“Top Secret America” — what was the Washington Post thinking?

I’ve been wondering why the Washington Post spent two years putting together the story that it rolled out this week — “Top Secret America.”  The report essentially covers the world of classified contracting, and it was delivered with the fanfare that the Post usually reserves for a Woodward exclusive or a big, deep scandal.

But the stories themselves don’t actually say much.  If Slate still ran its invaluable “Series Skipper” feature, which summarized bloated investigative journalism series, it could boil this one down to a few sentences:  We’re spending a lot of classified programs.  Contractors supply a large part of the workforce in these programs.  More oversight and better budget control are needed.  Oh, and Jeani Burns’s husband won’t talk to her about his job.

These are stories and themes that a good reporter should have been able to pull together in a few weeks, not two years, or so it seems to me.  In fact, the stories are so bland that they seem mostly to be after-the-fact justifications for the big databases about the classified contract sector that are displayed on the Post’s website.

Clearly, a lot more effort went into assembling a detailed, comprehensive listing of classified programs and contractors than went into the stories.  There’s clearly a risk to national security in making such a listing readily available; it could lead to the companies being targeted by intelligence services or even terrorists.  Still, some of that information is readily available.  Once you have a company name, basic data like the company’s location, employees, and revenue is widely available from business sources.  What’s new and what required real work was the detailed listing of companies and agencies tied to classified contracts, plus the appealing graphical interfaces.

That said, a quick look left me with doubts about the quality of both the graphics and the research.  After playing with them for a while, the visualizations seemed more like eye-candy than useful tools.  And the database is less impressive when you focus on agencies you know something about.  Is the Transportation Security Agency really doing a bunch of Top Secret border control research, as the database reports?  I’m skeptical; I had policy responsibility for TSA when I was at DHS, and TSA doesn’t really do border controls; it’s got its hands full just doing transportation security.

But if I think the Post is hyping the scope of all the Top Secret work it covers, how do I check the story?  Journalists have long complained that classified programs avoid public scrutiny.  But in this case, the Post reporters get the same benefit from government secrecy as the contractors and agencies.

So, at the end of the day, what value does that big database have for Post readers?  As the stories make clear, the database didn’t actually turn up any scandal or issue that couldn’t have been reported without the database.  And reading the database is uninformative, pretty as some of the tools are. I’m more motivated than most, and I couldn’t bring myself to spend more than an hour browsing through it.  Other than their connection to classified research, the data actually supplied about companies and agencies is strikingly thin.

If there’s no big story to write, and the database puts readers to sleep, why did the Post spend scarce resources on these things at a time when newspapers are in desperate shape?

Here’s a theory:  if the Post is looking for new sources of ad revenue, it may think that maintaining the best web resource on the classified sector of government spending will allow it to target classified-contracting companies for advertising.  It can aim advertising at them (“We can clean your SCIF cheaper than anyone else – outsource that job to our cleared maintenance workers!”).  And it can seek ads from them (“Tell Congress to preserve TSA’s crucial  Classified Border Control Research Program!”).  Plus, while there aren’t a lot of business sectors that the Post can cover better than the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, this government-driven sector could be one.

For purposes of both coverage and advertising, then, the series may be an Washington Post exercise in market segmentation.  Which would make this series the journalistic equivalent of a dog marking its territory.

Of course, that’s not especially pleasant for the companies and agencies in the database, since they’re playing the role of hydrant.  With one difference: ordinarily a dog doesn’t expect the hydrant to buy him more water.

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