The Degraded Currency of the Shadow Government

Official secrets keep proliferating.


The existence of a drone program was a secret. The legal justification for the drone program was a secret. It was a secret that through a program called SOMALGET the National Security Agency was recording and archiving the content of every single cell phone conversation in Afghanistan, and it remains unknown what percentage of conversations in Pakistan. It was a secret that algorithms then combed through these conversations and routed concerning ones to linguists, who gisted—paraphrased—anything that seemed important. It was not much of a secret, however, to the men on whom they eavesdropped. They knew America was listening, just as they knew that the high-pitched drones above them transmitted video data back to the States, a long-running film of their daily lives. In western Pakistan, men got high on khat over lunch and told dirty jokes while she listened.

My friend's toddler calls shadows "zero" things; the shadow of a hippo is a "zero hippo," the shadow of herself "zero me." A zero America precedes even the name, but after 2001, government in secret was unfathomably well funded. Much of it remains literally hidden: in bunkers underground or in the vast underground netherworld of dystopian Crystal City. But much is hidden by virtue of its ability to blend into a corporate landscape too dull to take in: glassy buildings you float past without processing their existence, mile-long office parks behind straight lines of spindly trees. They have names such as "National Business Park" and "L-3 Communications," names that in their intentional forgettability oppose the purpose of naming; often there is no exterior signage of any kind. Sometimes they are siloed in clusters of bland buildings, but the secret state also dispersed itself amidst extant office buildings. There are floors of D.C. buildings not listed in the lobby's directory. Government agencies few Americans had heard of spent amounts of money few could fathom; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency built itself a $1.8 billion facility in the bland suburb of Springfield, Virginia, that, in the literalism prevalent in so much public art and architecture, looked from above—or from a drone—like a giant eye. The head of the Army's intelligence school described all this new construction as being "on the order of the pyramids," but the pyramids are spread over a much smaller geographic area. The "alternative architecture" of secret America, as journalist Dana Priest calls it, extends from D.C. to Tampa to Indianapolis to Salt Lake City to San Antonio and beyond, in landscapes so dull as to seem staged: office parks with ghostly Starbucks and unused gyms flanked by extended-stay hotels. Each secret program established by the government was serviced by an army of contractors hawking technical skills, language skills, data entry; each CEO well aware that a seemingly limitless amount of money was available and oversight nonexistent.

The currency of zero America is the secret, but the currency is degraded. Documents are marked classified for no particular reason, because it's always safest, because they may be potentially embarrassing, because no one takes a document not marked secret seriously. Freedom of Information Act requests have unearthed a fan letter from J. Edgar Hoover to his favorite baseball player, the state of Florida's list of rejected license plates (DRUNK), an agreement between the 2012 movie Battleship and the U.S. Navy in which the Navy is promised 10 DVDs of the movie, the FBI's dictionary of Twitter slang ("L8R G8R" for later, gator). Thousands of new programs absorbed billions of dollars, generating new, mostly banal secrets, plenty of them public information easily gleaned from Google. 

John Kiriakou, a CIA analyst based in Virginia, once wrote a paper about Iraqi nuclear weapons and sent it to the Department of Energy, which has its own classification system. As he pressed send, it became illegal for him to access the paper he had written; he did not have the clearance. Kiriakou wanted to tell the president, as the military was preparing to invade Iraq, that someone had had a nervous breakdown. "I knew he had had a nervous breakdown," he told me at his kitchen table in Clarendon, "because I saw the original data, but I couldn't tell anybody that he had a nervous breakdown, because it was so highly classified, so highly compartmentalized. I couldn't put it in writing, because before it gets to the president, it goes through six other people, who wouldn't be cleared for the information." The president never found out; the information hit a dead end with Kiriakou.

