Will Congress clamp down on spies gone wild?

Last week’s much anticipated Washington Post expose on the meteoric growth of the national intelligence community in the years since the 2001 terrorist attacks shines a light on an issue that people have talked about for years: the extent to which the federal government now relies on private contractors to perform a significant amount of its work.

Curiosity has been high about what effect the three-part Post series, written by Dana Priest and William Arkin, might have on government contracting practices, especially given Priest’s track record for raising issues that prompt government response. Her story five years ago about the existence of CIA black sites contributed to the shuttering of that program, while her reporting on the mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center resulted in the sacking of generals and improved care for veterans.

“Whenever Dana Priest writes about national security, the Earth moves,” wrote Marc Ambinder in a preview of the coverage in The Atlantic. “Anxiety about what the series might reveal, or what it might imply, is palpable.”

What the Post reported last week about the size, secrecy and make-up of the intelligence community paints a picture of a sprawling and duplicative government security apparatus that is utterly dependent on vendor help and whose effectiveness is difficult to determine, even for those who fund and run it.

The numbers are eye-opening:

  • Some 854,000 people involved in intelligence work have top-secret clearances; 265,000 of them, or 31 percent, are contractors, many of whom are performing inherently governmental work.
  • The intelligence budget has more than doubled since 2001 — to $75 billion.
  • About 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications are intercepted every day by the National Security Agency.
  • Fifty-one federal organizations and military commands track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

The scale and complexity of these operations make improvement or reform extremely problematic, were there the will to do it, writes Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com. “So long as the word Terrorism continues to be able to strike fear in the hearts of enough citizens and media stars — as Communism did before it — the political class, no matter who is elected, will be petrified to oppose any of this, even if they wanted to, and why would they want to?” Greenwald writes.

With part of the problem being too many people chasing too little hard intelligence, duplication is unavoidable, and the ensuing bureaucratic inertia will make rollback difficult, writes Robert Baer on Time.com. “The story I keep hearing over and over is that the bright young people who came to Washington to fight terrorism — civil servants and contractors alike — have become disillusioned, and they will soon turn away from idealism and begin to transform their jobs into comfortable careers,” Baer writes. “In the case of the contractors, it means more contracts and more contractors. It's all the worse because there are now contractors writing their own contracts.”

There are ways to start addressing the problems the Post series identifies, but the best player to force the issue also happens to be “the real evil mastermind” behind the current system, and that’s Congress, writes Michael Tanji on Wired. Tanji mentions a half-dozen changes that he says would help fix the system, including tightening revolving-door policies, focusing the use of contractors, and rethinking how intelligence agencies measure their performance.

But he’s doubtful much real change will occur mainly because it hasn’t yet. “These are not new or misunderstood issues,” Tanji writes. “The idea that this is going to be the spark that lights a fire under the back-sides of intelligence agencies or what passes for intelligence oversight entities is fanciful.”

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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