Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Not-So-Secret America

Judging from the first two installments, the Washington Post series on the intelligence community--and its over-reliance on contractors--is more marketing and hype, instead of original reporting.

With its flashy graphics (click on the map the see if there's an intel facility in your town!) and slick packaging, the highly-publicized series, authored by Dana Priest and William Arkin, practically screams "Pulitzer nominee," but there's little new information below the banner headlines. More than 5,000 words into the "exclusive," here's what the Post reporters have uncovered after two years of digging:

-- More than 3,000 companies now perform some sort of intelligence-related work for the U.S. government; many sprang up--or moved into that field--after 9-11, when the feds, desperately short of intel expertise, began handing out contracts like business cards.

-- An estimated 854,000 people now hold Top Secret security clearances, roughly one out of every 40 Americans, a total greater than the population of Washington, D.C.

-- There has been a boon in the construction of intelligence facilities for federal agencies and defense contractors. Scores have been built over the past nine years.

-- Senior defense and intelligence officials are concerned about the role of contractors in the intelligence business, fearing that firms are more concerned about the corporate bottom line than the mission at hand.

Perhaps we're a bit jaded, but our collective response to all of this is a giant...yawn. If you've spent any time in military, homeland security, intel or government appropriations circles since that fateful day in 2001, the "revelations" of the Post series are nothing new. Indeed, Ms. Priest and Mr. Arkin obtained all their material from unclassified sources, so the same information is available to anyone with enough time and an unlimited research budget. If you want to know how much Northrop-Grumman, Boeing or SAIC is making from intelligence contracts, that data can probably be found in corporate reports, or various Congressional appropriations bills.

Of course, the real issue lies in the special investigation's central theme: are the nation's intelligence agencies, counter-terrorism organizations and the military too dependent on contractors? According to Priest and Arkin, the Beltway Bandits can be found in virtually every intelligence function:

Contractors kill enemy fighters. They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks. They help craft war plans. They gather information on local factions in war zones. They are the historians, the architects, the recruiters in the nation's most secretive agencies. They staff watch centers across the Washington area. They are among the most trusted advisers to the four-star generals leading the nation's wars.

So great is the government's appetite for private contractors with top-secret clearances that there are now more than 300 companies, often nicknamed "body shops," that specialize in finding candidates, often for a fee that approaches $50,000 a person, according to those in the business.

Making it more difficult to replace contractors with federal employees: The government doesn't know how many are on the federal payroll. Gates said he wants to reduce the number of defense contractors by about 13 percent, to pre-9/11 levels, but he's having a hard time even getting a basic head count.

Obviously, the same question might be asked of other government agencies; does anyone know the number of contractors working for the Department of Health and Human Services, for example? But the Post is focused on the intelligence community, and the "gusher" of money that has attracted so many firms, large and small, to the spook world in recent years.

If you accept the paper's thesis, there are way too many contractors, often duplicating work performed by federal employees. But there are a few problems with that analysis, something the Post actually acknowledges in its series.

First, there will always be some degree of overlap and duplication in the intelligence business. Some of that is little more than empire-building; like any government bureaucracy, intel agencies are practiced in the art of finding new "issues" or "threats," and parlaying that concern into more funding. Did we mention that the CIA now follows climate change?

Using that model, it's little wonder that intelligence contractors eagerly offer their expertise in areas that show fiscal promise. Put another way: if a senior official at Langley--with budgetary horsepower--wants someone to generate a classified study on global warming, or create a database linking various climate models and sensors, do you think that Lockheed-Martin, L3 (or dozens of smaller firms) will say "no thanks" to a multi-million initial contract, and the promise of more money down the road?

Secondly, there's the difficulty in attaining that goal that everyone seems to share: eventually scaling back contractor involvement in the intel business, and replacing their reps with civil service employees. As the Post observes, experience levels in the intelligence community have decreased in recent years, as more analysts, technicians and operatives join the ranks of contractors.

Money is the primary reason, but not the only one. Given a chance to collect a federal pension and move into a six-figure job with a contractor, thousands of intel professionals gladly took that option. Many were already nearing the end of their civil service careers, and most remembered the bad old days of the late 70s (under Jimmy Carter) and the Clinton years, when intel agencies were underfunded, and certain disciplines--most notably, human intelligence or HUMINT--were largely gutted. Rather than endure another cycle of budget plus-ups and cutbacks, many veterans spooks took their annuities, and returned as contractors.

And, the community was glad to have them back. In the days following 9-11, there was a dearth of experience in many areas, including HUMINT, targeting, and others. Contract employees (and the firms that hired them) offered the quickest way to inject needed expertise and keep experienced hands in the game.

Which brings us to another reason for the explosion of intelligence contractors: security clearances. So far in its series, the Post has dealt indirectly with this fundamental issue. To perform most types of intel work, you need a Top Secret/SCI security clearance. For a new comer to the intel world, that requires an extensive background check that can take 18-24 months to complete. While their clearance is processed, new hires typically sit in a "green room," handling mundane administrative tasks--or just surfing the internet--while drawing entry-level federal pay (typically a GS-9).

