Contracting Out Intelligence Jobs

Walter Pincus reports that there is growing concern over the degree to which private contractors are taking over intelligence analysis.

[Several listed anecdotes represent] a growing trend at the Pentagon to contract out intelligence jobs that were formerly done primarily by service personnel and civil service employees. But, by using contract employees, government agencies lose control over those doing this sensitive work and an element of profit is inserted into what is being done. Also, as investigations have revealed, politics and corruption may be introduced into the process.

The office of Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte has quietly begun to study the contracting issue because “it already is a problem,” a senior intelligence official said in a recent interview. A related concern for intelligence agencies inside and outside the Pentagon is that the government is training people and getting them security clearances, but they then leave for better pay offered by contractors, sometimes to do the same work. “Once cleared, they can get a higher salary outside and they are gone,” the official said. “We’re leasing back our former employees.”

[…]

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who ran Iraqi military training from 2003 to 2004, describes the hiring of civilians to do jobs previously done by the military as a “shell game” created by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to keep the “force strength static on paper.” In an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Eaton wrote, “This tactic may help for a bit, but it will likely fall apart in the next budget cycle with those positions swiftly eliminated.” “The Pentagon ramped up so fast, it had to turn to contract personnel to have continuity,” said another former senior intelligence official who now does contract work. He pointed out that some jobs are so complex, military personnel on three-year rotations are facing reassignment just as they master their jobs.

The trend toward contracting for intelligence analysts will hurt the ability of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency to retain and keep high-quality people, said a former senior intelligence official who helped supervise the rebuilding of the CIA’s case officer and analyst corps. “It takes time to get the young up to snuff, and you need 10 to 20 years to get the value for that investment,” this former official said, asking for anonymity because of his past role in government.

John O. Brennan, the longtime CIA official who started up and headed the National Counterterrorism Center before his retirement, said contract personnel “bring on recognized expertise that exists outside government” and “often are needed as new [intelligence] systems are being built.” Now a contractor himself, Brennan said it should come as no surprise that many younger military and government-trained intelligence personnel, who have top security clearances, are resigning to take jobs in the private sector.

The CIA’s contracting has generally been limited to technical support, but almost two years ago a “spy drain” was described in a column by intelligence expert James Bamford, who warned, “Private contractors are taking over jobs once reserved for highly trained agency employees.” Because of the rush to expand activities, Bamford said some newly hired former CIA officers said that “their talents are being wasted on unsophisticated tasks.”

Full disclosure up front: I am currently employed as a private contractor by the Defense Department, was once employed as an Army officer (technically Military Intelligence but detailed to Field Artillery), and my dad is a retired Army NCO and retired Department of the Army civil service employee. So, I have both a lot of perspective on the issue and a number of biases.

Creating financial incentives for people to quit government service to come back in the same jobs as contractors is a bizarre policy. We have done this, not only for intelligence analysts but also for those doing security work in combat zones. I have written numerous times on soldiers, particularly Special Forces NCOs, quitting the service to take a threefold salary increase doing the same job as a contractor, minus the B.S. associated with uniformed service.

Otherwise, however, hiring contractors to do these jobs makes a lot of sense. The problem with hiring on more civil service types is that you can’t get rid of them once they are no longer needed. One can, for a price, find a passel of people with, for example, skills in relatively obscure languages necessary for a particular operation. Once that need has gone, contracts are simply not renewed. Civil servants, by contrast, are hired for life once they have achieved career status.

Eaton is certainly right, too, that the military personnel system works against using uniformed Service members to do many of these jobs. By the time a soldier is truly proficient at his job, his ticket is punched and it is time for him to move on to a new assignment. That’s a big reason so many jobs once held by soldiers started moving to civil service employees–often themselves military retirees–twenty years or so ago. But, as noted, civil servants bring their own set of problems. Certainly, “politics and corruption” are not the sole province of contractors.

Working as a DoD contractor the last two years, my observation has been that it is a dual edged sword. On the one hand, contractors bring a lot of skills to the table, having education and experience not necessarily found in the civil service staff. And, because we are hired for only a year or two at a time, supervisors have tremendous leverage to ensure that assigned tasks are completed in a prompt and proficient manner. At the same time, that makes us subject to getting assigned duties outside our expertise and the scope of the contract because we are more flexible and under the gun than our tenured counterparts. On the negative side, however, contractors have less loyalty to a program than their government counterparts because we do not have a long term commitment. And there is a certain tension between the groups, with both sides thinking their counterparts are better paid and have a lesser work ethic. Moreover, contractors are often given the lead for high priority tasks because of our flexibility but the civil service people with whom we coordinate have little incentive to actually respond to us, as we do not have a spot on the organizational chart.

The bottom line is that, in an ideal world, skill sets for which there is a perceived long term demand should likely be hired by the government on a permanent basis and those which are perceived as short term needs should be contracted out. Contractors should be used like “temps” in private business. In reality, though, the inefficiencies and inflexibility of the civil service personnel system makes that politically unlikely.

Via emailed tip from frequent commenter Jonk.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    James, I speak from first hand experience on this subject. Eaton is right on about the need for contracors to fill needs which the Civil Service cannot perform because of limits on billets for those positions. For years, both the Clinton White House (Under Al Gore’s Reinventing the Government initiative) and a Republican controlled congress hostile to perceived “big government” had hamstrung any initiative to increase the civil service workforce to fill the needs. Hence the easy way out was always to get contractors to do the work. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

    I don’t know about your experience at DISA, but having spent the last 11+ years as a DoD civilian, I can tell you that it’s different all over how well contractors are integrated into the team. I view my contractors as valuable integral members of the team whom we totally depend on to perform highly technical work.

