What can you glean from a big story?

Sometimes the Big Story of the day is interesting enough on its own, as the turtle media pokes its head out of its shell once in a while:

A hidden world, growing beyond control

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become 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 it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

And while the story itself promises to go down a lot of big and interesting rabbit holes:

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation's other findings include:

* 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.

What may prove to be just as interesting about this story is the reactions that were telegraphed about it:

Now, Shorrock’s book got far too little attention, IMO. But he did lay out in great detail the many problems with the degree to which we have outsourced our national security infrastructure to contractors (and Jeremy Scahill has, of course, tirelessly chronicled that as well).

Which is why I’m amused by the panic revealed in a memo the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a few weeks ago preparing all members of the intelligence community for an upcoming Dana Priest series covering the same terrain. The memo reveals:

  • The Director of Communications for ODNI, Art House, briefed Intelligence Community public affairs officers on the article back in January
  • House briefed the Deputies Committee for the intelligence community on the Priest series the week the memo was released
  • House has laid out a response plan to Priest’s article including his agency and the NSC, to be coordinated with all the IC agencies
  • House is already planning “a meeting or conference call to review procedural action before, during and after publication, and to compare substantive points that might be offered in rebuttal to the article”

Perhaps that’s just good messaging strategy–the kind that (as it happens) becomes a lot less effective when it is laid out ahead of time.

But what I’m perhaps most amused by is this paragraph:

This series has been a long time in preparation and looks designed to cast the IC and the DoD in an unfavorable light.  We need to anticipate and prepare so that the good work of our respective organizations is effectively reflected in communications with employees, secondary coverage in the media and in response to questions. [my emphasis]

Nowhere in this memo–at least as republished by Marc Ambinder–does House even hint that Priest has her details wrong (and given that she’s been working on it for two years, I’d be surprised if she did). The only real risk that House raises is the “unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and classified information.”

The rabbit is aleady on the run... I repeat, the rabbit is already on the run.

Will the turtles in our media ever catch up in time?

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