Over‐​the‐​counter Cloak and Dagger

July 4, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on Asia Times Online on July 4, 2008.

Book Review of Spies For Hire by Tim Shorrock

Among the many issues that have become the subject of public debate in the years since the September 11, 2001, attacks are the functions of the United States intelligence community and outsourcing of role and activities to the private sector. The numerous reports that have been issued on intelligence activities in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the inquiries into what the US government knew or didn’t know about Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs attest to the continuing interest in this issue.

And many activities that used to be considered the sole prerogative of the public sector, such as military support functions, have become the subject of heated debate thanks to the activities of private military contractors, such as Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and a host of others operating in Iraq and elsewhere.

But nobody has ever bothered to examine the scope and impact of private contractors in the US intelligence community. That is, until now. Thanks to Tim Shorrock, an investigative journalist who has been researching and writing on the intersection of national security and business issues for over 25 years, we now have a path‐​breaking book that reveals in copious detail just how far the US intelligence community depends on private contractors.

After reading his book one realizes, to paraphrase the old American Express commercial, that the intelligence bureaucracy can’t spy without them. If James Bond were operating today he would have a contract, not a license, to kill.

It is difficult to overstate what Shorrock has accomplished here. Writing about any aspect of American intelligence community is always difficult. Agencies routinely offer no comment when asked for information. And given the standard operating procedure of wrapping every bit of information in layers of classification teasing out even the most innocuous of figures is a feat worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Yet, after four years of research, he has uncovered so much that his book is destined to be the gold standard on intelligence contracting, just as Peter Singer’s book, Corporate Warriors, did for private military contractors.

How dependent is the intelligence community on private‐​sector spooks? Consider just a few of the facts Shorrock uncovered.

Intelligence contracting has become a $45 billion industry, taking up more than 70% of the $60 billion the US government spends annually on intelligence. Taken as a percentage, this is vastly more than the Pentagon spends on private military contractors.

The companies that make up this intelligence‐​industrial complex range from the familiar behemoths like Lockheed Martin to major Beltway bandits such as SAIC and Booz, Allen, Hamilton, to tiny and obscures ones like SpecTal and Scitor. The work they do range the gamut, from analyzing signals intelligence gathered by the national Security Agency to providing disguises for CIA officers operating undercover.

Private sector involvement in government surveillance goes far beyond the telecommunications industry to include many of the nation’s top information technology companies. At least 50% and as much as 75% of the people at NSA headquarters and its ground stations around the world are contractors.

Contractors have taken over the training of military interrogators at the US Army’s Intelligence Center in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. And around the world contractors are taking the place of government operatives. In Pakistan three‐​quarters of the officers at the CIA station in Islamabad since 9/11 have been private contractors. In Baghdad, contractors have sometimes outnumbered government employees and have taken supervisory positions overseeing what CIA agents do every day.

Dismayingly, but not surprisingly, official information about the scope of intelligence contracting has been deliberately suppressed by the US government. In 2006, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence ordered a study of contracting within the 16 agency intelligence community. But when the time came to release the study in 2007 the ODNI refused to release it. Thus Shorrock’s book is the only public source available for an in depth understanding of our outsourced intelligence system.

The key question is whether this outsourcing is really bad. After all, defenders of private military companies argue they just fill a market need. If they follow the contract and the law there is no problem.

Actually, there is. For all the public hand‐​wringing private military and security contractors have essentially tactical wartime roles, fulfilling specific tasks ranging from logistical support to guarding infrastructure and people. But private intelligence contractors are part of a strategic role. They are part and parcel of the process that generates the intelligence that decides whether a nation should go to a war in the fist place. Think back to the debates over Iraq concerning aluminum tubes, uranium from Niger, and mobile biological labs and then imagine how confident you would feel if such intelligence was the product of firms whose primary motivation was making a profit.

His bottom line is that the vast complex of companies intertwined with the intelligence agencies has created a national Surveillance State made up in part by private interests whose contracts are classified and beyond the reach of congressional oversight committees.

As he wrote recently in the Washington Post Book World:

I try to communicate in my book that this goes beyond mere outsourcing. The private sector is now an integral part of US intelligence, operating at extremely high levels of national security. We’ve always had a revolving door in defense. But this is more than that. It’s a wholesale transfer of operations that used to be done only by government operatives now being done for profit by private companies. We as a nation really need to grapple with this. I don’t think most people believe its OK to have interrogations of enemy prisoners being carried out by contractors; but that’s what is happening. They’re involved in NSA spying too, and every other major operation. Even some agencies are saying they want contractors out of intel analysis. In my opinion, a lot of these operations need to be nationalized, essentially, and returned back to government.

Actually, the implications of all this may be even worse than Shorrock thinks. One thing research in recent years has shown is that once government contracts out one of its capabilities, it cannot easily take it back in‐​house.

About the Author