US contracts out national security
In June, a stone carver from Manassas, Virginia, chiseled another perfect star into a marble wall at CIA headquarters, one of 22 for agency workers killed in the global war initiated by the 2001 terrorist attacks.Updated: Jul 24, 2010 00:11 IST
In June, a stone carver from Manassas, Virginia, chiseled another perfect star into a marble wall at CIA headquarters, one of 22 for agency workers killed in the global war initiated by the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The memorial conceals a deeper story about government in the post-9/11 era: Eight of the 22 were not CIA officers at all. They were private contractors.
Federal rules say contractors may not perform what are called "inherently government functions." But they do, all the time and in every intelligence and counterterrorism agency.
What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency. It calls into question whether the US federal workforce includes too many people obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest and whether the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities.
Both Defence Secretary Robert Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta said they agreed with such concerns.
Contractors are playing an ever more important role in the counterterrorism-homeland security apparatus that the US has developed. Out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors.
There is no better example of this dependency than the CIA, the one government organisatin that exists to do things that no other US agency is allowed to do.
Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals.
Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs.
At their Langley headquarters they analyse terrorist networks.
The Bush administration and Congress made it much easier for the CIA and other agencies involved in counterterrorism to hire more contractors than civil servants.
They did this to limit the size of the permanent workforce, to hire employees more quickly than the sluggish federal process allows and because they thought — wrongly — that contractors would be less expensive.
Nine years later, well into the Obama administration, the idea that contractors cost less has been repudiated. The administration is making some progress toward its goal of reducing the number of hired hands by 7 per cent over two years. Still, close to 30 per cent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies is contractors.
"For too long, we’ve depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done" by CIA employees, Panetta said.
In an exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content visit www.washingtonpost.com
First Published: Jul 24, 2010 00:08 IST