ProPublica's Engelberg: WaPo's "Top Secret America" an "Extraordinary Commitment"

The national security business is booming, even bloated, according to "Top Secret America," an in-depth investigative report published Monday in the Washington Post.  Among the findings: an estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.

More than a dozen Washington Post journalists, led by reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, spent two years on the report which has received great attention for its detailing of the sprawling security network in the U.S.  To get at the heart of how such an investigation works, Big Think spoke with Stephen Engelberg, former investigative editor of the New York Times and current managing editor of ProPublica, the independent, non-profit organization supporting investigative journalism:

"This is the kind of bet that even a newspaper like the Post makes maybe once a year," said Engelberg. "You are betting hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of reporter, editor, and programmer time on this. ... It's the kind of thing that people in the fat years did occasionally, and in the thin years they do even less occasionally."

Engelberg said the report is notable both for what it revealed and for how it collected the information and presented it to the public.  "When you look at the powerful, complicated, impressive database work the Post has done, and then the programming to translate that into the apps that you can look at online, it's an extraordinary commitment," he said.

National security reporting is often controversial, and the Post has received strong criticism from some outlets for publishing the details of potentially critical data.  When asked how investigative journalists approach such sensitive issues, Engelberg said: "There is a tacit understanding among journalists that cover national security that one really needs to be a little bit careful about what one publishes.  There are times when somebody can tell you something and the persons who are handling the information are not themselves aware of the sensitivity, and you may not be aware of the sensitivity." 

He added that, "The way, historically, people deal with this is you go to the government, much as you go to what you might call the 'target' of any investigation, and give a very full disclosure of what it is you intend to publish, why it's newsworthy, why it's important, and what's your comment."

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

Dead – yes, dead – tardigrade found beneath Antarctica

A completely unexpected discovery beneath the ice.

(Goldstein Lab/Wkikpedia/Tigerspaws/Big Think)
Surprising Science
  • Scientists find remains of a tardigrade and crustaceans in a deep, frozen Antarctic lake.
  • The creatures' origin is unknown, and further study is ongoing.
  • Biology speaks up about Antarctica's history.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less