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Sunday’s New Yorker (IX)

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Open Secrets

by Hendrik Hertzberg

These are hard times for newspapers, and not just the Times. America’s other iconic daily of the past half-century, the Washington Post, has been doing a long, slow fade, speeded up lately by the Great Recession. The Post’s  weekday circulation is barely two-thirds what it was in the nineteen-nineties. During the most recently measured six-month period alone, sales of the weekday paper plummeted thirteen per cent. Repeated buyouts have decimated the staff. Last year, the Post closed its remaining domestic bureaus, in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Its stock price today is less than half what it was in 2004. Kaplan, the for-profit education outfit the Post acquired in 1984, now provides some sixty per cent of its income. A glum, decade-old newsroom wisecrack—that the Post is a test-prep tutoring service that puts out a newspaper as a hobby—got glummer in 2007, when the Washington Post Company officially declared itself an “education and media company,” no joke.

All the more reason, then, to ladle on the praise when the Post shows that it can still produce the kind of public-spirited, enterprising journalism that is essential to the health of a free society. Last week, in a series of three articles totalling some thirteen thousand words, the paper explored the immense national-security industry created since 9/11—a bureaucratic behemoth, substantially privatized but awash in public money, that “has become so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive” that it “amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.” Mimicking, consciously or not, the work product of its subject, the series begins by summarizing itself with a PowerPoint-like set of bullet points:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Beyond the numbing numbers, the Post describes a vast archipelago of gleaming new office parks, concentrated in the Washington suburbs but also scattered throughout the country, protected by high fences and armed security guards, bland-looking but inaccessible, and filled with command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored S.U.V.s, and inner sanctums called SCIFs, short for “sensitive compartmented information facilities.” How much of this—“the bling of national security,” the Post calls it—is necessary or even useful may be doubted, but it is undeniably expensive. Much of it is there because the taxpayer cash to buy it is there—an unending, ever-growing, BP-worthy fiscal blowout that, beginning just after 9/11 and continuing to this day, flooded the agencies with “more money than they were capable of responsibly spending,” the Post writes. “They’ve got the penis envy thing going,” a contractor whose business specializes in building SCIFs says. “You can’t be a big boy unless you’re a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.” Moreover, fully a quarter-million holders of top-secret security clearances are employees not of the government but of private, profit-making businesses. Government agencies serve as a hiring hall for contractor corporations offering perks and salaries the agencies can’t match, leaving them to rely on recent graduates whose familiarity with the countries they analyze, including their languages, is minimal. The concern this raises—a concern that Robert M. Gates, the Secretary of Defense, and Leon Panetta, the head of the C.I.A., told the paper they share—is “whether the federal workforce includes too many people obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest—and whether the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities.” Read more in The New Yorker.

Letter from Tehran

After the Crackdown

Talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and the opposition—about Iran today.

by Jon Lee Anderson

Early this summer, while walking in the Alborz Mountains outside Tehran, I came across three members of Iran’s reformist Green Movement. It was a parching-hot afternoon, and they had taken shelter from the heat in a cherry orchard next to a stream, where fruit hung glistening from the branches. The Alborz Mountains have long provided refuge, clean air, and exercise for the residents of north Tehran. The northern districts are more prosperous than the rest of the city, and their residents are generally more educated and aware of foreign ideas and trends. North Tehran was not the only locus of the Green Movement, but support there was particularly intense last summer after the conservative hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the disputed Presidential elections.

One of the most popular hiking trails begins just outside the walls of Evin Prison, where in recent decades thousands of dissidents have been tortured, killed, and buried in secrecy. A few hundred feet away, just across a wooden bridge over a narrow river canyon, the last paved streets of the city end. Along the river’s banks are open-air teahouses, where nostalgic music is played and people drink fresh cherry juice and smoke narghile waterpipes. Such places offer a respite from the restrictions of life in the Islamic Republic, away from the roving units of religious police and the paramilitary Basij, the plainclothes zealots who attacked Green Movement supporters in last year’s protests.

Since the government crackdown, street demonstrations have been rare, and so, too, have foreign journalists in Iran. I had been given a visa to come interview Ahmadinejad, and during my stay was watched closely by the government. Even a hike in the mountains did not insure privacy; as I climbed, I saw, among the other hikers, several pairs of men who wore the scraggly beards, nondescript clothing, and tamped-down looks of Basijis. At one point, I passed a unit of soldiers. They were out hiking with everyone else, but it was apparent that they were there to make their presence felt. The women on the trail were flushed and sweating in their chadors and manteaus, the black tunics that Iranian women are obligated to wear over their clothes.

In the orchard, though, women had taken off their head scarves and were laughing and talking animatedly. People greeted me politely, obviously recognizing me as a Westerner, a rare sight in Tehran these days. One man struck up a conversation; in excellent English, he made it clear that he was a reformist. Three other men who were sitting together nearby looked over appraisingly, then raised their voices enough to be overheard. Read more in The New Yorker.

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Written by Theophyle

August 22, 2010 at 1:53 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] pe alte bloguri: Politea Digest; Blogul de Istorie si blogul […]

  2. Sunday's New Yorker (IX) « Politeía Digest…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    World Wide News Flash

    August 23, 2010 at 2:16 am

  3. Sunday?s New Yorker (IX)…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    World Wide News Flash

    September 14, 2010 at 11:59 pm


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