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United States of Security

The ad signs along the street aren't just advertising. They're inviting employees with top-secret security clearances to a job fair at Cafe Joe. The hotel is not just a hotel. It is a place where security businesses can rent eavesdrop-proof rooms.

world Updated: Jul 27, 2010 23:37 IST

The ad signs along the street aren't just advertising. They're inviting employees with top-secret security clearances to a job fair at Cafe Joe. The hotel is not just a hotel. It is a place where security businesses can rent eavesdrop-proof rooms. The manhole cover is not just a manhole cover. It is an access point for a TS/SCI cable, the name derived from the abbreviations for "top secret" and "sensitive compartmented information".

The Fort Meade cluster in Maryland is the capital of an alternative US geography, one defined by the concentration of top-secret government organisations and the companies that do work for them.

Other clusters include Dulles-Chantilly, Virginia; Denver-Aurora, Colorado, and Tampa, Florida. All of them are like military base towns, economically dependent on the federal budget and culturally defined by their unique work.

But the military is not a secret culture. In these clusters, a company lanyard attached to a digital smart card is often the only clue to a job location. Most people don't realise they're near the epicenter of Fort Meade's security cluster — until the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly traps the driver in a series of U-turns because of jammers.

The jamming marks ground zero — the National Security Agency — is close by. The NSA is housed in half-hidden buildings that house an estimated 30,000 people, many of them reading, listening to and analysing an endless flood of intercepted conversations 24/7.

The NSA headquarters sits on the Fort Meade Army base, which hosts 80 government tenants in all. Together, they inject $10 billion into the region's economy every year.

Just beyond the NSA perimeter are the companies that thrive off of the cluster's contracts.

More than 250 companies — 13 per cent of all the firms in Top Secret America — have a presence in the Fort Meade cluster. Inside the locations employees must take lie-detector tests routinely, sign nondisclosure forms and file lengthy reports whenever they travel overseas.

They are coached on how to deal with nosy neighbours and curious friends. Some are trained to assume false identities. If they drink too much, borrow too much or socialise with citizens from certain countries, they can lose their security clearances — and as a consequence even their jobs.

(Concluding part)

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