The Bizarre System of Hiring Intelligence Contractors

It's time to cut through red tape and entrust our national security to better candidates

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U.S Army Spc. Derflinger arm with contractor Aziz Ullah in eastern Afghanistan / Reuters

This morning I testified at the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs' Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia (a mouthful, I know) about how we can better manage and administer contractors within the intelligence community. I'm pasting a brief excerpt of my written testimony below, followed by a link to the full text of my remarks.

Every contract the government issues for a company to perform work is defined by the Statement of Work (SOW). This is a document that defines the parameters of the work the contractor will perform, including a description of the project, expected duties the contractor must fulfill, and the outputs and metrics by which performance will be measured. These are often poorly written, kept intentionally vague, and wind up not actually addressing the stated intent of the contracts.

As one example, every SOW I've had to either administer, edit, review, or write has stated as a basic metric of performance the number of employees the contractor should hire. That is, the basic means by which the government measures the contractor's performance is based first and foremost on the number of people hired to work on the contract. This has two serious consequences that affect the contracting environment: it removes the distinction between employees that would make work products better, and it confuses the number of employees with contract performance.

The frankly bizarre system of hiring intelligence contractors is born from several interdependent processes: getting a security clearance, getting hired, and getting "read on" to work at a government site. The system of getting a clearance is structured such that those with clearances are given preference above those without clearance, regardless of the relevant experience of either employee. In other words, if two candidates are competing for a job with a contractor, and one has deep relevant experience but no clearance, she will most likely lose to a candidate with less relevant experience but a current and active security clearance.
There is a great deal more to this, and I would suggest anyone interested in this topic to download both my own testimony (At SCRIBD, or PDF here), and checking out the Hearing page, which includes written remarks from Daniel Gordon from the Office of Management and Budget, DHS Chief of Intelligence Charles E. Allen, Scott Amey from the Project on Government Oversight, and Dr. Mark Lowenthal.
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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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