The Case for Corporate Intelligence Contractors

Are the Washington Post's conclusions misguided?

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The Washington Post's groundbreaking investigation, "Top Secret America," already has national security writers questioning the nature of our post-Sept. 11 national security structure. The ongoing, multi-part story today examines the breadth and depth of "National Security Inc," the sprawling and secretive world of private, for-profit intelligence contracting. It warns that the tangled web of corporate spies and intelligence workers is incredibly inefficient, floods the intelligence system with so much analysis that the most valuable work gets lost, and produces such a tangled web of secrecy that even our own government can't keep track of the national security state. No one is denying these charges, but a few writers are pointing out that intelligence contracting isn't all bad and may serve an important role. Here's their case.

Point one: when counterterrorism and counterintelligence functions are funded by supplementals, new jobs can't be created. Why? Because supplementals provide funding for one year at a time, and you can't fund a new federal employee for one year. So a lot of counterterrorism operations have to be farmed out to companies who have the cleared personnel to handle them.

Point two: there hasn't been a true intelligence authorization bill for five years. That's left the basic funding of the intelligence community to the appropriations committees, which won't budget with the same level of granularity and expertise that the intelligence committees would.

Point three: in the absence of an intelligence authorization bill, Congress hasn't increased its oversight capacity over contractors because it hasn't had the mechanisms to do so. This year's authorization is on life support because of a dispute between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the President. Among its provisions: a census of all IC contracts and incentives for government agencies to use their own personnel for critical functions.
  • Contractors Provide Crucial Redundancies  Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner does the math, "some redundancy is actually a good thing, particularly on an issue like counter-terrorism. Say a single bureaucracy is tasked with intelligence gathering about threat X. Let's say this bureaucracy represents the best of the best of the best -- the A-Team. The A-Team does it's job and catches 95% of the emergent threats from X. That's still 5% that is missed. Now say you have another independent bureaucracy with a similar remit. This agency is staffed by different people with their own set of blind spots. Let's even stipulate that we're talking about the B-team here, and they'll only catch 80% of the emergent threats from X. If thesr two bureaucracies are working independently -- and this is an important if -- then the odds that a threat would go unobserved by both bureaucracies is .05*.2 = .01 = 1%. So, by adding another bureaucracy, even a less competent one, the chances of an undetected threat getting through are cut from 5% to 1%. That ain't nothing." National Review's Cliff May agrees.
  • Many Contractor Jobs Benign, Necessary  Joshua Foust explains, "As one example: interpreters for the wars is a basic contracting job: something that lasts only as long as the war, they they're free to go. ... That's why contractors exist - they can be hired and fired rapidly. Hiring [government employees] is slow and deeply inefficient, and never mission-ready. ... That is, [government employees] cannot switch tasks and agencies efficiently as the mission requires it. Contractors can. So you use contractors."
  • Problem Is Management, Not Contractors  National security blogger John Little writes, "This intermingling isn’t new, and isn’t just a post 9/11 phenomenon, but that event did (not surprisingly) trigger exponential growth in all directions. Managing this growth is a herculean task but declaring it unmanageable and unworkable is a bit of a stretch. The system presents countless opportunities for reform and improvement but it largely works. ... In a perfect world this would spark productive discussion about how the intelligence community is resourced and managed. What we’ll get though is political grandstanding, conspiracy theories, and potentially another layer of bureaucracy."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.