Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Contracting Out U.S. National Security

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 2 July 2013.

Despite the cheers and jeers at leakers such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden over the last few years, it would seem access to such information is less protected than ever. Serving intelligence officers are allowed to sell their skills to corporations. High-level intelligence work, once closely guarded, is farmed out to contractors, who leak information like a sieve.

The Obama White House has conducted more leak investigations than any previous administration, now including the leak of a cyber-warfare campaign against Iran by a top US army general, James Cartwright. We are selling our national security in an effort to save a buck – and we will continue to pay for it in other ways.

In 2010, Eamon Javers reported on CIA's controversial "moonlighting" policy, which allowed active intelligence officers to seek permission to work in the private sector on the side if they made full disclosure and it did not conflict with their duties. Generally, the same standard applies to all federal employees who are not political appointees.

But not all federal employees are CIA officers. No statistics of how many took advantage of the policy were forthcoming, but the policy itself was disturbing enough to lead to questions before Congress.

Why is this allowed? Defenders hold it is important to stop the "brain drain", where the best and brightest depart the agency for better pay. Supporters argue the level of compensation at CIA doesn't stack up against other federal or private-sector employment. This "discrepancy" leads talented employees to look elsewhere – for roles in which their skills fetch better prices. The CIA thus finds itself in competition with the private sector to keep personnel on whom it has expended a great deal of money and effort in training.

Demand for intelligence work has ballooned since 9/11, though government belt-tightening in recent years has had an effect. Washington has decided, rather than expanding intelligence services in a permanent sense, to farm out the increased workload to private contractors. This has advantages, as for any business seeking to outsource operations. When the need for the work reduces, it is easier to allow a contract to expire than it is to lay off excess federal employees or to keep them on, under-employed.

But there are drawbacks as well. Rather than paying solely for the service, the price also reflects the contractor's own costs – their HR, finance, management and marketing departments' wages, office costs, even redundancies. It is questionable if contracting saves anything at all. One doesn't have to look hard to find stories of wasted costs, foul-ups or even corruption in security contracting.

Just last week, USIS, the contractor responsible for performing background checks for security clearances – including Edward Snowden's – was accused of misleading the government as to the thoroughness of their investigations. Lawmakers have been told that thousands of background checks may have been improperly conducted. (The firm has made no comment, but issued a statement saying it was co-operating with an investigation.)

Private intelligence contractors look to hire employees who already have active clearances and intelligence experience – requirements not easily obtained elsewhere than an intelligence agency. The problem becomes circular. Farming out intelligence work to contractors creates its own demand. Agency employees leave for jobs with higher pay because the government itself has created a market for them, creating the very "brain drain" it seeks to stem. This is because bean-counters are worried about the effect on the budget – namely, of salary, benefits and pension obligations to employees. In the CIA's defence, these decisions are made in Washington, DC, not Langley, Virginia.

A second argument is that no harm is being done and these individuals have dedicated years to the country and are entitled to "feather their nests". However, the US military shares the same commitment to the country – yet service personnel get paid even less, and veterans are coming home to high unemployment rates.

While the job has its risks, most CIA employees still have desk jobs. The more academic nature of the job does not automatically entitle analysts to higher pay. There are also brainy folks at the Department of Interior or Forest Service who are overworked and underpaid. Many other less fortunate Americans would be happy to have such pay and benefits as CIA officers enjoy.

That our national security apparatus feels it must compete with the private sector to attract the best talent now means attracting the wrong kind of talent. Those who work in such a vital role should not do so for the salary, even if that is a great recruitment tool. One recruit who signs up for the right reasons is worth five who sign up for others. This should be familiar to US intelligence officers from the CIA's chief architect, Allen Dulles, who believed the most dependable sources are those not in it for pay.

The net effect on security is that it has become impossible for America to keep secrets. Security information is being handled by private companies poaching the intelligence community's talent and selling it back to the government, who paid to develop it in the first place. Government budget cuts and a failure to invest in intelligence infrastructure have created this problem.

National security challenges do not simply go away because we are having budget fights. If we are not willing to pay for this now, we'll pay for it later – in another, more sinister sense. Some things are worth paying for; our national security is one of them.