U.S. intelligence gathering: bought and sold

By Martin Bosworth

Several months ago Vanity Fair ran an absolutely scathing and incisive expose of SAIC, one of the largest government/military contractors in operation. The author went deep into the ranks of this shadowy, low-key corporation, and came out with a disturbing tale of how career military and intelligence officers go through a “revolving door” from creating expensive new systems, outsourcing them to companies, and then going to work for those selfsame companies as lobbyists to Congress.

Today Salon has upped the ante with a study of how the intelligence-gathering arm of the government has also been outsourced to private contractors:

Because of the cloak of secrecy thrown over the intelligence budgets, there is no way for the American public, or even much of Congress, to know how those contractors are getting the money, what they are doing with it, or how effectively they are using it. The explosion in outsourcing has taken place against a backdrop of intelligence failures for which the Bush administration has been hammered by critics, from Saddam Hussein’s fictional weapons of mass destruction to abusive interrogations that have involved employees of private contractors operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Aftergood and other experts also warn that the lack of transparency creates conditions ripe for corruption.

I don’t claim to be a security expert on the level of a Bruce Schneier or Marcus Ranum, but even I can see that there’s a much higher risk of damage to the country through excessive outsourcing than there is from flying planes into buildings. One-time attacks are catastrophic and damaging, yes, but the potential for damage to our infrastructure through corruption is far worse–and how easy would it be in a world where all intelligence is being shifted to private companies, whose aim is to maximize profit?

Think about it. Your whole goal is to make your company and yourself rich through providing intelligence and analysis on potential threats to the government. Every problem is going to look like a nail, and you’ll want to keep hammerin’.

Without accountability or oversight, our tax dollars are going to disappear even faster into black budgets, our government workforce will shrink as contractors flee for more profitable pastures, and we’ll be in even greater danger of opening the doors to potential attacks of all kinds–physical, cyber, security, and financial. The greatest weakness in any security system is the human element, and the more humans you let in to the game, the more likely it’s going to get rigged.

At the time of the SAIC article, I commented on the costs of the government’s mad rush to privatize:

Contracting really contributes to a breakdown of efficiency at every level. Companies will put in bids for projects at the lowest level possible, and will ensure that they charge the agency double or triple the actual cost of the project. That markup doesn’t go to the contractors themselves, of course—it all goes right into the contractor’s coffers. This can lead to embarrassingly low salaries for whomever gets hired, which is hardly a motivator to do a good job.

So you end up getting people that are either very young and untrained, or people who can bluff their way through the interview. Then you have to either spend weeks or months training them to understand all of the arcane rules and regulations of whichever agency they’re working with, or you just throw them in there and hope something sticks. That’s how you end up with things like contractors handling your personal data with no training, or the IRS’ much-maligned private debt collection program being scaled back.

And what about the Federal staffers? How do you think it hurts morale to see their agencies reduced and so much of their staff taking early retirement rather than deal with a bunch of young snot-noses who don’t know what they’re doing? It leads to a poisonous communication breakdown, with constant turf battles between “GS” folks and contractors. And people wonder why the government can’t get anything done.

Now I hear that new Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell wants to outsource background checks and clearances to private companies in order to speed up the clearance process. While I would never argue that the DOD/OPM model of clearing new hires is a model of efficiency, the thought of letting shadowy data brokers have unfettered access to the personal and financial data of new government workers is yet another door opened to the transformation of our government–a public institution–into a privatized corporation, built for profit, maximizing its own perpetuation, and with no accountability, oversight, or room for redress if it fails.

And in the high-stakes world of antiterrorism and security, that’s something we cannot afford.

9 replies »

  1. Here was the part of the Vanity Fair article that woke me up:

    It is a simple fact of life these days that, owing to a deliberate decision to downsize government, Washington can operate only by paying private companies to perform a wide range of functions. To get some idea of the scale: contractors absorb the taxes paid by everyone in America with incomes under $100,000. In other words, more than 90 percent of all taxpayers might as well remit everything they owe directly to SAIC or some other contractor rather than to the IRS.

    This is why I

  2. Of course, the people who have created this system seem to think that they can manipulate it so it won’t blowback on themselves or their loved ones. Big if.
    No, I meant the successful manipulation, not whether corporate/conservatives are able to love.
    Until we can block the revolving door and get legalized bribery out of Congress and the rest of government, we’re not going to make much progress with this stuff. We’re getting some traction, but it’s going to be a huge struggle against the human equivalent of greased, squirming, angry, desperate pigs.

  3. Those arguing for “war on terror” stand to reap profits. Those who committed torture and abuse were those who were paid; those who gathered information illegally, were paid. Those who used illegally captured information to implement abuse and illegal toruture were paid.

    Doesn’t matter if you call them contractorss, US goernment offiicals, or what: SOmeone is paying someone else to commit war crtimes, transfer information that was illgally captured, and using this inforation to implement illegal violations of Geneva.

    Congress doesn’t see fit to impeach; nor go after the legal community which allowed these illegal contractors to get written; time to stop waiting for Congress to impeach. Time for the public to put pressure on the state attorney generals to prosecute the President and VP and contractors for illegal activity. Talk to Jonathan Turley at Georgetown about prosecuting the President and VP outside impeachment.

  4. This is the price America is paying for twelve years of Republican corruption and greed, along with six and a half years of the worst administration in American history.

    The outsourcing of all of our democratic government functions to people whose first loyalty is to profit, and not to our Constitution or our democratic form of government.

    The Communists couldn’t have come up with a better, more insidious subversion of our democracy than what the “culture of corruption” Republicans have accomplished in pursuit of their totalitarian, monopolistic goal for our freedom-loving society.

    Evil is as evil does, and the evil that the Republican Party has unleashed on our democratic republic is bound to be providing much amusement for the Communists (and al Qaeda), I’m certain.

  5. Martin,

    This is a really good piece. I am going to have to re-read it again though…it is the weekend after all. 😉

    Also for some reason I am thinking of Ghost In The Shell. I need to go and find hubby and his collection of DVDs…

  6. Go to an industry website: Washington Technology. It lists contracts sent out for bid, those who win the contracts, and describes in detail what these contracts are suppose to do.

    The vast majority of the most lucrative ones are “evaluating” or “reviewing” an existing system.

    Just start to Google the names of the winning companies, then Google the names of their directors and leading executives. You will immediately see connections to the Defense Department, etc.

    This is literally the biggest rip off of the American Taxpayer and everyone in Washington (from Bush to Hillary) is in on this caper.