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The green in the badge stands for money

[Contract intelligence] positions and thousands like them are part of a growing trend at the Pentagon to contract out intelligence jobs that were formerly done primarily by service personnel and civil service employees.

But, by using contract employees, government agencies lose control over those doing this sensitive work and an element of profit is inserted into what is being done. Also, as investigations have revealed, politics and corruption may be introduced into the process.

The office of Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte has quietly begun to study the contracting issue because “it already is a problem,” a senior intelligence official said in a recent interview.

The party line used to be that contractors were cheaper because you used them for while to get something up and running, then kicked them to the curb when the regular employees took the reigns. No health insurance, no retirement plans, etc., so in the long run they were cheaper even if you were paying 3x the hourly rate of an employee.

However, while an individual project may run its course the likelihood that any given contractor will actually have to vacate his government-supplied cube is fairly small. He may or may not have 100% of the expertise your agency might need, but he’s got the clearance and accesses necessary to get in the door. Odds are he’s never really left where he is working, as he could very well be a retiree. What is cheaper; salary at $X/hour plus benefits for 25 years or straight salary at $3X/hour for the same time period?

I’m certainly not anti-contractor (on some days I am one). Because of the way the IC is currently configured and managed it is never going to have the right kind of people in the right numbers at the right times; this makes contractors essential to mission accomplishment. I think what is needed is a much simpler contracting system because people join intelligence agencies to collect and analyze, not manage contractors. This is especially important as younger officers enter the workforce who may have the necessary topical expertise, but not the arcane procurement acumen that only a grizzled COTR veteran has developed. It is kind of a self-licking ice cream cone: Alice wants to work on terrorism, Alice signs on with an IC agency, Alice ends up overseeing contracts more than performing actual work, Alice resigns and goes to work for a contractor doing what she actually wants to do. Lather, rinse, repeat.

As former CTC Chief Brennan points out in the article, there should be a governor on the revolving door. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on your experience and expertise, but there should be a serious attempt to minimize the outright whore-factor. I would take his recommendation a step further and limit or prevent a return to a former agency as well as moves to/from an oversight element (HPSCI, SSCI). This is particularly important for senior staffers who have no problems flexing mostly perceived muscles on their former underlings (often to disastrous and expensive results).

PS: As I hit the “post” button I was reminded of the various books on the privatization of military functions. Waging war (or at least keeping peace and providing security) is no longer exclusively a government function. Can intelligence work be far behind? Congress seems loathe to allocate more billets to IC agencies, so work has to be farmed out. Is the trend going to be an even smaller IC, with procurement and contracting offices as large ad influential as collection and analysis directorates? Just-in-time collection and analysis? Turn-key crisis-response teams? Perhaps, as long as we can actually see the end of any given crisis (BTF, anyone?).

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.