  2. Jonk says:

    I think it is a mistake to rely on mercenary labor. The contractor boom is a direct result of the Intel community being gutted during the Clinton era to save money since the Cold War ended and many agencies were struggling with “what to do now”. As a result after 9/11, our Intel community was weakened to such a point as to have our policy come out repeatedly with egg on its face due to poor (and politicized) Intel. Are we really saving money now? Is our Intel any better? How many new contractors have erupted around the beltway since our War on Terror? Is this really the way we want to go? Can we possibly attract real talent to rebuild our agencies when we rely upon contracting?

    I admit I have mixed feelings. We will always have a need for some contracting � I have no problem with that when it is limited. On the personal side, almost all of my friends from my Army days have become contractors. They are making great money compared to GS government work — and with the cost of living around the beltway as it is, they are able to own their own homes and live fairly well. Many have retired from government service and simply moved over to the contracting side of the house (which I think isn�t such a bad idea), some left government service to make the bigger bucks (which I think is a bad idea).

    Almost all of our linguists in Iraq are contractors — they would be GS employees if the pay was there and more billets were assigned to this war– and why they don�t create them is beyond me; this war has no end due to it being about cultures, not armies. They make triple the pay (with no cap, unlike GS) � how does that save money? On one hand, I cannot blame them for eschewing regular government work. But on the other, I wonder how long this can go on and when patriotism became tied to dollar signs.

    I feel a basic discomfort with the idea that the core of our Intel work is done by the (cliché alert) �lowest bidder�, rather than a core of patriots who work for US interests above and beyond the interests of their pocketbooks. Perhaps a broad generalization and a bit harsh, but I stand by it. I am not talking about specific individuals or even the firms themselves, but in a general sense regarding the theme of the current contracting boom and what patriotism really means.

    How things turn will depend more on politics than anything, and that actually bothers me *more* than the contracting. Once Intel became politicized (the Church Commission sowed the seeds we are now reaping after a good watering by Clintonites), I think we started down a dark path and there may be no coming back.

    Or perhaps I am just a dinosaur from the old era and don’t even realize that I have become extinct in the new one.

  3. John Burgess says:

    The downsizing of the gov’t didn’t start with Clinton, though the quest for a “Peace Dividend” certainly accelerated it. DOD probably got the lightest hit, but even it had to downsize.

    Technology played a role in it, too. As more and more clerical and support functions could be readily accomplished on a PC, clerical and support positions disappeared. It’s only very senior gov’t officials who have secretaries these days.

    But there’s a limit to the benefit to be derived from tech. My keying in my own correspondence is certainly something I can do. I can do a travel voucher, a request for leave, my Financial Disclosure forms. Some of that I may want to do, both for privacy and accuracy.

    But it’s not efficient for me to do that. My hourly rate is far in excess of that of a GS-4 Clerk-Typist, or a GS-5 Vouchering Clerk.

    There is a cap on the number of federal employees, as well as a cap on the number for each individual agency. Raise the caps–which assumes that the additional money will be there for salary and benefits–and a lot of jobs could be created and filled instantly.

    It’s nearly impossible, though, to get rid of GS employees who underperform. Short of a jailable offense, it takes years of documenting every action and corrective action taken before it happens. But those under-performers are still encumbering limited positions.

    I’m not laying into GS employees here. Most are dedicated to doing their jobs right. They also suffer a great deal of bureaucratic abuse. But they aren’t the problem.

    Lift the hiring caps and a lot more things could be done “in-house.” But as James points out, not everything needs to be in-house. Look at the efficiency of it, not just the politics of it.

  4. Herb says:

    If we are going to contract out jobs, let’s start with both the House and Senate, There is where some intelligence is really needed

  5. Jem says:

    As someone who currently has “a foot in both camps” (defense contractor and reserve military intelligence officer), I’d note a couple additional things:

    – If the government needs to ramp up its number of intelligence professionals (i.e., taking on additional work while not “dropping” what is already being done), there are two choices: train more analysts or hire experienced ones. You can move your current staff around to new duties, but you’re limited by the other work that has to be done and the fact that analysts specialize and need time to develop expertise in the “new” area.

    – Training more analysts is a long-term solution, that would only have real effects in five or more years–fifteen if you need those new trainees to be able to lead analytical efforts.

    – Hiring experienced analysts can only be done by offering them a better deal than they already have–for government employees, that means bringing them on as senior personnel. This can cause problems for the government, by the way:

    I had a friend who was a GS-14, and left the government because, among other frustrations, the agency he worked for brought in a youngster with less than a third of his overall experience and about a sixth of his “job-critical” experience to be his new boss. The new guy was a good person, intelligent and dedicated (he worked for me when I was still on active duty, as it turns out), so it wasn’t a completely ridiculous move. But it did help to alienate a senior intelligence analyst who “had options” because the agency uses a significant number of contractors to support its activities, develop tools, etc.

    – So, the only realistic option to address these short-term staffing shortfalls is to hire experienced people, and the only way to quickly bring analysts (versus managers, see comments about grade structure above) on board is to pay the contractors’ bill.

    James and the commenters are quite right that hiring lots of contractors isn’t the optimal solution long-term. But it’s the only way to make things happen quickly. To enact what you’re recommending as a long-term solution, the Government has some work to do–it needs to figure out a way to provide attractive options for contractors to return to government service.