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.