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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Snowden Mess Shows Why Private Contractors Shouldn’t Run U.S. Intel

Republicans hate to hear it. But it must be said, now more than ever. Some stuff should not be privatized, outsourced or sub-contracted out.
There is ample evidence, for example, that the private sector is less than efficient in delivering affordable, quality health care to most Americans, as is the conclusion most non-ideologues would likely to draw from reading this article comparing health care in the U.S. and Sweden.
For an even more newsy take on the inefficiencies of government outsourcing to the private sector, however, read Tim Shorrock’s “Put the Spies Back Under One Roof” in the New York Times. As Shorrock observes:

The revelation that Edward J. Snowden, a contractor at Booz Allen Hamilton, was responsible for the biggest leak in the history of the National Security Agency has sparked a furious response in Congress.
“I’m very concerned that we have government contractors doing what are essentially governmental jobs,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week. “Maybe we should bring some of that more in-house,” the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, mused.
It’s a little late for that. Seventy percent of America’s intelligence budget now flows to private contractors. Going by this year’s estimated budget of about $80 billion, that makes private intelligence a $56 billion-a-year industry.

Seventy percent? That’s an awful lot of faith in the integrity and capabilities of businesses that measure success in terms of their economic profit.
You will not be too surprised to learn that the push toward subcontracting our intelligence gathering and analysis to private, profiteering enterprises began around the year 2000. It wasn’t long before “The N.S.A.’s headquarters began filling with contractors working for Booz Allen and hundreds of other companies,” reports Shorrock, who adds:

And if the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs are unlawful or unconstitutional, as many Americans (including myself) believe, does it make any difference whether the work is done by a government analyst or a private contractor?
It does. Here’s why. First, it is dangerous to have half a million people — the number of private contractors holding top-secret security clearances — peering into the lives of their fellow citizens. Contractors aren’t part of the chain of command at the N.S.A. or other agencies and aren’t subject to Congressional oversight. Officially, their only loyalty is to their company and its shareholders.
Second, with billions of dollars of government money sloshing around, and with contractors providing advice on how to spend it, conflicts of interest and corruption are inevitable. Contractors simply shouldn’t be in the business of managing large projects and providing procurement advice to intelligence agencies…
Third, we’ve allowed contractors to conduct our most secret and sensitive operations with virtually no oversight. This is true not only at the N.S.A. Contractors now work alongside the C.I.A. in covert operations (two of the Americans killed in Benghazi were C.I.A. contractors; we still don’t know who their employer was).

Shorrock also writes about the incentives for corruption in the ‘revolving door’ and adds “After Blackwater’s sordid history in Iraq, we don’t need more unaccountable actors fighting terrorism for profit.” As for solutions to the problem:

Congress must act now to re-establish a government-run intelligence service operating with proper oversight. The first step is to appoint an independent review board — with no contractors on it — to decide where the line for government work should be drawn. The best response to the Snowden affair is to reduce the size of our private intelligence army and make contract spying a thing of the past. Our democracy depends on it.

There is way too much at stake in our national security to allow profit-driven concerns to spend 70 percent of our intelligence budget. Democrats should lead the call to restore public interest in our intel operations.

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