efforts and technology.

Top Secret America is well-written and documented. Its compelling and important message echoes Benjamin Franklin’s concerns. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Reviewer: Mayer Nudell, CSC, is an independent consultant on crisis management, contingency planning, and related issues. He is also an adjunct professor at Webster University.



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