Must reading: Washington Post's 'Top Secret America'

Technology has a star turn in report on massive growth of counterterrorism industry

The citizen in you needs to read this Washington Post report - "Top Secret America" -- because everyone needs to understand what has happened to our government in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.

The IT professional in you needs to read it because the technology involved - at least the ice-berg tip we're allowed to know about - is nothing less than staggering.

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From the article's introduction:

* 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.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* 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.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

Just getting all those people into all those building is a daunting task in an of itself:

Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

The scales involved boggle the mind. This next passage describes only the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which was established as an umbrella organization designed to coordinate all of this intelligence gathering.

But improvements have been overtaken by volume at the ODNI, as the increased flow of intelligence data overwhelms the system's ability to analyze and use it. Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

Today's story is the first in a five-part series that the Post says has been two years in the making. The accompanying Web site features an introductory video that will seem melodramatic if you watch it before reading the article and much less so if you watch it afterward, as I did, and a map that paints a visual of how vast and scattered these intelligence agencies have become. There are multiple searchable databases -- culled from public information, according to the paper - for those who are interested in rummaging through the supporting materials.

There's just too much to do justice to in a summary.

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