This article first appeared in the January 26th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Norwood Long
Special To The Standard
POMFRET — In “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” (Hachette, 2011) Dana Priest and Pomfret resident William Arkin say, “By 2010, in the middle of the longest recession ever, the budget for intelligence had become 250 percent larger than it was on September 10, 2001, without anyone in government seriously trying to figure out where the overlaps and waste were.” They describe a world in which 20 to 40 new organizations are added each year, adding up today to over 1,000 organizations in 17,000 locations, supported by — and sometimes dominated by — 2,000 private companies. Further, it is a world in which the major government agencies — the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Defense Intelligence Agency—vie for turf and budget, becoming competitors as often as they do collaborators. The effect of such large and rapid growth has been organizations staffed with inexperienced people—two thirds of the people at the CIA have less than five years experience — writing 50,000 intelligence reports a year, many of which are rehashes of each other.
By 2011, “Top Secret America,” had become inert under its own weight,” so that the team that killed Osama Bin Laden had to come, not from mainstream Top Secret America, but from a small intense organization—the “Joint Special Operations Command” — created by General William McChrystal and cutting across bureaucratic lines. And despite billions of dollars — arguably a factor in creating the present recession—and 1,000 organizations, the U.S. intelligence community completely missed the most important recent event in the middle east: the emergence of the Arab Spring.
Bill Arkin, a native New Yorker and former Washingtonian, has lived across from the Teago Store in South Pomfret since the mid 1990s. He got his first training and his taste for military intelligence as an 18-year-old army intelligence officer in 1975. After he left the army he worked for policy and study institutes in Washington DC. His field has always been military structure and decision making, and he literally wrote the book on sources of information about the military: his first book, “Research Guide to Current Military and Strategic Affairs,” was written in 1981 while he was at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. He describes meeting army generals who say, “I studied your book when I was a major.” He says living in South Pomfret is essential to maintaining a sense of distance from the all-absorbing government culture within the Beltway.
Not that he doesn’t leave Pomfret from time to time. “Top Secret America” describes a visit he made to the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Qatar, a nerve center for piloted aircraft and drones. He describes the fascination of the grainy black and white pictures sent back by a killer drone, and the elaborate approval process needed to carry out a kill—although in the case Arkin watched, despite an attack by a multi-missle “Gatling gun,” the target walked away unharmed.
I asked Bill Arkin his views on the many wars being fought, given the ubiquity of technologies like killer drones. In his view two of the traditional philosophical pillars of war handed down from Roman times (proportionality—force proportional to the circumstances; and discrimination—avoid civilian harm) are being strained if not fractured by the present conflicts. He is particularly concerned with the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen, despite legal and historical precedents guaranteeing every citizen the right to a trial.
I also asked Arkin about the response to the book. Predictably, reviews from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, where he has been a columnist for many years, have been very positive. Somewhat more surprisingly, the book has not been criticized by the mainstream conservative press and commentators, which Arkin suspects is because there is a widespread growing distrust and unease with a convoluted and bloated bureaucracy in Washington. He believes that both the conservative Tea Party movement and the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement represent factions that are fed up with Washington.
Bill Arkin will be speaking about his book at the Abbott Memorieal Library on Thursday Feb. 16 at 7 pm.