Once, a report had come in suggesting that a high-placed Iraqi source was unreliable and unstable. Kiriakou thought the president needed to know, and Kiriakou knew the director of the CIA was about to meet with the president. But he couldn't print out the information—it was too highly classified, there was no print option—or tell the director of the CIA's assistant, who was not cleared, so he remembered the report as best he could, ran up to the director's office, and told him. "Give me the report," the director said. "I'm not going to remember that stuff." Kiriakou said he couldn't print it out. He repeated what he knew, from his memory, three times. The director then repeated what he could remember to the president. Anyone who has played telephone can see the problem, though in this case the original information was later revealed to be false. It's hard to fact-check information when no one can see it.

"I could count on my two hands the times that I used my open telephone in those 15 years," he told me, "because everything is classified, including the classified email system. So I want to meet my wife for lunch, so I send her an email. 'You wanna meet for lunch?' And I classify in secret note form. Why? Because everything is classified. Everything. Like I would have to stop and think, should I really make this unclassified? So eh, fuck it, I'm just gonna say secret note form. That's what everybody does, for everything."

The secret state reveals itself in its need for people with security clearance to sift through emails about inviting one's wife to lunch. On clearedconnections.com, employers based in 47 states try to rustle up cleared candidates; at the time of writing, just one company, Northrop Grumman, had 2,250 job postings. In 2003, two million people had security clearance, approaching 1 percent of the population, which suggests less a security state than a caste system. Checking the backgrounds of so many Americans costs billions more. A zero state that keeps metastasizing would eventually become a world in which the majority are holding secrets from the few remaining people ineligible.

One petabyte of information is equivalent to 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text. At one intelligence agency, one petabyte of classified data accumulates every year and a half. Sifting through a petabyte of information in a year would require two million employees; around 100,000 people work in intelligence for the government. "There are billions and billions of documents, and there are like 16 people declassifying everything," says Kiriakou. "So the email about meeting my wife for lunch will never be declassified, never."

On a base in New York in 2009, the Army gave a 21-year-old soldier raw war footage from which she was supposed to write reports for the higher-ups. All day long Chelsea Manning watched acts of war take place on a screen and tried to process them. She had access to all sorts of footage taken from above, alongside the recorded voices of soldiers watching it, all in Iraq, where the mission to stop another attack had metastasized. There was a grainy black-and-white video of a Baghdad suburb, seen from a helicopter above, palm trees and low square buildings and hauntingly empty sidewalks. That day in the suburb, men had been shooting at American soldiers. When the men in the helicopter saw Iraqis with various black objects slung over their shoulders gather on a street corner, they got very excited. The Iraqi men walk casually into the frame. Two of them—though the American soldiers do not know this—are journalists stringing for Reuters. One is Saeed Chmagh, a 40-year-old driver and camera assistant with a wife and four children at home. The other, a 22-year-old celebrated photographer named Namir Noor-Eldeen. There are men in the group carrying actual weapons. The journalists carry only cameras. Manning saw what the American soldiers saw from above, and listened to them negotiate the lives of the Iraqis below.

"That's a weapon," says an American voice. "Fuckin' prick."

"Request permission to engage."

"You are free to engage," comes the response.

"All right, we'll be engaging."

"Just fuckin' once you get on 'em, open up!"

They engage. The helicopter shoots 8-inch-long exploding tubes, 10 of them in a second. They weigh—each individual round—a half pound. From the helicopter they whir: duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. The visual disappears behind a cloud of dust and smoke, then resolves into a pile of bodies.

"Keep shooting, keep shooting!"

Mostly, they are still; it seems like less of a firefight than a light switch. Men on, then off. Except, that is, for Saeed, the driver, who, as the smoke resolves, is running along the side of the building.

"I got 'em!"

The Americans laugh.

"I hit him."

Saeed squirms on the ground. His legs are splayed. He's shaking. He is, one suspects, thinking of his children. There are four of his own, but he supports three more, and also the children of his sister, since her husband was killed. He talked about his kids all the time on long drives with journalists.

"Got a bunch of bodies laying there."

"Yeah we got one guy crawling around down there."

"Oh yeah look at those dead bastards."


"Good shootin'."

"Thank you."

