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NPR Story

NSA Leaks Focus New Attention On Government Contractors

Originally published on Tue July 9, 2013 11:36 am

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Edward Snowden, the man who leaked top-secret NSA documents, predicted a month ago that the U.S. government would accuse him of committing grave crimes. That comment came in a video released today by The Guardian newspaper. At the time he disclosed the secret information, Snowden was an employee of a private firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

NPR' Tom Gjelten says his case has focused new attention on the role private contractors play in the intelligence business.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The debate over intelligence outsourcing arose after 9/11. U.S. intelligence agencies were told to do whatever they could, hire whomever they needed, in order to track down terrorists and prevent another attack. The agencies didn't have enough trained people of their own to do the necessary intelligence work, so they went outside. They used intelligence contractors.

President Obama's first intelligence director, Dennis Blair, speaking at his confirmation hearing, said this intelligence outsourcing needed to come under control.

DENNIS BLAIR: You can't do that for a long time. You have to keep the governmental functions by people who get their paycheck every two weeks and work for the government. And I will get into that issue.

GJELTEN: That was in 2009. But Congress is not entirely satisfied the intelligence agencies are reducing the use of outside contractors fast enough.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: They've been working towards that goal. They have found it more difficult, and the process has been slower than any of us would like.

GJELTEN: Democrat Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee says the Snowden case has caused him and other members of Congress to take yet another look at the use of contractors to do intelligence work. It's long been known, he says, that outsourcing is more expensive than using government workers.

SCHIFF: From a cost point of view, it's made little sense for many of these jobs. But now we're going to be viewing this through does this also pose a risk to the security of our information?

GJELTEN: The new question - whether contractors are less likely to keep secrets.

SCHIFF: Certainly, we're pouring over this to determine what changes need to be made. And I think it really bolsters the view that many of us had before the whole Snowden business, that certain quintessentially government functions really ought to be brought back in and handled only by those working directly for the intelligence agencies.

GJELTEN: But it's not entirely clear that contractors present a bigger security risk than government employees. Before getting hired at Booz Allen as an intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden worked for the CIA, and he passed security checks there.

Charlie Allen is a 50-year intelligence veteran, spending most of his career at the CIA. It's been his experience, he says, that intelligence contractors are as trustworthy as government employees.

CHARLIE ALLEN: I worked with contractors as deputy program manager of a highly compartmented major program in the 1980s, early '90s, where our trust was deep with hundreds and hundreds of contractors. And we could not have accomplished that program in the Cold War without contractor support.

GJELTEN: Allen is now an advisor to a coalition of security firms on intelligence issues. He agrees some intelligence jobs are inherently governmental, but he says there are other areas where hiring contractors makes sense. He can imagine a CIA employee working in IT but not current with the latest technology.

ALLEN: He or she loses their expertise. They are not keeping up with the warp speed at which developments are occurring in places like Silicon Valley. You want to have very agile, very nimble, highly skilled contractors.

GJELTEN: But Allen and other intelligence veterans agree that outsourcing intelligence work does present unique security issues. John Gannon has worked a decade in private intelligence work after a long career at the CIA. He says he's found that intelligence contractors tend to bounce around from one employer to another.

JOHN GANNON: This creates a kind of mobility that I think is a real challenge to managers. And the managers in the contracting world are often managing a diaspora of contracts and multiple agencies.

GJELTEN: Making it harder for them to properly supervise the people doing their contract intelligence work. As much as half the government's intelligence work is now contracted out, all this outsourcing was already set to get congressional attention before Edward Snowden's leaks became a big story. Now, congressional hearings are due to be held, and there's even talk of new legislation to mandate that some intelligence work be handled only by the government. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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