What's In The Washington Post Story Terrifying the Intelligence Community?

The complex world of spying for profit

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Update: The Washington Post story is now live. Here's our executive summary.

The U.S. intelligence community is bracing for a Washington Post story scheduled to be published on Monday. The story, largely reported by Pulitzer Prize-winner Dana Priest, will reportedly detail the billions of dollars of intelligence contracts fielded out to private companies. Both the State Department and the the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which oversees all intelligence agencies, have sent out internal memos regarding the story. Here's what we know about the story, what we know about private intelligence contracting, and how intelligence agencies are responding.

  • Likely Conclusions of the Story  The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder explains the intelligence contractor problem: "contractors do a lot of work that the government used to do by itself; oversight has become next to impossible; the intelligence-policy complex has created a revolving door of sorts where the line between private companies and intelligence agencies blurs; and of course waste, mismanagement, and more. Since  9/11, the intelligence community has welcomed a surge in contractors while building a larger civilian counterterrorism workforce -- a larger national security state." Ambinder reports that, in an internal memo, "[ODNI Director of Communications Art] House discloses that the series has been in the works for two years, includes an online database of contractors and their projects, and a television partnership with PBS's Frontline." House lists the three likely conclusions of the story:
• The intelligence enterprise has undergone exponential growth and has become unmanageable with overlapping authorities and a heavily outsourced contractor workforce.
• The IC and the DoD have wasted significant time and resources, especially in the areas of counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
• The intelligence enterprise has taken its eyes off its post-9/11 mission and is spending its energy on competitive and redundant programs.
  • Notice Intel Community Doesn't Plan to Dispute Facts  National security blogger Marcy Wheeler points out, "Nowhere in this memo ... does House even hint that Priest has her details wrong ... The only real risk that House raises is the 'unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and classified information.'" But the memo does worry that the story will portray these intelligence practices in a negative light. "And yet the intelligence community, inside its bunker, perceives a search for the truth as a design to portray it unfavorably. What an apt explanation, then, for the problem with excessive contracting: when a reporter avails herself of Constitutionally protected rights to act as a watchdog on our government and its contractors, the government itself assumes that must be an attack."
  • Just How Much Intel Work do Private Contractors Do?  National security reporter Tim Shorrock writes, "70 percent of our intelligence budget goes to these companies. Officially, according to a 2008 ODNI study of human capital within the IC, nearly 40,000 private contractors are working for intelligence agencies, bringing the total number of IC employees to more than 135,000." Shorrock takes the reader on a guided tour of "contractor alley," the small area surrounding the CIA headquarters where most private intel contractors are based. He explores in great detail the companies and personalities of private, for-profit spying.
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.
  • Intel Agencies Wasting Billions  Wired's Spencer Ackerman writes, "Looks like Priest — who discovered the CIA’s off-the-books torture facilities — is going document billions of dollars of intel-sector contracts with questionable benefit to national security. The intel folks’ hair may be on fire, but it’s our money that’s burning."
  • Want to Trim The Deficit? Start Here  Liberal blogger Digby writes, "I don't know if it includes Homeland Security, but if it doesn't I suspect another investigation should be done there. This gravy train has taken on sacred status as the right has managed to morph the "support the troops" mantra into a 'support the Military Industrial Complex,' which is just another way of maintaining the police welfare state for connected white guys. If there's belt tightening to be done, this is the place to start."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.