When is it a good idea to use private contractors to perform tasks that are or could be done by government employees or personnel in uniform? Under the Clinton and Bush Administrations there was a push to outsource a broad range of activities and services supporting both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Intelligence Community (IC). Most people are familiar with the expanded role of private contractors in supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While a lot of ink was spilled in the press over the problematic role played by private security contractors, the vast majority of private contractors in theater have been performing logistics, maintenance and sustainment activities. Back home, private firms took a leading role as system integrators for major acquisition programs. There was also an expansion of the role of private contractors in the area of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO).
The Obama Administration came into office determined to undo its predecessors’ policies. To that end, the new White House directed the federal government to insource or bring back into government, where appropriate, many activities that had been performed by the private sector, often for more than a decade. The administration expanded the definition of activities and functions considered inherently governmental and, hence, only to be performed by government employees. Federal departments and agencies were required to set percentage targets for reductions in the use of private contractors. Many of these organizations also sought to take on the role that private companies had performed as systems integrator or overall manager of major defense programs. Many long-standing private sector MRO contracts were terminated and the work transferred to the public sector depots and logistics centers based on often poorly substantiated claims that the government facilities could perform these services more cheaply.
Given this history, it might be considered odd that this same administration would actively outsource to that same private sector some of its most sensitive intelligence collection tasks. The Washington Postreported yesterday that for more than two years U.S. companies have been operating a set of aerial collection systems in Africa for the purpose of gathering intelligence on one of that continent’s most thoroughly reprehensible groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and its leader Joseph Kony. The Post story also reported on an industry day held by the U.S. African Command to which some fifty private companies were invited. The purpose of the meeting was to identify private companies willing and able to provide surveillance and reconnaissance targeted not only against the LRA but also Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
Largely as an outgrowth of the demand from DoD and the IC for real time, multi-sensor, tactical information private defense companies have developed an amazing capability to provide relatively low cost, highly capable aerial ISR. The U.S. now is able to deploy a variety of manned and unmanned sensor platforms such as the Global Hawk, Predator, Scan Eagle and MC-12 Liberty. With an array of advanced sensors, these platforms can track multiple individuals in complex terrain on a near-continuous basis. It is no wonder that some of these assets and the skilled individuals who have operated them in the war zones, have now been asked to solve the problem of hunting down an insurgent group in the African jungles. But it does seem to contradict the administration’s rationale for its insourcing policy.
At the very least, this news story suggests an inconsistency in the administration’s approach to the role of the private sector in national security. A less charitable interpretation is that the administration wants it both ways: denigrating the role of the private sector in national security when the objective is to build up its support in the public sector but asking that same private sector to take the place of government personnel in doing some of the most difficult intelligence collection jobs ever assigned.
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