A most peculiar thing happened last week: The Washington Post ripped a federal welfare boondoggle to shreds, exposing tens of billions of dollars of waste, duplication and bureaucratic excess . . . and conservatives didn't erupt in astonishment and praise. In fact, they didn't raise a peep.
That's because the welfare queens ripping off taxpayer dollars in this case aren't poverty pimps waving the bloody flag of race and class, but military-industrial hustlers exploiting the war on terrorism to build themselves opulent and powerful fiefdoms.
At a time when newspapers are shrinking, not many ran The Post's 16,000-word Top Secret America series, a rough map of the murky yet vast labyrinth of intelligence and defense agencies that securitycrats have burrowed into the federal budget since Sept. 11.
But if you care at all about either the wholesale waste of federal dollars or the real capabilities of the U.S. government to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, The Post series is worth tracking down on the Internet.
If anything, its conclusion -- that we've created a surveillance-industrial complex "so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within or exactly how many agencies do the same work" -- is modestly understated.
At least 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private contractors now work on counterterrorism and intelligence programs. (Don't worry, South Florida gets its share of the pork: The Post says there are 78 "top secret" worksites in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.)• More than 250 intelligence-related organizations have been created or given major expansions since Sept. 11. Some, like the Defense Intelligence Agency, have doubled in size; others, like the National Security Agency, have tripled. The NSA's Maryland headquarters alone covers 112 acres. Oops, let me correct that: The headquarters' parking lots cover 112 acres.
• To say a lot of the work of these agencies is duplicative, or even triplicative, doesn't begin to cover it. You need whatever derivation of -cative goes with 51, which is the number of federal organizations and military commands tracking the flow of money to terrorist networks. Did you even know we have a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency? I don't know what that agency does that the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency and the Army Geospatial Center don't. But whatever it is, there must be a lot of it: The new headquarters building cost $1.5 billion and houses 8,500 employees.
• If the pen is really mightier than the sword, then we ought to be able to declare victory over al Qaeda and go home. Our battalions of desk-bound spooks churn out almost 1,000 intelligence reports a week. "I'm not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything," one despairing Defense Department official told The Post.
• About 854,000 people -- that is, a city a little bigger than Jacksonville -- have top-secret security clearances. (Nearly a third of them don't even work for the government; they're contractors.) Whether any of those people are actually able to shoot at terrorists isn't clear. One military officer interviewed by the Post recounted signing a secrecy pledge that forbade him to disclose anything about his work to his commander -- a four-star general.
Not only can the spies not to talk to each other, neither can their computers. Many of the vast databases collected by the various agencies are incompatible with one another. Perhaps that explains why despite a warning to the CIA from the bomber's own father, a jihadist plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit was discovered not by U.S. intelligence but by a passenger who saw the man setting his underwear on fire. Or how, despite a U.S. Army major's chatty e-mails with a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen, his plan to carry out a mass shooting at Fort Hood was detected only when the bodies started hitting the floor.
In short, The Post series described an insanely expensive collection of federal programs of dubious worth. Several top officials quoted by name, including CIA Director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, conceded grave doubts about the value of what the government is getting for its money.
These are precisely the elements that conservatives are quick to denounce in the welfare state. But when it comes to the national-security state, they're strangely muted. The influential conservative blog The Volokh Conspiracy confined itself to critiquing the series' graphics. ("More like eye candy than useful tools.") The Weekly Standard protested weakly that "redundancies are not necessarily a bad thing." Rush Limbaugh? Glenn Beck? The rest is silence.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Glenn Garvin is the Miami Herald's TV critic. He covered Latin America for 19 years -- the last five of them as The Herald's bureau chief in Managua. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.