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Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing
By Tim Shorrock
Simon & Shuster, 2008
439 pages

If your budget is limited or your spare hours are few, sit down at Barnes & Noble and read the first chapter of Tim Shorrock’s Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting that far who won’t set aside the money and time to take the book home and devour the rest of it. Shorrock gives us as clear a picture of the business ties of the Intelligence-Industrial Complex as can be done by a guy without a TS/SCI, the highest security clearance.

These days, as he tells us, the majority of people who do have TS/SCIs aren’t employed by the government. They’re private contractors. And they didn’t get those clearances by talking about their work to outsiders, unless their specific task is disinformation. Despite zipped lips and unreturned phone calls, Shorrock has pried off lids and written a book as revealing in its own way as the seminal The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford’s great 1982 exposé about the National Security Agency.  

You won’t read the words "ruling class" in Spies for Hire, and I’m sympathetic, because few writers who want to be taken seriously will unhesitatingly employ those words in public discourse these days. Not so much out of fear that Patrick Buchanan will redbait them as that many post-Cold War liberals will do so. But a slice of the ruling class is who Shorrock describes throughout his book.

The most dangerous people on the planet are not the fanatics squatting in hide-outs in the mountains of Pakistan or operating sleeper cells in Amsterdam. They are instead the chieftains and sub-chieftains of an interwoven array of entrepreneurial intelligence mavens engaged in a "public-private partnership" whose power and behavior and reach are limited only by the elected officials charged with their supposed oversight. At the beck and call of this dangerous array are money, information, expertise, the latest technology, lethal force, and the ear of political leaders who actively or passively set the ethical and legal parameters, if any, in which these spies for hire operate on a daily basis. They have in their hands the most sophisticated tools for going after whomever they designate as "the bad guys" – and anybody else they wish – secretly. And much else. Most of this isn’t new. But in the old days, the early ‘90s and before, those engaged in this work were almost always government guys. Now it’s hard to tell.

At the National Security Agency, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Central Intelligence Agency, indeed, the entire alphabet soup of 16 agencies that fall under the purview of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, government analysts often find themselves sitting next to corporate analysts working on the same project, but for two or three times the salary. At the CIA, they call them "green-badgers" to distinguish them from the government employees who wear blue badges, and they are everywhere. It’s not just people with badly needed, ultraspecialized experience that can’t be found in-house. Contractors have filled jobs as high as deputy chief of station for the CIA.

Epitomizing what’s happened is the guy at the top of the whole shebang, Mike McConnell. Appointed as director of national intelligence by President Bush in January 2007, McConnell came out of both the public and private sectors. A vice admiral in the Navy, where he served all but three of his 29 years as an intelligence officer, including a stint as Colin Powell’s chief of intelligence when the general was chairman of  the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War, McConnell departed for Booz Allen Hamilton in 1996. As executive vice president for 10 years there, he managed the company’s extensive contract jobs in military intelligence, which kept him in close contact with government intelligence agencies. How much Booz Allen profited from these contracts is classified information, but it was not peanuts. As Shorrock writes, those contracts meant that the company was "directly involved in the most sensitive initiatives taken by U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon during the war on terror."

At his swearing-in ceremony, McConnell said: "My work over the past ten years after leaving government has allowed me to stay focused on the national security and intelligence communities as a strategist and as a consultant. Therefore, in many respects, I never left."

Shorrock writes:

McConnell, in other words, was not a mere consultant: he and his company were high–ranking players in a community where power was shared, almost equally, between the private sector and the agents of the state. By appointing McConnell to run the Intelligence Community, Bush and Cheney sent a powerful signal to the rest of the government, particularly the Department of Defense, that private corporations were the de facto managers of the nation’s intelligence system. McConnell’s actions since taking the post only deepened that perception.

Thus, today, the President’s Daily Brief, "the most sensitive document in government," drawn heavily from analysis of e-mail and telephone intercepts, is the product of contractors in the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon, and, of course, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which prepares the final draft of the PDB, which goes to the President’s desk with the DNI seal on it.

