WASHINGTON — Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, top-secret intelligence gathering by the government has grown so unwieldy and expensive that no-one really knows what it costs and how many people are involved, The Washington Post reported Monday.
A two-year investigation by the newspaper found what it called a "Top Secret America" that's hidden from public view and largely lacking in oversight.
The newspaper's investigation is based on hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and other officials, as well as public documents and records.
In its first installment of a series of reports, the Post said there are now more than 1,200 government organizations and more than 1,900 private companies working on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in some 10,000 locations across the U.S.
Approximately 854,000 people — or nearly 1 1/2 times the number of people who live in Washington — have top-secret security clearance, the paper said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Post that he doesn't believe the massive bureaucracy of government and private intelligence has grown too large to manage but he admits it is sometimes hard to get precise information about it.
"There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that — not just for the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense - is a challenge," Gates told the Post.
"Nine years after 9/11, it makes sense to sort of take a look at this and say, 'OK, we've built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?'" he said.
The head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, said the spending growth on intelligence likely is not sustainable and that he's at work on a five-year plan for the agency.
"Particularly with these deficits, we're going to hit the wall. I want to be prepared for that," he told the Post. "Frankly, I think everyone in intelligence ought to be doing that."
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks nearly ten years ago, Congress authorized an extra $40 billion — beyond what was in the federal budget — to bolster domestic defenses and fight al-Qaida. In 2002, it added $36.5 billion more and, in 2003, another $44 billion, the Post reported.
With all that spending came more analysts, more organizations and more entities gathering intelligence — but with little coordination over the effort as a whole.
"I'm not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities," retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines told the Post in an interview. "The complexity of this system defies description."
The White House had been anticipating the Post's report and said before it was published that the Obama administration came into office aware of the problems and is trying to fix them.
The administration also released a memo from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence listing what it called eight "myths" — intended as a point-by-point answer to the charges the Post series was expected to raise.
Among them was that contractors represent the bulk of the intelligence workforce. The memo put the number at 28 percent, or less than a third.
The memo said that 70 percent of the intelligence budget is spent on "contracts, not contractors."
"Those contracts cover major acquisitions such as satellites and computer systems, as well as commercial activities such as rent, food service, and facilities maintenance and security," the memo said.
The Post said its investigation also found that:
- In the area around Washington, 33 building complexes — totaling some 17 million square feet of space — for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since 9/11.
- Many intelligence agencies are doing the same work, wasting money and resources on redundancy.
- So many intelligence reports are published each year that many are routinely ignored.
David C. Gombert, the acting director of national intelligence, said the Post's story "does not reflect the intelligence community we know."
"We work constantly to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies, while preserving a degree of intentional overlap among agencies to strengthen analysis, challenge conventional thinking, and eliminate single points of failure," Gombert said in a statement. "The challenges that lie ahead are difficult and complex. We will continue to scrutinize our own operations, seek ways to improve and adapt, and work with Congress on its crucial oversight and reform efforts."
The Post's article detailed the unwieldy nature of intelligence gathering surrounding Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the Fort Hood shooting, using it to show what happens when intelligence information is not produced and shared in an efficient manner.
Information about Hasan's increasingly bizarre behavior and his e-mails to a radical Yemeni cleric leading up to the shooting did not reach the organization expressly charged with counterintelligence efforts within the Army, the Post reported.
"The Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group had been doing little to search the ranks for potential threat," the newspaper said.
"Instead, the 902's commander had decided to turn the unit's attention to assessing general terrorist affiliations in the United States, even though the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI's 106 Joint Terrorism Task Forces were already doing this work in great depth."
The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.