Wall Street Journal
June 22, 2013
Scaling Back On Contractors Is A Tough Job
Lawmakers’ Proposals to Curtail Use of Outside Intelligence Help Is Likely to Face Hurdles, Despite Recent NSA Leaks
By Dion Nissenbaum
WASHINGTON—Congressional efforts to curtail use of federal intelligence contractors have gained new traction from continuing leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden. But proposals to significantly scale back the extensive use of outside help face serious obstacles.
Government reliance on military and intelligence contractors is deeply entrenched, and a constrained federal budget makes hiring more government workers a challenge, lawmakers, officials and experts said.
That makes it more likely that Congress will, at best, embrace tailored limits aimed at select groups of contractors who have access to top-secret information.
Concerns about the government’s reliance on private contractors have been elevated by Mr. Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton systems administrator who used his privileged access at a National Security Agency office in Hawaii to leak some of the nation’s most closely held secrets to the media.
Several lawmakers are crafting proposals to limit the government’s work with private contractors such as Booz Allen, a Virginia-based firm that is integrated in the government’s most highly classified operations.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Bill Nelson of Florida both have called for laws to limit—if not block—some contractors’ access to sensitive information.
“These men and women have access to some of our most sensitive national security information,” said Mr. Nelson, who is calling for new hearings on the issue. “We may need legislation to limit or prevent certain contractors from handling highly classified and technical data.”
But other lawmakers say cracking down on contractors working in highly specialized fields may be unnecessary and unrealistic.
“It would hurt our ability to get the results that we need,” said Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee and whose district is home to NSA headquarters. “That partnership has existed from the time that we went to the moon, and contractors have a role.”
If any changes need to be made, he said, it is in government oversight of everyone—contractor and federal worker—that has access to classified information.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), another member of the House intelligence committee, agreed.
“I don’t know that we can conclude that we have been at greater risk from private contractors,” he said. “We would really be reinventing several wheels if we brought those functions in-house.”
The government has been reducing the number of contractors doing classified work. In 2009, nearly 40% of the 1.4 million people with top-secret security clearance were contractors, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That is down to about one-third.
Contractors are an integral part of intelligence processes. They do everything from conduct background checks on Central Intelligence Agency analysts to run classified computer systems across the government. Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, said he relies on about 1,000 systems administrators like Mr. Snowden, and that most of them are contractors.
Gen. Alexander told lawmakers this past week that he is working to boost internal security to better prevent people like Mr. Snowden from taking classified information. But he questioned proposals to enact more sweeping restrictions.
“The mistakes of one contractor should not tarnish all the contractors because they do great work for our nation as well,” he said. “And I think we have to be careful not to throw everyone under the bus because of one person.”
The issue is a pressing one for Gen. Alexander, who is looking to boost the size of his Cyber Command to about 4,900 people from about 900 over the next few years. That would be impossible to do without relying on outside contractors, said Michael Hayden, who served as director of the NSA and CIA. “You can’t get there from here,” he said.
Mr. Hayden said that any changes should pertain to oversight of contractors and government workers to detect dissidents like Mr. Snowden or Bradley Manning, the Army private on trial for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.
“Our use of contractors in the last 12 years has been unarguably effective,” he said. “We could not have done our mission without contractors.”
Lawmakers pushing for changes argue that reducing reliance on contractors could also save the government money. A 2013 survey by ClearanceJobs.com found that independent consultants received, on average, nearly $118,000 a year in compensation, while government workers got an average of about $84,000.
But federal budget constraints, combined with limited specialized talent in the government workforce, could make it harder to reduce the number of cybersecurity contractors.
“The brightest minds in cybersecurity are in industry, they’re not in government,” said Evan Lesser, founder of ClearanceJobs.com, an online resource for professionals with security clearance. “If the government had all the talent and didn’t have to rely on contractors that would be perfectly fine. But the unfortunate reality is that government employees don’t have the expertise in some of these areas.”