Prying Private Eyes

New York Times

June 20, 2013

Prying Private Eyes

Whatever one thinks about Edward Snowden and his revelations about government snooping, the case has been a useful reminder of the extent to which the government has outsourced intelligence work to the private sector and the risks in doing so. Mr. Snowden is but one of literally hundreds of thousands of private-sector intelligence workers, many of whom possess top-secret security clearances. His employer at the time of the leaks, Booz Allen Hamilton, is one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the United States, with nearly all of its recent $5.7 billion in annual revenue from contracts with one government department or another, and almost a fourth of it from intelligence work alone. Of the estimated $80 billion the government will spend on intelligence this year, most is spent on private contractors.

It is highly doubtful, however, that American taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. The basic justification for outsourcing government work is to get a job done better and cheaper. Outsourcing intelligence does not appear to achieve either aim. At a Senate hearing on intelligence contractors in September 2011, a witness from the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, cited research from 2008 showing that the government paid private contractors 1.6 times what it would have cost to have had government employees perform the work.

That may help reduce the government head count. But employing fewer government workers at greater cost to taxpayers is not downsizing. Such outsourcing simply shifts taxpayer dollars to private hands, where it can wind up in lavish executive pay packages and greater shareholder returns.

And to what end — greater security? No. Security experts have pointed out that the proliferation of private sector employees with top-secret clearances, now estimated at up to 500,000, makes breaches more likely. And when senators asked at the hearing in 2011 whether the intelligence system was properly balanced between the public and private sectors, several witnesses raised concerns about the overreliance on contractors. These concerns included not only the risk of increased security breaches but also conflicts of interest, blurred lines of authority and diminished accountability. Those warnings seem prescient now.

On top of all these problems is one that makes it hard to acknowledge, let alone solve, any of them: the revolving door between government intelligence agencies and private-sector contractors that conflates public and private interests and entrenches the status quo.

It is legitimate to use contractors when government does not possess the necessary expertise or cannot pay enough to lure experts from the private sector. But we are now into the second decade of the expansion of intelligence work that began after Sept. 11, 2001. While it may still make sense to outsource specific projects, the practice of outsourcing vast swaths of national security, with little or no attempt to develop the needed expertise inside government, has gone on for too long with too little scrutiny.

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