Behind the U.S.'s security buildup

Dana Priest of the Washington Post.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: You've probably stood in those security lines at the airport and wondered to yourself whether it all works. Whether we're safer for the billions that we've spent on national security and intelligence gathering since Sept. 11. Truth is that we don't know. That's the gist of a new series in the Washington Post today, "Top Secret America" it's called.

The Post's investigative reporter Dana Priest helped write it. Good to have you with us.

Dana Priest: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: Before we get too far into this, give us the thumbnail sketch of how big the intelligence industrial complex in this country is.

Priest: We've counted about 1,900 corporations that work at the top secret level. And about 1,300 separate government organizations that do work at the top secret level. We've found that these operate in about 10,000 locations across the United States and that over 150,000 people -- government and contractors -- have top secret clearances to do this work.

Ryssdal: And this has largely happened since Sept. 11. I mean, we've had intelligence in this country for a while, but Sept. 11 is the real starting point?

Priest: Well, the growth of it really started after Sept. 11 when Congress and the administration wanted, perhaps understandably, to pour more money into this, to increase the capability in response to the attacks. The problem was the money flow didn't stop, and the coordination didn't get better, so the people inside of the system don't know how many people work in it, how many agencies are doing the same thing and really they can't even tell whether it is keeping us safer, because it's just become so complex.

Ryssdal: Let's talk about the money for a second. You say in this first piece today that the intelligence budget in this country publicly announced is about $75 billion, plus or minus. But we really don't know what's not in there.

Priest: Well, we know there are a lot of military programs that aren't in there. And so the budget is bigger that $75 billion. And the $75 billion is two and a half times bigger than it was on 9/11. We know that some agencies -- like the National Security Agency, which does all the eavesdropping and intercepting of communications -- has grown twice as big. So we have indicators all over of how big it has grown, but the actual number is classified -- if they actually had the actual number.

Ryssdal: Do we have any sense of how much this intelligence boon has meant to the companies who are contracting with the government? How much money they're making?

Priest: You can see in general that the contractor ranks has swelled and new companies are born everyday. And those companies are gobbled up once they start making a lot of money, and the large companies are only getting bigger. It's almost a recession-proof industry. Actually, it is a recession-proof industry at the moment. It has a low unemployment rate. They are always seeking workers, and they aren't laying off at all in the way that other sectors are.

Ryssdal: But you had a conversation with Leon Panetta, the director of Central Intelligence, in which he basically said, "Listen, I'm making plans on how to change the CIA, because our current budgeting and spending on this kind of thing is not sustainable." Are you seeing that amongst other insiders inside the intelligence agencies?

Priest: Well, if you think the defense secretary, Robert Gates, is an insider, I'd say yes, because he said the same thing. He said, we have to be prepared to cut back. He says the only way we can really do that reasonably is to have an intelligent conversation about risks and risk assessment, what do we really need to spend money on, and is it wise everytime there is an incident or a mistake to pile on more money and have that be the main solution to things that don't go right? Because more is not always bigger, but more is always the answer right now.

Ryssdal: Dana Priest, she is an investigative reporter with the Washington Post. Her series, "Top Secret America" and a whiz bang accompanying web element as well launched today. Dana, thanks a lot.

Priest: Thank you for having me.

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