Saturday, July 24, 2010

Secrecy and Incompetence

A few quick thoughts on the excellent series "Top Secret America" that Dana Priest and William Arkin produced for the Washington Post:
Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
Secrecy is the perfect cloak for incompentence. If nobody knows what you are supposed to be doing, nobody can fault you for not doing it well. If you want to go after waste and fraud in the government, this is certainly the place to look. But how could you, when everything is secret?

Is all this new spending doing us any good? I doubt it. The basic principle of secrecy is compartmentalization. There are probably only three or four people in the government who have access to the work being done in all these organizations, and those people are all too busy to pay attention. The reason we didn't discover and stop the 9-11 plot was that various government agencies did not work together or share information. The bigger we make the intelligence apparatus, and the more of it gets done in secret, the worse that problem gets.

Secrecy is like toughness; it is hard to argue against it without looking like a leftist wimp. "You mean we should just share all of our secrets with al Qaeda?" But in itself, secrecy is not useful, and even when it is, it breeds a wide range of habits that are bad for thinking and make it much harder to get anything done.

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