When I wrote last summer about the federal government's increasing tendency to hire contractors to perform intelligence tasks, a key issue was the droves of employees leaving government agencies to work for private intelligence specialists. In my blog, I cited a company called Abraxas, run by a former CIA official, that hired more than 100 former government intelligence workers and put many of them to work on government accounts.
This prompted CIA Director Michael V. Hayden to prohibit ex-employees from returning to work on their old projects for 18 months. Yet that step doesn't go nearly far enough in addressing the governments' increasing reliance on contractors to perform intelligence work, notes Jeff Stein in his Washington Post review of "Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing," a book by Tim Shorrock.
According to Shorrock, intelligence contracting now accounts for a hefty three-quarters of the annual estimated $60 billion intelligence budget. While contractors have long provided satellites, spy planes and other gear, private companies now provide services ranging from data-mining to commanding paramilitary operations, writes Shorrock.
Contractors are more interested in profit margins than in national security, warns Shorrock -- and offers some damning anecdotes in his book to prove it. Shorrock makes some valuable points, notes reviewer Stein, but he also presents a one-sided "movie version of Washington ... with black-hat war profiteers right out of Catch-22's M & M Enterprises."
While President Bush has taken some knocks for the rapid growth of federal outsourcing and associated concerns about accountability and cronyism, Shorrock traces the beginning of the government's apparent fondness for outsourcing to the cost-cutting efforts of earlier administrations. William Cohen, Defense secretary under President Clinton, described "a corporate vision for the Defense Department," according to Shorrock.
Stein's conclusion after reading the book:
Would the United States be better off if those operatives were working as CIA employees, reporting directly to agency supervisors rather than to private bosses whose loyalty to the company's bottom line may trump the nation's national security? After reading Shorrock's strenuous indictment, you will wonder.
At the very least, the CIA's increasing willingness to outsource intelligence seems to go against the conventional wisdom of outsourcing peripheral activities while keeping core buisness in-house. If intelligence isn't a core activity for the CIA, then what is?