Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Post Goes for Its Pulitzer

The Washington Post has anted up for a 2011 Pulitzer Prize with a sprawling, days-long series titled "Top Secret America." Its stories, written primarily by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, attempt to describe the size and scale of the American intelligence community, taking as a starting point the 854,000 or so people who hold top-secret clearances.

The series documents how the U.S. intelligence community's explosive post-9/11 growth has created waste and redundancy, and may now lie beyond any single person's ability to grasp. The series has started out well, focusing on the government's role Monday and contractors' role today, and while I don't know much about Arkin, I'll read anything Dana Priest writes the moment I come across it.

But the Post stories also describe how the sheer size of the national-security community causes it to have some banal, clock-punching characteristics, as in these grafs from Monday's article:
In Elkridge, Md., a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building. In Arnold, Mo., the location is across the street from a Target and a Home Depot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., it's in a modest brick bungalow in a run-down business park.


In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.
While the Hollywood idea of intelligence agencies as tightly knit teams of supersleuths and assassins has particles of truth, the reality is that the agencies also contain huge numbers of workaday cube dwellers who look forward to each Thursday, when the cafeteria within their heavily secured installation serves that delicious carrot cake.*

* Ongoing thanks to Jack Boulware for lodging this enduring image of quiet desperation in my mind.

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