At best that seal is misleading, says, R.J. Hillhouse, an intelligence expert and the author of a popular blog on outsourcing. "For full disclosure, the PDB really should look more like NASCAR with corporate logos plastered all over it."

Shorrock relates that at Booz Allen, McConnell had become chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a group originally founded in 1979 as a forum for discussing common interests and concerns of contractors and the NSA. In 2005, it was reorganized "to serve as a bridge between the industry and the leaders of national intelligence." When Bush appointed McConnell, the media failed to mention this chairmanship.

That was a significant oversight, because shortly after taking over as intelligence chief, McConnell elevated INSA into a virtual partnership with the Office of the DNI, and used its nonprofit status to promote a dialogue within the broader IC on domestic intelligence. When it first began, that dialogue seemed innocent enough; who could argue with developing an industry consensus on this volatile issue? But, as we shall see ... as McConnell’s term at DNI progressed, he became the leader within the Bush administration of a drive to greatly expand the domestic reach of the NSA and convince Congress to grant immunity to companies that collaborated with the NSA in its surveillance program from its inception in the months after 9/11 to the present day. Seen in this light, McConnell’s experience with INSA, and the role of his company in the Bush-Cheney intelligence regime, take on greater significance.

Loyalty to What?

So, whatever McConnell’s official title, does he work for the government, for America’s interests, or for the interests of the dozens of companies with thousands of contractors working for the 16 agencies covered by the ODNI? Which side of the private-public partnership does he actually come down on? And which side do all those contractors come down on –  from private security types at Blackwater International to software engineers at CACI International to former chief intelligence officers for this or that agency now sitting in the boardroom or the CEO’s office of this or that corporation with dozens or hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for secret work? How can you tell?

But what does it matter as long as American lives are being protected, and American "interests" are being protected and promoted? Does it make a difference that, according to those Shorrock consulted, something around $40 billion a year, or 70% of the U.S. intelligence budget, is farmed out?

It depends on whom you talk to.

"It’s hard enough for a government analyst to tell it like it is and be just one step removed from the president," says Ray McGovern, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the CIA’s analytic division who once delivered the CIA’s daily briefing to President George H.W. Bush. "But think how much more difficult it is for an analyst who’s working for Booz Allen Hamilton or SAIC. There’s pressure there; there’s much more freedom for people to tailor their analysis to something they think the contracting officer would like." The problem with outsourcing is simple, he says: Contractors are in it for the money." If that is the case, few companies have been as skilled in profiting from intelligence as Booz Allen Hamilton.

Without close oversight – that is, without the committed and relentless supervision of elected people with security clearances of their own – few questions can be answered. Limited congressional efforts have been initiated to enforce some oversight, to gain some transparency, to establish some control, and to just understand, but these seem like weak efforts at best. At any rate, they are too new to offer the slightest confidence that they will put reins on the private-public intelligence partnership.

Shorrock introduces readers to a fair number of the private corporations who do business in the Intelligence-Industrial Complex. But the details are frustratingly sketchy. These companies are, after all, working on top secret projects. The few principals still in the business who agreed talk to him make telling remarks, some even criticizing the level of outsourcing.

But he was mostly left to dig his material from the public record, using skills he learned as a reporter at the Journal of Commerce, interviewing intelligence community retirees, searching for tidbits in technology and business journals, and catching the odd "slip-ups" in unclassified speeches by the likes of Joan Dempsey, now a Booz Allen vice president who went from Naval Intelligence to the Defense Intelligence Agency, and was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1997 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence and security, the highest civilian intelligence position in the Department of Defense in those days.