On the other hand, a typical intel contractor already has a clearance, based on their past service as an intelligence officer, or service in the military. For an employee with active clearances, it's just a matter of transferring their file to the contractor's security office, and putting them to work. If you want to replace experienced personnel--who are already cleared for TS/SCI information--be prepared to wait. Then, there's the matter of duplicating their expertise. You'll need another decade (or longer) to replace the experience levels of many contract employees. And needless to say, that entails a certain risk for national security.

Can we afford to eliminate certain intel contracts and certain programs now handled by those various firms? Certainly. But where do you begin making the cuts? Those decisions require strong leadership, something that's been sorely lacking in the nation's expanded intelligence community. At his confirmation hearing today, retired Lieutenant General James Clapper, the nominee to be the next Director of National Intelligence, said he was "committed" to making the current model work. Against that backdrop, it's difficult to envision substantial cuts in the contractor force. Besides, if the federal intel workforce is generally inexperienced, are we willing to accept the decrease in collective experience that accompany the down-sizing.
ADDENDUM: In their series, Priest and Arkin note that contractors have caused occasional embarrassment for the defense and intelligence establishments, citing the examples of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and various shooting incidents involving Blackwater employees. However, the contractors involved in those episodes were performing security work, not intelligence. There is a difference--something the Post reporters should understand.


Just a man... said...

I think another aspect to this, at least from the military perspective, is the reduction in end strength in the 1990s. Many of the functions performed by contractors today used to be done "in-house" by a much larger military. With drawdowns that work had to be contracted out to people with...you guessed it...TS/SCI clearances.

Unknown said...

It's worth noting that you get 2 Contractors for the price of 1 Fed.

The Last Ephor said...

Add to all of this the growth of things classified. I work on a government contract that is, in no way, related to national security yet everything is classified. Literally every person in my office has clearance and not one thing I work on would be damaging to national security if leaked.

It's also very telling that they have job fairs in the NoVA/DC area that are exclusively for people with clearance.

Vigilis said...

"--something the Post reporters should understand."

I had came to a similar conclusion about this WAPO series. Generally, the same defect can be found in too much of what passes today for journalism.

Better journalism would entail:

1) Reporters either possessing expertise in matters upon which they report facts to readers, or disclosure of their inexpertise.

2) Automatic reporting of contrary assessments/rationales by dissenting experts.

Such obvious, but minor refinements would might make more news articles worthwhile for open-minded folk to read.

Just some thoughts.

Just My 2¢ said...

I found that there is quite a bit of clutter in the WSJ article. For example, is it necessary to include every FBI field office in the country? I suppose it is, but it's a bit disingenuous to claim there is serious intel work happening in Lander, Wyoming.

Ed Rasimus said...

A very familiar technique. Cite a seemingly inflammatory statistic which out of context implies something then build your straw man argument around that so the unwashed masses are aroused to indignation.

Lots of TS clearances! So what? Possession of a clearance doesn't mean free access. On the contrary, it merely means you can qualify for a compartment of information if you have a need to know. TS is closely controlled and I've got little reason to believe that has changed much. Even with a current TS, when I retired and went to work for Northrop, I couldn't get program access for six weeks and then I could only access the programs which I was cleared to log billable time against.

"Contractors" implies some sort of mercenary ops, and the text you quoted leans in that direction. But, it also means a broad range of corporations engaged in research, design, support, maintenance, and various other functions.

What is damaging, at least to my interpretation, is the collection and compilation of the otherwise scattered details into a nice single-source directory. "Let's see, we want to target a TS contracted facility...ah, look Achmed, there's one right down the street!"

davod said...

How man of the 3000 companies are one man operations?

This could be a push to move all work in-house much like Gate's change to defence contracting last year which killed the contract jobs and brought them in-house.

More workers for the unions.

tfhr said...


That may be true for some skill sets but it is quite often the other way around. Example: There were two contract IT personnel assigned to support a watch floor I served on a few years ago. The government paid the contractor over $250K a year for these two and when all was said and done, neither one of them seemed to possess any greater knowledge on their subject matter than any similarly trained E4. Most contractors bring along a lot of technical know how and experience but this was certainly not the case.

Contractors often provide the flexibility and quick solutions needed to solve unique problems. Their expense does not make them the ideal solution for every problem.

Common sense and real leadership can make the difference between wasteful spending and other excesses found in the Intelligence Community. Maybe they can contract out and find some of that.

tfhr said...

The Angry Wugs has it right though the pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way with contractors giving up ground in the face of an expanding government work force in the Intel Community.

As for all of those TS clearances out there:

If you expect agencies to collaborate, and we do, then you're going to have to have people read-on to programs and cleared sufficiently to engage with their counterparts.

Duffy brought up the clearance oriented job fairs held in and around DC. These types of job fairs happen all around the country, by the way. Now if you handled an IT network and needed to protect the classified data on it, would you hire someone that already had a clearance or would you interview hundreds of people that may have never had a clearance, cannot obtain a clearance, much less have an active one now?

A clearance costs tens of thousands of dollars. As Ed Rasimus points out, a TS still does not grant the holder of that clearance access to every TS program. Then again, our enemies make no secret about the fact that they can get about 80% of what they need through open source. If that is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, then the WaPo article in question adds in some way to that total volume of intelligence we make available to our adversaries.