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Too many secrets


The national scrutiny of the extremely large international data monitoring effort by the National Security Agency exposes the vast proliferation of the secret security apparatus in Washington. Since terrorists attacked New York City and Washington in 2001, NSA has increased the number of contractors working to gather security information from 140 to more than 6,000 under contract in 2006. About 1.2 million Americans have top-secret security clearances and 38 percent of those individuals work for government contractors.

Edward Snowden is just one of those people cleared for top security access. For three months, he worked for Booz Allen, a management consulting company whose NSA contracts provide it $1.3 billion in annual revenues, where he earned top security clearance and access to the computer systems that gather and process the data about each and every telephone call Americans make every day. Armed with the top secret classification, Mr. Snowden earned a salary of $200,000. The Wall Street Journal described high-level security clearance as “the Willy Wonka golden ticket for a private worker.”

This round of startling revelations is not about government agencies worried about terrorists, more violent attacks on Americans or violating rights of privacy. It is about the dismaying discovery that our security system has been contracted out to teams of non-government employees, including a 29-year-old whose job record was less than stellar. It is dismaying to know that his employer is one of 6,000 private contractors who earn billions of dollars to defend us from terrorists.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a thorough analyst of the creation of our system of national intelligence. The senator concluded that most of the time that the system was a failure. In his book “Secrecy: The American Experience,” Sen. Moynihan traced the growth of the influence of secret intelligence from World War I, the rise of communism, World War II and the advent of atomic weapons and concluded that America’s intelligence apparatus transformed the country from “a governmental system that valued openness over secrecy into a vast secrecy system that shows no signs of receding.”

Sen. Moynihan maintained that secrecy prevented vigorous debate and criticism, leading to unchallenged decisions. Sen. Moynihan served in the White House and as ambassador to India and watched from there as secrets were used to achieve unjustified ends. He argued that the Central Intelligence Agency overestimated the military and economic strength of the Soviet Union. In a memorandum directed in August of 1990 to the majority leader of Senate, George Mitchell, he decried the number of agents with top secret clearance, saying, “The central and enduring problem of the secrecy system is that while the principal actors typically feel that they have no choice but to rely on the secrets as a guide to national policy, the secrets are frequently wrong.”

Sen. Moynihan’s thesis about national security is just as correct today as it was during his career in the Senate, where he chaired the Intelligence Committee. With the threatening Soviet Union disabled, today the target of intelligence gathering is terrorism. If NSA’s record replicates that of the CIA in the 1950s, the shroud of secrecy will only perpetuate bad decisions in the future. Too many people working for private masters who are not elected are overwhelming leaders with so much data that policy conclusions will depend solely on secret discussions in terrorist-proof bunkers among a closed society of $200,000-a-year 29-year-olds.

New York’s senator was right. Too much is secret.

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