Monday, July 19, 2010

Top secret America: Simultaneously sinister and incompetent

The Washington Post just put out an investigative report on "Top Secret America" -- federal departments and agencies with top secret security clearance.

Here's the trailer. Yes, a 1:47 Flash video trailer for a report put out by a newspaper. It has a Bourne Ultimatum feel to it, right down to the percussion-heavy, digital soundtrack and gritty urban imagery. Anybody want to talk about the blurring lines between news and entertainment?

WPost claims that a fourth, secret branch of government has opened up since 9-11. They make this new branch out to be simultaneously sinister and incompetent (like Vogons). Watch the trailer and see what they're hinting at.

Some counterclaims: government is still learning how to make use of recent (i.e. within the last 30 years) advances in information technology. (Take this article in the Economist on the alleged obsolescence of the census, and as examples).
  • Since the technology is new, it makes sense that new agencies would develop to handle the load.
  • Information technology is useful, and the government has a lot of data to process, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of people involved.
  • Since business tends to be more nimble about technology adoption, it makes sense that a lot of the work would be outsourced to private firms, at least initially.
  • Since the process is unfamiliar, it makes sense that there would be some inefficiency.
  • Since we want the system to be robust to failure, it makes sense that there would be some redundancy.
I agree with the Post that "we want to get this right," but let's back off the hype and the alarmism a little bit.

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