"Come on, buddy," says a soldier, as if to Saeed, "All you gotta do is pick up a weapon."

Saeed never had a weapon. But should he pick up what looked like a weapon—the camera—the Americans would have permission to shoot him again.

"We have a van approaching and picking up bodies," says an American. 

A van swerves into the scene. A man jumps out to help Saeed and carry his limp body into the van. What the Americans do not see, but is visible should you look for it, are two small heads peeking out the front window on the passenger's side. A little girl and a little boy watch.

"Can I shoot?" asks an American. He's talking about the van.

"Come on, let's shoot!"


A smashed mirror flips off the van and falls to the ground. When the van comes into focus again, there's a massive hole in the windshield.

Now it is time for ground troops. A soldier runs from the van with a little girl in his arms. She is 4, and she is bleeding. There is windshield glass lodged in her eyes. The boy, 8, has shrapnel in his brain.

After silence, the voice, again, of the Americans in the helicopter.

"Well, it's their fault," one says, "for bringing their kids into a battle."

"That's right."

The view of Iraq from the sky became so familiar to the soldier that when she was transferred to a base near Baghdad, the layout was known to her. Now it was simply real; one could feel the wind that moved the trees on screen. One could hear the car bombs. But it was just a closer screen. Real and not real. The world she watched all day and the one she emerged into, safe. There's nothing remarkable, after all, about two tiny children irreparably damaged in a war zone. What is new is that she can call up the footage. The soldiers were under surveillance as they killed a man who held not a gun but a camera.

Her workplace was called a SCIF, a sensitive compartmented information facility, but was really a bunch of plywood thrown up on top of a basketball court. She sat at the free throw line, and in all the accounts I have ever read of Chelsea Manning spilling America's most shameful secrets, I have never seen it noted that it was here where it would occur to her to blow the whistle. Security was such that analysts kept passwords on sticky notes stuck to their laptops. Days on the job were long and boring and left plenty of time to dig deep, scanning the system for anything of interest, in a way not dissimilar to other 22-year-olds digging into the internet that happened to be available to them.

"I don't believe in good guys versus bad guys any more," she said, via chat, to the hacker who would eventually betray her. "Only see a plethora of states acting in self-interest, with varying ethics and moral standards, of course, but self-interest nevertheless. I mean we're better in some respects, we're much more subtle, use a lot more words and legal techniques to legitimize everything. It's better than disappearing in the middle of the night, but just because something is more subtle, doesn't make it right. I guess I'm too idealistic." She is a person emerging from adolescence, negotiating the ethical questions, as self-serious as any undergraduate taking a first course in philosophy, realizing that her parents had been wrong about everything, eager to set them straight and convinced that a straight-setting is possible. I am not mocking this moral seriousness and ambition. I miss it.

On leave in D.C. for a bit, she bought women's clothes and rode the Metro with no purpose but to be female in a public space. On the laptop brought from Iraq was classified data illegally downloaded. In the United States, she was surprised to discover how few people were discussing the bloodshed she'd spent all day watching. "There were two worlds," she later said. "The world in America, and the world I was seeing. I wanted people to see what I was seeing."

Zero America was conceived in a time when the legitimacy of the state was assured, unquestioned. But the state's infrastructure was hard and solid and the sense of legitimacy a mist already burning off. The structure would outlast the faith that built it.

Julian Assange established WikiLeaks in 2006. It was a list of links. It was "an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking." "We're going to crack the world open," Assange said. He cited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and compared himself to academics forced to labor in Russian camps. "True belief begins only with a jackboot at the door. True belief forms when led into the dock and referred to in the third person. True belief is when a distant voice booms 'the prisoner shall now rise' and no one else in the room stands." He released a report about the corrupt president of Kenya. A copy of the British counterinsurgency manual. A cache of emails from a speechwriter to Hugo Chávez. He couldn't get the mainstream media to cover the documents. If he had cracked the world open, no one cared to look down the chasm.

This excerpt is adapted from Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.