The last two days, Washington has been abuzz as a result of a serialized story in theWashington Post about what is often called the Intelligence Community (IC). The story suggests that the IC is big, expensive, cumbersome and not effective enough. What a shock; a government bureaucracy that is getting bigger, becoming more expensive, producing more reports and studies that nobody reads, cannot share and is less effective in the process. The report is on more solid ground when it suggests that there is duplication and overlap in functions and that the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has done nothing to solve the IC’s problems.
Where the Washington Post’s investigation goes off the rails is when it attacks the role of private contractors in supporting the IC. The article suggests, sometimes with quotes from government officials, that private contractors are too expensive, mistake prone, corrupt and even disloyal. The story resorts to cheap shots such as reports about parties paid for by private contractors and bonuses paid to headhunters for finding key personnel. But it never makes the case that anything improper is being done.
The story suggests that private employees are less loyal to the government that hires their companies or to the United States than they are to their shareholders. In fairness to the authors, Dana Priest and William Arkin, they do quote CIA Director Leon Panetta saying this. But I would say to all three what is the evidence? Considering that the story today starts by noting that private contractors have died alongside government employees and military personnel, this is an outrageous charge. This statement maligns more than 250,000 people. Moreover, many of these individuals were former employees of the IC, have friends and certainly colleagues in these institutions and maintain memberships in associations for intelligence professionals. The idea that they would ignore all this to harm the government or the country is simply ludicrous.
On other issues, the story is not just wrong but displays poor research or simply bad math. For example, it has become commonplace for government officials to make the unfounded allegation that private contractors cost more than government personnel. The Washington Post repeats this myth as if it were fact. The Department of Defense claimed that contractors cost 40 percent more than government employees. This is shocking information, if true. The trouble is it is not. That figure is based on comparing straight labor hours for government employees against the total costs for contractors. These costs include retirement, health care, training and even the physical facilities in which they operate. Yes, the costs also include profits the company makes but these are specified and limited in contracts and rarely amount to even 10 percent. Also, private companies charge different and lower rates when their employees are working in government spaces reflecting lower costs. Given the way the government does contracting and how it accounts for its own costs it is certain that the same bad math is occurring in the Intelligence Community. Just include in the cost of government workers the value of all those incredible buildings that are being constructed to house different parts of the IC. This is an apples to elephants comparisons.
Are private contractors doing work that should only be done by government employees? The Washington Post implies such, saying that many contractors do work fundamental to an agency’s core mission, but provides no evidence of impropriety. Perhaps because there is none. In 2008, the DNI’s Chief Human Capital Office reporting on his office’s inventory of core contractor personnel that while 70 percent of the National Intelligence Program (NIP) is outsourced there are only 37,000 “core” intelligence contactors working for the IC that make up 27 percent of the IC total work force and that none of these individuals were performing any “inherently government functions.”
The Washington Post story demonstrates, in text and data, that the vast majority of the private contractors are doing work that is either not critical to the mission of the IC or is beyond their competencies. On page A9 there are visual representations of both the work breakdown among private contractors as well as a graph that shows which agencies within the IC are the greatest users of private contractors. The headline, “Top Secret America is driven by information, not weapons” says it all. The vast majority of companies provide information technology and the biggest users of private contractors are the information heavy parts of the IC. Developing information technology and exploiting it are two things the government can never do as well or as cheaply as the private sector. The other major area of private sector activity is in administrative support and staffing, also activities at which the government is not good. Only 22 percent of the nearly 2,000 companies supporting the IC are involved in intelligence, operations or what the story calls “weapons.”
The reality is that the IC turned to the private sector in the aftermath of 9/11 because contractors could do more, faster and without the bureaucratic and hiring entanglements that hamstrung the government. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the government has relied on the private sector to create the cutting edge systems that enabled it to function. Whether it was surveillance satellites, the U-2, SR-71, unmanned aerial systems, the Internet (with help from DARPA), eavesdropping systems, or relational databases, the private sector provided the IC the tools to win the wars for information. This is still true today. After 9/11 the private sector responded quickly and relatively efficiently to the needs of the IC for analysts, linguists, IT specialists, trainers, Web designers and engineers. In some instances, private companies put teams together and sent them into the field in a matter of weeks. Equally important, when the need is over, contracts can be terminated and the private contractors will go away. That is not the case for government employees. So, unless the government foresees a need for hundreds of Pashto and Dari speakers after the end of our involvement in Afghanistan, it seems a good idea to have the private sector hire and fire linguists.
“Top Secret America” has lots of interesting graphics and neat pictures of secret IC facilities in your neighborhood and mine. What it lacks are the facts.
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