Top Secret America: An Alien Has Landed?

I just read Part 1 of the Washington Post’s investigative report on “Top Secret America.” Below is my brief digest of Part 1, accompanied by what I regard as the article’s key quotes. The full piece is here.

The Washington Post calls the Fort Meade cluster of buildings, where a lot of National Security Agency (NSA) employees work, “the capital of Top Secret America, a sleepless place growing larger every day.” Top Secret America, as the Washington Post has dubbed America’s post 9-11 intelligence apparatus, consists of “top-secret government organizations and the companies that do work for them.” According to the Post, the Fort Meade cluster: 

. . . is the largest of a dozen such clusters across the United States that are the nerve centers of Top Secret America and its 854,000 workers.


The existence of these clusters is so little known that most people don’t realize when they’re nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade’s, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.

And here’s some of what’s going on behind the elaborate security barriers (if you could broach them):

Beyond all those obstacles loom huge buildings with row after row of opaque, blast-resistant windows, and behind those are an estimated 30,000 people, many of them reading, listening to and analyzing an endless flood of intercepted conversations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And who are these people?:

Chances are they excel at math: To do what it does, the NSA relies on the largest number of mathematicians in the world. It needs linguists and technology experts, as well as cryptologists, known as “crippies.” Many know themselves as ISTJ, which stands for “Introverted with Sensing, Thinking and Judging,” a basket of personality traits identified on the Myers-Briggs personality test and prevalent in the Fort Meade cluster.

The old joke: “How can you tell the extrovert at NSA? He’s the one looking at someone else’s shoes.”

“These are some of the most brilliant people in the world,” said Ken Ulman, executive of Howard County, one of six counties in NSA’s geographic sphere of influence. “They demand good schools and a high quality of life.”

The Washington Post offers this anecdote of the NSA’s growth:

In another part of the [Fort Meade] cluster, Jerome James, one of its residents, is talking about the building that has sprung up just beyond his back yard. “It used to be all farmland, then they just started digging one day,” he says. “I don’t know what they do up there, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t worry about it.”

Despite the secrecy, and the obvious risk such secrecy poses to a functioning democracy, a wife of one of these top-secret workers is quoted as saying this about her husband:

“I really respect him for what’s he’s done. He’s spent his whole life so we can keep our way of living, and he doesn’t get any public recognition.”

One element that jumps out at me about this whole intricate security apparatus is its feeling of alieness. In other words, it feels as if a giant and impersonal UFO has landed in a field and is just sitting there (I suppose that the Pentagon has always been, subconsciously, a UFO as well: Abby Hoffman famously wanted to levitate the Pentagon).

As a psychological UFO, America’s post 9-11 national security state is, necessarily, in tension with democratic transparency, and so functions, just by its very opaque presence in the world, as a breeder of alienation, suspicion, futility, conspiracy theory, and paranoia: there’s a shadow realm beyond your realm that’s listening-in on your communications and manipulating public information. It possess powers, technologies, purposes, and secrets that you will never know. And as long as it exists—and it will always exist—you will never be able to say, for sure, that what’s real in the news is real, or that you are not being monitored and manipulated (and might one day be, in Kafkaesque fashion, abducted). How this knowledge plays out in the collective psyche and in politics is hard to say. (Cognitive dissonance, populist revolt, religious projection?)

In any case, welcome to the 21st century. Some are horses and others ride.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Top Secret America: An Alien Has Landed?

  1. Cody Deitz says:

    Very interesting piece by the Washington Post. Definitely one of my favorite media sources out there. They seem to be going after the important things as opposed to running around in political circles as many other media sources do, spewing news not because it has merit, but because it’s new.
    As to the subject matter of your post, I also found it quite interesting. My mom has working for a gov’t contracted company for many years and growing up close to that world makes it pretty clear that there truly are many many things going on behind the scenes. Many believe it’s the government that will rise and take over the nation while it seems far more likely it will be an overwhelmingly large private contractor hired by the government. Something large and invisible.

    • santitafarella says:


      After WWII it seems that the national security state associated with the Cold War could really give traction to paranoia and conspiracy theories. Suddenly, it was no longer implausible that a state could keep a large secret, or that powerful people could manipulate things behind the scenes. One of the things that has made America a unique experiment in self government is that it has the separation of powers (congress, the presidency, the courts, and “the fourth estate”—the press). But now, as you note, private corporations are inserting themselves into the manipulation of information, working for secret government agencies, and buying up media companies. Money dictates the movement of information, and the politics of the presidency and the congress. Only the Supreme Court has transparency and a good deal of independence. And “top secret America” adds yet another layer of complication. Who will (or even can) police the secret police?

      This is one reason I think that Wikileaks is so important. It’s a center of power that governments and corporations are finding hard to manage or control. And that’s a good thing; a ray of hope.


      • Cody Deitz says:

        It’s Capitalism once again behaving as a double-edged sword. The Free Market provides perceived financial freedom to the masses while it also provides a means by which government entities can be swayed by those with their own agendas in mind. Not that government doesn’t have its own agenda in mind, but one cannot dismiss a system entirely on account of its corrupt aspects. It’s those taking advantage of the system that are the problem, not the system itself. But I’m digressing a little.
        The real issue with a secret world controlled by the government, whether it be financially or through policy, is that it cannot be revealed and controlled except through manipulation of government policy, which is something that is extremely difficult to get away with in this country. Think of Obama’s Health Care Reform bill, the Tea Party Movement, etc etc. People feel that altering policy means less control over their lives, while that’s generally not the case. Even if the blue-collar republican masses are misled, they are masses nonetheless.
        This is an extremely complex issue with probably more complex workings than we can even imagine.

  2. Interesting. The whole alienation angle you offer seems bang-on. There is a level at which one can apply a kind of Marxist analysis to all this. Paranoia and surveillance are, after all, a business. The resources devoted to this sort of thing are clearly immense, and growing. In a nominally post-Cold War world, what now passes for the military-industrial complex needs new ways to justify its existence. Other things to make (instead of warheads) and other people to hire (instead of guys with keys staring at screens in bunkers). Makes one almost long for the prospect of mutually assured destruction. We have moved from MAD to SAD (surveillance above democracy).

  3. You never heard it because I just made it up. Seems apt…

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