Top Secret America
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July 19, 2010: The subtitle of the "Top Secret America" article at the Washington Post is "A hidden world, growing beyond control". It documents the size, growth and complexity of the US Intelligence Community since September 11 2001. Over 854,000 people now have Top Secret Clearance, spread across 10,000 workplace locations inside the United States. The article says that the intelligence community is so huge now, that there's effectively no oversight, no one can really see the big picture and know for certain how effective the thousands of government agencies and private companies interlocked in this massive bureaucracy are at keeping the nation safe.

The report includes maps showing which communities are home to parts of the intelligence community, and charts that detail which organizations are engaged in various categories of work. It's a treasure-trove for the game master looking for ideas for an espionage genre or law enforcement game set in the Modern Day. Who does what, and where? It's all in this article.


Game and Story Use

  • The PCs are part of a top-secret government agency who's existence has always been plausibly deniable - until now. Something along the lines of Bureau 13, Warehouse 23, Torchwood, The Initiative, U.N.I.T., U.N.C.L.E., or the X-files is suddenly revealed to the world via an article like this, and their Headquarters / Secret Base is now a dot on a public map. There's some concern that enemies will come knocking, or that an enemy agency may have even funded or sourced the report.
  • The Shadow Government, Men In Black, Majestic 12, or other Government Conspiracy are revealed by this report or one like it. This is like the previous scenario, except the PCs are on the outside, and the group exposed by the report is more malicious and/or mysterious.
    • The PCs are investigators following up on tantalizing leads the Washington Post reporters either didn't understand, or were too frightened to pursue directly themselves.
    • The PCs have to protect the reporters from reprisals (or pre-emptive strikes prior to publication) coming from within the Intelligence Community. They've potentially made 854,000 enemies today, many of whom have excellent resources to apply to shady personal projects.
  • As previously mentioned, a more typical spy, military or police game could simply use the report as a resource for generating ideas and familiarizing the players with the Byzantine spider web of Intelligence Agencies.
    • And if you just need a plausible umbrella for a covert operation to hide beneath, you'll find a few ideas in that report and its charts.
  • The PCs screwed up big time and broke the Masquerade, revealing vampirism or magic or alien technology in a public place. You don't have to fall back on the FBI to investigate them - there's detailed coverage of 45 major government agencies, and a less-detailed list of a thousand private companies they employ. Perhaps the Office of the Director of National Intelligence itself takes a personal interest in your PCs, or the National Reconnaissance Office keeps a satellite aimed at their hometown.
    • And in a setting with deeply hidden supernatural truths, whose to say there isn't already a "Vampiric Investigation Agency" squirreled away somewhere in the PATRIOT act or some Black Ops budget.
  • Not sure who your Mad Scientist should work for? There's a handy chart that shows the 19 government organizations currently doing weapons research.
  • The elaborate and unwieldy web of interconnected agencies could serve as a model for similar (or even more ridiculous) sectors in a game like the Paranoia RPG or any other dark future. I mean, if it's this complicated now, just imagine how much more complicated it will be twenty minutes into the future.
    • Paranoia games, in particular could really use this report. The bizarre combination of sprawling bureaucracy, nosy eavesdropping, and total incompetence painted by the reports more cynical passages are exactly what Paranoia is all about.
  • A possible source of information, or challenge, for PCs that work for a government agency is other agencies. There's a lot of competition and inter-agency turf-wars, and the right hand never knows what the 47th-from-the-left hand is doing.
    • The PCs are investigating some mystery, and keeping running afoul of shadowy agents they assume to be enemy spies. Instead, it turns out they're another government agency investigating the same mystery, but more covertly.
    • An NPC from another agency knows the answer to the PCs big question, but won't share that data with them unless they make it worth his while.
    • The PCs organization is (despite their protests) shut down, renamed, or folded into another agency. The goal of this annoying restructuring is to keep the budget for the organization from being subject to review by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The end result, however, is that the PCs suddenly find themselves out of work, or answering to a new commanding officer, or functioning out of a new headquarters.
  • The article describes some particular unlabeled or partly-concealed government buildings. These could inspire the GM to come up with some interesting locations for their game. Concrete bunkers with fake windows to look like office buildings. Intersections that don't appear on maps, and intelligence stations hidden in ritzy neighborhoods. Secret lobbies on the third floor of buildings who's first two floors are dummy businesses. SCIF rooms, monitor banks, and security checkpoints.
  • The article mentions that there are at least 60 classified websites, that were ordered to be shut down due to lack of usefulness or integrated into larger databases and resources, but which are still operating because individual agents and agencies refuse to abandon the tools they personally find useful. The result is a muddled multilayered mess of information where nothing is consolidated where it could be of maximum use to everyone.
    • If you can figure out a way to make websurfing fun for the whole party, hunting through these databases could be a huge endeavor or a minigame in it's own right. If you've ever looked at the netrunning rules from cyberpunk 2020, I think they'd be a good place to start for this sort of thing.
    • Various black ops and personal projects could be hidden away on these servers, and kept going for less-than-legitimate reasons. These are the wheels within wheels.
  • The report also has a section on anti-deception, security and espionage technologies that could be useful for those who want a new gadget to use in their game.
  • Interesting factoid that may put the numbers into perspective for you: There's 854,000 people with Top Secret Clearance. If you gathered them into an empty part of the map, and counted them (and only them) as a city, it would be the 12th largest city in the U.S., falling between Detroit, MI and San Francisco, CA in size.
  • The article specifically mentions officers and agents being forced to sign statements saying they won't mention certain facts or topics to their commanding officer, because that officer isn't cleared for the information they have. I suspect a GM could have a lot of fun with this sort of thing, making the PCs take an oath to not share certain information with the other PCs, or with NPCs who have an obvious need to know. "I'm sorry General, I know you approve my budget, but I'm under orders not to tell you what I need that airplane for." Clever players will figure out ways to abuse this for personal gain.
  • Ironically, the more people have "Top Secret" clearance, the less it means. The old adage has it that if more than one person knows it, it's not secret. If nearly a million people could know it…
    • Of course, government is famous for working in silos and duplicating effort, so the required information may well not even be supplied to the people who need to know it.
      • Which is great in game: the PCs cannot get the information they need through normal channels (or, not in time anyway) because although they have the right clearance, they're part of the wrong silo and some obstructive jobsworth is blocking release and there is not a thing anyone they can find can do about it.
  • These days, "top secret" is often the lowest level of validated clearance … in fact it's been like that since around WW2.
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