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.