Championing Responsible National Security Policy

'Deep State' Delves Into Shadowy World of Government Secrecy

David Brown, who writes under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, understands the importance of government secrecy. The Atlantic correspondent is a former paratrooper with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and a veteran of the Afghanistan war. Leaks of secure information could have endangered his life. But as a journalist, he also knows the government has taken secrecy far beyond what is necessary for national security.

His new book, Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, which he co-authors with Atlantic contributing editor Marc Ambinder, reveals previously unknown government secrets and analyzes how preventing leaks became an all-out war.

POGO: The promo for your book promises never before heard government secrets. Can you give our readers some spoilers and tell us what some of those might be?

Brown: It's been very gratifying to see so much of the reporting in Deep State confirmed by the Edward Snowden document release. Long before the Guardian began its excellent reporting on the subject, our book had already revealed the existence of what would become known as PRISM, and offered a much fuller explanation of such NSA activities as RAGTIME (a secret surveillance program), and XKEYSCORE (a secret search and analysis tool). Anyone interested in how the NSA works as an entity, and how the intelligence community and the special mission units of the military interact, will find Deep State very satisfying.

Reporting for Deep State also revealed the organization of the Joint Special Operations Command (which is responsible for Delta Force and SEAL Team Six); where its tools and techniques come from; and some of its more controversial ongoing operations around the world. Among other things, we also provide a behind-the-scenes account of how the White House secretly handled the 2010 WikiLeaks document release.

Of course, the book does more than simply reveal secrets. Our purpose for writing Deep State was to help explain why the United States engages covert activities, and to provide historical context. Where did the secrecy apparatus come from, and where is it going? It's not all bad news, and we're fair to the men and women of the intelligence community. Much of Deep State corrects the record for high profile activities of recent years. For example, everyone knows about the last fifteen minutes of Bin Laden's wretched life. But for a decade, thousands of hard working men and women working from scores of agencies and enterprises were part of that hunt. Deep State helps explain the key roles of such offices as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency. Such offices don't command the ink of a SEAL team, but without them, Bin Laden and hundreds of his associates would still be alive and working to do us harm.

POGO: Leaks and planting information in the press are long-standing Washington traditions. Do you feel the Obama administration wants to have its cake and eat it too? Why do you think the administration has been so aggressive in trying to punish leakers and whistleblowers?

Brown: Secrets have long been considered a kind of negotiable currency in Washington. Secrecy itself is a decisive exercise of executive power, and without an active and engaged Congress, there’s virtually no check on that authority. What president wouldn't want to exercise total power with zero accountability? To that end, Nixon would have stood in awe of the power madness of the Obama administration. Because whistleblowers and leakers sap the executive branch of power, they are treated as a dire political threat. Last year, director Robert Greenwald and Brave New Foundation released an extraordinary film called War on Whistleblowers, which examined the terrible price whistleblowers have paid for exposing corruption in the U.S. government.

Another thing we’ve seen is that not all leaks are created equal. If a leak is embarrassing to the Obama administration, it’s deemed a national security disaster. If a leak makes the administration seem competent, however, nobody in authority really worries too much. Just the opposite, in fact; suddenly “senior White House officials” become extremely chatty with the press corps. The good news is that the public has become savvy to just how shamelessly politicized leaks really are. When it comes to secrecy, Barack Obama makes Dick Cheney seem like a piker.

POGO: Do you think the administration's war on leaks has had a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers?

Brown: Yes. Not even the president seems to understand or appreciate the scale of the war he's waging. In his first major press conference following the revelations of Edward Snowden, President Obama complained that if Snowden really had issues with the activities of the NSA, he should have availed himself of the so-called Whistleblower Protection Act. What Obama should have known is that Snowden wasn't covered by the act, which specifically excludes intelligence contractors from the umbrella of protection.

Even if Snowden had gone through official channels, however, it’s absurd to think he would have been awarded a Medal of Freedom by the president. Ask Thomas Drake or William Binney, two men who did everything by the book, and were still hounded by the Department of Justice. We all owe a debt of gratitude to men and women who, even in this environment, blow the whistle on government corruption.

POGO: Edward Snowden's disclosures came to light after your book was published. Did your research give you premonitions that something like that might happen?

Brown: One of the principle assertions in Deep State is that the walls surrounding the secrecy apparatus of the United States are crumbling. Technology and general cultural shifts have made keeping secrets for any meaningful length of time difficult, if not impossible. It's interesting to note that the most vital tool of the intelligence community today—social media—is also its undoing. To wit, over the last ten years, the public has been very carefully conditioned to gladly hand over unprecedented amounts of personal information. We've been taught, in other words, that personal secrets aren't very important. This has been of great benefit to spy agencies, which gather and store the whole of the social Internet, and then mine the collected data for insights on any and everything. Ironically, because the public has lost interest in protecting its privacy, it has also lost interest protecting the state’s “privacy” (so to speak). We don't compartmentalize; there isn't one set of rules for ourselves and one set of rules for the government. The social value of secrets has diminished, and so too has our willingness to keep them.

Another point about the so-called "catastrophic leaks" of recent years is just how un-catastrophic they've been, thus hollowing the alarmism of the executive branch. When the Obama administration first warned that the nation cannot survive such leaks as those from Chelsea Manning, I think the public was willing to give the White House the benefit of the doubt. But when the republic didn't fall, the takeaway was that secrets are not the only things protecting us from the barbarians. Snowden's subsequent document release has only confirmed this. Secrets are not essential to our survival, but rather, are incidental. And the more we learn about these secrets—specifically, those designed to protect and sustain the reprehensible and oftentimes illegal surveillance activities of the executive branch—the more we realize that such secrecy is perhaps an anathema to our survival.

POGO: How did your experience in the Army shape your perspective on national security and secrecy?

Brown: A result of my experience is an understanding of the value secrecy to men and women on the ground and in harm’s way. There's a world of difference between the secrecy necessary for operational success, and the absurd, frivolous secrecy that radiates from Washington and exists solely to deflect oversight and perpetuate the military-industrial-intelligence complex.

While writing Deep State, Marc and I constantly asked if something we intended to reveal would endanger lives, and proceeded accordingly. I think we struck the right balance.