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Is Top Secret America a threat to lives and security?

The Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote about readers' reactions and government responses to the Top Secret America series Sunday. Here's an excerpt:

"Major news organizations often come under fire when they disclose classified information. But "Top Secret America" was different. The Post took hundreds of thousands of public documents and created a massive database, available at, that provides information on nearly 2,000 companies and an array of government organizations engaged in top-secret work. An editor's note accompanying the series said, "Every data point on the Web site is substantiated by at least two public records."

Using this "mosaic" approach to aggregating individually harmless slivers of information, The Post created a composite of the immense national security apparatus and invited readers to home in on its individual parts. They can search online by name and location and even the type of work being performed."

» Read the full article

Do you think The Post provided too much information about government agencies and contractors, or too little? How should a newspaper balance public benefit and potential harm?

By Jennifer Jenkins  |  July 26, 2010; 1:05 PM ET
 | Tags: Dana Priest, Top Secret America, defense contractors, intelligence agencies, intelligence secrets, national security secrets  
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Next: Dana Priest interviews Sec. Robert Gates: full transcript


It's not that the Post published either too much or too little information, it's that the Post published too little useful information and far, far, far too much irrelevant info.

The website the Post created was filled with data to the point of drowing readers, but almost none of it was relevant. They tried to create an interactive environment, but it was filled with pointless info like the number of people employed by Verizon or the annual revenue of Lockheed or the city where Boeing is headquartered.

None of that has anything to do with the intelligence community, its size, its growth or its reach. The entire series was a victim to this approach. Too much database reporting, quoting random facts and figures, surrounding too little analysis.

The subject is incredibly important and there's a valid place for revealing the inner workings of the agencies involved. But there was a focus (driven in large part by the demand for a tech-focused website) on providing out of context data points that meant little the reader.

The fact that the website was so terrible, so hard to use and so poorly designed only compounded matters. At the end of the day it's clear that the people behind this project lost sight of the reader, and that's why it fell so short of its goals.

Posted by: majorowen | July 26, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

"Majorowen" has a point. The article is too dense. However, I for one will gladly suffer that problem in exchange for plenty of VERY IMPORTANT DATA which you won't find in the NY TIMES or any other major media. The same thing was true during WATERGATE. The Post risked a lot by printing the story which the TIMES eventually reprinted.

Posted by: rdorff | July 27, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

This series, which probably cost the Post a fortune, offers very little meat from the standpoint of helping Americans understand and solve any real or alleged problems. It does, however, accomplish one unintended thing that the reporters probably don't understand, appreciate, and/or care about.

Spies rarely get the "big kahuna" information catch portrayed in movies. Instead, they gather many seemingly mundane and unrelated pieces of information. Eventually a puzzle fills in. Even if new information only gives an idea of where to look for more information, it can be useful to foreign intelligence agencies.

For example, foreign intelligence can more specifically target companies and individuals by using the lists in this report. In the process of doing so, the nation's security and even lives could be put at risk.

So while this series has done little to help America run better, foreign intelligence services are undoubtedly grinning as they say a silent, "Thank you very much, Ms. Priest."

Posted by: lsylvain | July 27, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

The secret for us to understand is that all the "intelligence" the government has collected on each of us is so unmanageable that our freedom is secure; as long as you keep your head down and not make waves.

Posted by: jackburris1 | July 27, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

If nothing else, this report helps us understand where all our money has been going for the last 9 years and why it is feeling more and more like a police state around here.

People are so inured to that atmosphere, they do not even mind that the police can and do access their location at any time via deals with Sprint and other cell phone companies, shrugging this current fact of life off with the rationale that " Hey, I am not doing anything wrong, what do I care if they want to tail me?"

This is SO CONTRARY to our founding fathers' notion of the spirit of freedom
for our nation it is appalling.

Posted by: klcasagrande | July 28, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for shining a light on this runaway spending of our tax dollars, with dubious results. I hope all of our elected representatives will read it and move toward reform.

Posted by: calvinwnc | July 29, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

I am willing to believe that of all the agencies and companies mentioned in this report some useful information has been gained. But, I think this is mostly about the money. How many organizations do you need to gather and analyze intelligence.

Certain incidents reported in the news, I have noticed, are never solved or they never get to court.

Posted by: rtmltn | July 29, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

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