Outsourcing National Security

If you haven’t been reading the Washington Post‘s new series "Top Secret America" on the state of the intelligence community since 9/11, I highly recommend checking it out. William Arkin, one of the authors of the series, gave an interview this morning on "Washington Journal," C-SPAN’s morning call-in program. Discussing today’s piece on the extensive use of contractors in intelligence work, Arkin found placing "the functions of a third of our government in the hands of private companies" to be a "fundamental issue" that the public must grapple with.

The reasons for this are clear:

What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency that calls into question whether the 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.

Anyone that’s been following this blog knows that contractors, despite federal laws to the contrary, routinely perform inherently governmental functions in a hidden and unwieldy environment that makes oversight difficult.

During his interview, Arkin went over some overwhelming statistics on contractors in the intelligence world that he and Dana Priest, the other author of the series, uncovered through their investigation:

  • Of the 854,000 individuals with top-secret clearances, 265,000, or nearly a third, are contractors.
  • The government contracts out with 1,931 private companies to work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence.

The difficulty in subduing the boom in outsourcing that has occurred over the last nine years in both the intelligence and military worlds – which heavily overlap – is immense. Much of this is attributable to the self-perpetuating nature of the use of contractors. As Arkin observes, "[contractors] are never going to step forward to say, ‘We don’t need to do what we’re doing,’ or, ‘We need to do less.’"

Of course, there are also those within government that like the ever-increasing budgets that the national security state receives. David Axe, a seasoned war correspondent, commented this morning over on his blog War is Boring that the Post’s report evokes Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich’s recent book, The Limits of Power. Bacevich, a former officer in the Army, writes:

The national security state perdures. It does so not because its activities enhance the security of the American people, but because, by its very existence, it provides a continuing rationale for political arrangements that are a source of status, influence and considerable wealth.

I think one could make a similar argument about the contracting industry the Defense Department animates with billions of dollars every year.

The Post‘s series seems to be creating quite a stir within Washington, and maybe it will give a little more urgency to Congress to better reform the issue of inherently governmental. It’s not as if the subject isn’t serious enough, as "contractors…are fundamentally involved in matters of national security from intelligence analysis to manning watch and command centers to actually being out there in the field pulling the trigger on guns."

 

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