Top Secret Minnesotaby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — An investigation by the Washington Post has found that America's national security apparatus has grown wildly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It's now a far-flung enterprise with outposts across the country, from Washington, D.C. to Hayward, Wisconsin.
The investigation lists thousands of private companies that have been enlisted to help keep the U.S. safe, but the Post investigation also questions whether anyone really knows what all those companies are doing.
Here in Minnesota, though, it's not as difficult as you might think. The Post investigation found 11 companies doing business that involves employees with Top Secret clearances, and they're not what you'd consider spies next door. They're more likely to be software engineers or computer storage architects.
That's who works at Instrumental, Inc., for instance. It's a small company, with only about a dozen employees, based in Bloomington and not far from the Mall of America. Bill Zwicky , director of technical services said many of them have security clearances, because they work on the high-performance computer systems where intelligence information is stored and processed.
Its roots, though, are with Cray Inc. and the Control Data Corporation, Zwicky said. A long history of computer expertise has made the Twin Cities one of the go-to places for companies -- or government agencies -- looking for super computer experts. And rather than a fault, he thinks it's laudatory that the government looks to the private sector for needs like that.
"Most of the government customers we work with don't want to have on staff somebody who is an experienced storage architect," Zwicky said. "They want to be able, when they need it, to bring that person in for a short period of time."
Zwicky said that person needs a clearance because they're going to be working in an environment where classified information is used and stored, but they don't need that kind of expertise all the time.
It's a similar story with ObjectFX, a Minneapolis company that specializes in high-volume, real-time geographical information system, or GIS, data software.
Like Instrumentals Inc., its roots are commercial, according to ObjectFX president Nick Thomey. The company provided real-time asset-tracking for transportation companies, and the government has use for a military-grade version of the same software. Thomey said his employees don't actually handle secrets, but must have clearance to meet with and talk to the people that do.
"It's not something you can do by phone or e-mail," Thomey said.
And like other companies on the "Top Secret America" list, there's logic to why national security has been outsourced to Minnesota. ObjectFX is the progeny of a defunct mapping company named Ultimap, which was in turn the commercialization of skills and technique developed in Minneapolis -- for tax, records and infrastructure purposes, among other things.
"This is technology that was spun out of the Hennepin County GIS department in the mid 1980s," Thomey said. "And Hennepin County and some of the professors and departments at the University of Minnesota, they've been regional leaders in GIS technology."
The biggest company on the list is also one of Minnesota's largest. ATK is a well-know supplier of ammunition, military hardware and even rocket motors for the Space Shuttle. They were once known as Alliant Tech, and of course originally was part of Honeywell. Others, like, Champlin-based DECO, have roots in work for Minnesota's 934th Airlift Wing, Minnesota's state government and even the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
The smallest company -- and one that may not even actually be in Minnesota, is Caribou Thunder, a placement firm that's apparently based in Hayward, Wis. The company didn't return phone calls about its secret work -- but its web site does say it's a Native American-owned company, another important aspect of the outsourcing of intelligence work.
A lot of the companies are small, fewer than 100 employees, and some fit the government's stated policy of opening the government market to job-incubators, like small and minority-owned businesses.
You can see a list of "Top Secret Minnesota" that the Washington Post found here.
- All Things Considered, 07/21/2010, 3:54 p.m.