Top Secret America: CAPs, SAPs, BIGOTS, the CIA

by Mark Lovett on September 25, 2011

We’re all aware that the world we live in has changed radically since 9-11, especially with regard to an expanding global intelligence community that is actively engaged in tracking terrorists and uncovering potential plots before they can ever be executed.  While virtually all countries have enhanced their anti-terrorism capability, no country has done so as much as the Unites States, and in the past decade our government has managed to create a new intelligence landscape that is beyond comprehension.

Top Secret America - Dana Priest and William ArkinIn the recently released book Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William Arkin, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to create this brand new infrastructure is chronicled in detail.

You’ll need to read the entire book to understand the scope of what has happened in ten years, and judge for yourself whether the American taxpayer received proper value for the money spent, but I did find one particular topic presented within this excellent piece of investigative journalism quite interesting, and also quite troubling.

The topic relates to the increased level of secrecy that now envelopes our intelligence community, and has actually hindered inter-agency communication.

It would seem logical that agencies would share as much information as possible as a way to connect the dots and thwart any impending terrorist attack, but much of this information is squirrelled away within secret compartments, commonly referred to as a Controlled Access Program (CAP) in the CIA, or Special Access Program (SAP) for those working in the Pentagon.

“The information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was another one of the secrets so well buried beneath so many layers of classification that very few people in the CIA or Pentagon had actually seen the evidence themselves to support the assertion that such weapons existed.”

National Counterterrorism Center in McLean Virginia

National Counterterrorism Center (Washington Post photo by Melina Mara)

So who gets access to this top secret information?  Only those on the BIGOT list – which specifies those individuals who have been granted access.  If you’re not on the list, no matter what your security clearance level is, you don’t see the files.

(For those of you wondering where such a strange term comes from, during secret preparations for the World War II D-Day invasion, it referred to the invasion planners who were coming over from the North African campaign by way of Gibraltar – thus BIGOT is TOGIB (to Gibralter) spelled backwards.)

But wait, it gets even more complicated, as each of these CAPs and SAPs can have within them smaller programs called ‘compartments’, and within those compartments there may well be ‘subcompartments’, each with it’s own BIGOT list, which may mean that someone granted access to a high-level program, may not be allowed to peek inside the compartments and subcompartments that reside within.

And the sad truth is that no one knows everything – even those designated by the president to have full access to all programs can’t possibly have the time to ever understand what they’re all doing.  As James R. Clapper, then director of Pentagon Intelligence programs told Dana Priest, There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs – that’s God.

One other thing to keep in mind during this historical time of record deficits and looming budget cuts, is that not one dollar spent on this intelligence buildup has actually been paid for, as every dime has been added to the national debt, along with every dime that’s been spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  With this infrastructure now in place, the debt will continue mounting for decades to come.

FRONTLINE video produced and directed by Michael Kirk and featuring the work of Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin.

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Additional information from the article A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control – published in The Washington Post, also written by Dana Priest & William Arkin.

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counter-terrorism, 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.
  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
  • 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.

So was it worth it, are we safer inside Top Secret America?  In some respects yes, but in other respects the jury is still out and we’ll only know years down the road.  What are your thoughts on the subject, how do we balance the desire to protect innocent people with the need to assist those in the world who are in dire need of help on a daily basis?

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