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Veiled empire that secures a superpower

In the winter, leafless trees can't conceal Liberty Crossing, a mountain of cement and windows the size of five warehouses stacked on top of one another, inside a gate part of suburban McLean, Virginia. But step too close without the right badge and armed men in black jump out of nowhere.

world Updated: Jul 20, 2010 00:30 IST

In the winter, leafless trees can't conceal Liberty Crossing, a mountain of cement and windows the size of five warehouses stacked on top of one another, inside a gate part of suburban McLean, Virginia. But step too close without the right badge and armed men in black jump out of nowhere.

Past the hydraulic steel barriers, at least 1,700 federal employees and 1,200 private contractors work at Liberty Crossing, the nickname for the two headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and its National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

Liberty Crossing is at the center of the secretive US government agencies and corporate contractors that mushroomed after 9/11. They now dot the country, in the strangest of places. In an Arlington office building, the lobby directory doesn't include the Air Force's mysterious XOIWS unit. In Elkridge, Maryland, a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building.

Every day across the US, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

This is not a "military-industrial complex". It is a national security enterprise. But other than broadly defeating Al Qaeda, its mission is largely classified which is one reason it is so difficult to gauge the success of Top Secret America. The US intelligence budget last year was $75 billion — 2 1/2 times the size it was before 9/11. But this doesn't include many military or domestic counterterrorism programmes. 20 per cent of the government organisations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11.

Many older ones grew to historic proportions as Washington gave them more money than they were capable of responsibly spending.

The Defence Intelligence Agency has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106.

Twenty-four new military and intelligence organisations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security. Till date, at least 263 organisations have been created or reorganised as a response to 9/11.

The Bush administration created the ODNI in 2004 to bring this colossal effort under control. The first problem was that the law passed by Congress failed to give the director clear authority over the individual agencies.

Second were the turf battles. The Pentagon shifted billions of dollars out of one budget and into another so the ODNI could not touch it. The CIA reclassified sensitive information at a higher level so the NCTC staff would not be allowed to see it.

Finally, the ODNI itself became unmanageable. In 2005, Negroponte's office was all of 11 people stuffed into a secure vault. A year later, the agency filled two floors. In April 2008, it moved into Liberty Crossing.

Today, many intelligence officials admit they are unclear what the ODNI is in charge of. Whatever reforms have been done in coordination, procurement, network compatibility and tradecraft standards have been overtaken by volume.

An ocean of intelligence overwhelms the ability to analyse it. Every day, the NSA intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those 1.7 billion intercepts into 70 separate databases.

Michael Leiter, NCTC director, spends his day flipping among four monitors on his desk. Six hard drives sit at his feet. Dozens of databases feed separate computer networks that cannot interact with one another. But there's some progress: "All my e-mail on one computer now," Leiter says. "That's a big deal."


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