NEW YORK – The U.S. government monitors threats to national security with the help of nearly 500,000 people like Edward Snowden – employees of private firms who have access to the government’s most sensitive secrets.
When Snowden, an employee of one of those firms, Booz Allen Hamilton, revealed details of two National Security Agency surveillance programs, he spotlighted the risks of making so many employees of private contractors a key part of the U.S. intelligence apparatus.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, called Snowden’s leak “gut-wrenching.”
The leak could lead the nation’s intelligence agencies to reconsider their reliance on outside contractors, said Joseph Augustyn, a former senior CIA official and principal at Booz Allen.
“I think it would call into question the role of the defense contractors,” Augustyn said.
Booz Allen, based in McLean, Va., provides consulting services, technology support and analysis to U.S. government agencies and departments. Last year, 98 percent of the company’s $5.9 billion in revenue came from U.S. government contracts. Three-fourths of its 25,000 employees hold government security clearances. Half the employees have top-secret clearances.
The company has established deep ties with the government – the kinds of ties that contractors pursue and covet. Contractors stand to gain an edge on competitors by hiring people with the most closely held knowledge of the thinking inside agencies they want to serve and the best access to officials inside. That typically means former government officials.
The relationship often runs both ways: Clapper himself is a former Booz Allen executive. The firm’s vice chairman, John “Mike” McConnell, held Clapper’s position under George W. Bush.
The reliance on contractors for intelligence work ballooned after the 9/11 attacks. The government scrambled to improve and expand its ability to monitor the communication and movement of people who might threaten another attack.
“After 9/11, intelligence budgets were increased; new people needed to be hired,” Augustyn said. “It was a lot easier to go to the private sector and get people off the shelf.”
The reliance on the private sector has grown since then, in part because of Congress’ efforts to limit the size of federal agencies and shrink the budget.
Of the 4.9 million people with clearance to access “confidential and secret” government information, 1.1 million, or 21 percent, work for outside contractors, according to a report from Clapper’s office. Of the 1.4 million who have the higher “top secret” access, 483,000, or 34 percent, work for contractors.
Once given security clearance, workers can access offices, files and, most important, dedicated communications and computer networks that are walled off from the public.
Snowden previously worked for the CIA and likely obtained his security clearance there. But like others who leave the government to join private contractors, he was able to keep his clearance after he left and began working for outside firms.
Because clearances can take months or even years to acquire, government contractors often recruit workers who already have them.
Analysts caution that any of the 1.4 million people with access to the nation’s top secrets could have leaked information about the program – whether they worked for a contractor or the government. It was a government employee – U.S. Army Soldier Bradley Manning – who was responsible for the last major leak of classified material, in 2010.
But critics say reliance on contractors hasn’t reduced the amount the government spends on defense, intelligence or other programs. Rather, they say it’s just shifted work to private employers and reduced transparency. It becomes harder to track the work of those employees and determine whether they should all have access to government secrets.
“It’s very difficult to know what contractors are doing and what they are billing for the work – or even whether they should be performing the work at all,” said Scott Amey, an expert in contractor oversight and government transparency at Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government accountability organization based in Washington. “It has muddied the waters.”