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updated 7/19/2010 11:18:37 AM ET 2010-07-19T15:18:37

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."

'Myths'
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.

Video: Is the U.S. surveillance program out of control?

  1. Transcript of: Is the U.S. surveillance program out of control?

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Has the US intelligence community become too bloated and too expensive since 9/11? The Washington Post is out this morning with what it says is the most comprehensive examination of the country's intelligence system since those terror attacks. NBC 's justice corespondent, Pete Williams , has the details on this. Pete , good morning.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Matt , good morning to you. The newspaper says the US intelligence apparatus has become so big that nobody knows anymore how much it costs, how many people work for it, or how effective it is. And The Post says much of that growth comes from an explosion in hiring private contractors to do sensitive government work. Since the 9/11 attacks of 2001 , The Post reports, the intelligence community has been growing so fast in the Washington , DC , area that 33 building complexes for top secret work have gone up or are under construction, totaling 17 million square feet.

    President GEORGE W. BUSH: It is really exciting to come and spend time in this fine facility and to meet the men and women who work at the National Counterterrorism Center .

    WILLIAMS: The 9 /11 attacks sent the nation scrambling to find new ways to gather and analyze information on the emerging threat. And now, The Post says, more than 1200 separate government organizations and over 1900 government contractors work on top secret terrorism, security and intelligence programs. They're scattered around the country at more than 10,000 locations.

    WILLIAMS: No question, say intelligence experts, the system has produced good results, but is a work in progress .

    Mr. ROGER CRESSEY (NBC News Terrorism Analyst): There are parts of the intelligence community that are doing an extremely good job in dealing with the terrorism threat. But there are other parts of the community since 9/11 that is still trying to figure out their role.

    WILLIAMS: The Post says the system has grown so fast it's bogged down with overlaps. Example, 26 separate agencies analyze intelligence, churning out more than 50,000 classified reports a year. And The Post says it found more than 50 separate federal organizations and military commands looking at terror financing, working in 15 cities. Much of that growth in the intelligence community , the newspaper says, has come from private contractors. The former director of National Intelligence , Dennis Blair , said a year ago at his confirmation hearing that the trend worried him.

    Mr. DENNIS BLAIR (Former Director of National Intelligence): You have to get it right, you have to keep the governmental functions by people who get their paycheck every two weeks and report to the government, and I will get into that issue.

    WILLIAMS: The man nominated to replace Admiral Blair , General James Clapper , has his confirmation hearing tomorrow, and he's sure to be asked about the issues raised in this new Washington Post series, Matt.

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