This isn’t all Dick Cheney and George Bush’s doing. Privatization began under Ronald Reagan, but, as Shorrock explains at some length, it really took off under Clinton, partly as a consequence of his desire to cut back on intelligence and defense budgets as part of the peace dividend. Ironically, the staff cutbacks imposed in those days – to the shrieks of Cheney, other neo-conservatives and many in the intelligence community with less rightwing credentials – are part of what led to outsourcing of the mission. Laid-off analysts sought jobs in the private sector, and many found themselves working for their old government bosses at their new companies, and then back inside the doors at the CIA or NSA as contractors. When the September 11 attacks occurred, the reduced staffs of the spy agencies could not handle the demands for "actionable intelligence" and were compelled to seek out help in the private sector. Lots of it.

The Journey of Stephen Cambone

Will new "management" make a difference in this partnership? In that regard, the story of Stephen Cambone is precautionary.

Much has been made of the changes since Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. As the point of the neocon spear inside the Pentagon, Rumsfeld not only sought to shake up the uniformed bureaucracy with a private sector zeal for downsizing and mission reshaping, but also to bypass the CIA and make intelligence far more of a Pentagon function. So rancorous was internal struggle over this that, even in an era of media complacency, some of the bruises leaked out and helped lead to the abrasive CEO-style SecDef’s ultimate departure. But not before making the Pentagon the most powerful intelligence agency, and turning a penchant for outsourcing into a fever.

In the fall of 2002, Rumsfeld with Cheney’s help managed to create a "czar" for intelligence at the Pentagon. The real title wasn’t as impressive, undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The job went to Stephen Cambone. He had previously worked for Cheney at the Pentagon during George H. W. Bush’s administration as director of strategic defense policy. "Plus," writes Shorrock, "he was a diehard neo-conservative and a charter member of the Project for the New American Century, the group of foreign policy hard-liners that, in a major policy document on ‘rebuilding America’s defenses’ issued in 2000, had proposed a greater role for intelligence agencies in war fighting."

Cambone was given enormous power, and he and Rumsfeld began programs that meant "hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new business for the ‘Intelligence-Industrial Complex.’" Among his other duties was overseeing "Copper Green," the interrogations, much of them by private contractors, of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Cambone was so widely despised and feared at the Pentagon that an Army general had jokingly said that "if he had one round left in his revolver, he would take out Steve Cambone," according to the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks.

Out the door with Rumsfeld, in with Gates. Does Cambone get the boot? Yes, he does, in January 2007. Gates works with McConnell to fix the "corrosive rivalry" between the Pentagon and the CIA. But, as Shorrock says, for the contractors, nothing changed. Spending continued at record levels.

In January 2008, the Pentagon’s Counter-Intelligence Field Agency granted a $30 million contract to the Missions Solutions Group of QinetiQ North America. CIFA was an agency initiated in 2002 by Rumsfeld’s then-deputy, Paul Wolfowicz, and which, among other things, had been tasked with extensive domestic spying, including control over the Talon database, which complied dossiers on thousands of U.S. citizens. Under the contract, QNA will provide unspecified "security services."

Just two months before that contract was awarded, QinetiQ hired a new vice president for strategy. His name is Stephen Cambone.

A World of Privatized Intelligence

One cannot help but imagine how things might pan out if Russia and China and Brazil and Uzbekistan were to adopt this privatized model of intelligence operations, subject to the inevitable mergers and acquisitions and other exigencies of capitalist enterprise combined with state-sanctioned power in a globalized world.  

Spies for Hire is one of those books so brimful of detail, including mergers and acquisitions by intelligence companies, that one wishes for coded  links and two or three charts illustrating the career trajectories and corporate genealogy of a couple dozen of the key players. And there are stories one hopes to see followed in the future with more detail, like the CIA’s $30 billion-a-year In-Q-Tel, a venture capital operation that gives a whole new meaning to the agency’s old slang for itself – "The Company."

Can a new President and new Congress make a dent in this new intelligence order? Would they have a willingness to do so? Shorrock writes:

It’s going to take years, decades maybe, to get that 70 percent of the intelligence budget spent on contractors down to a tolerable and more controllable level; that will mean constant focus on issues of accountability, transparency, and oversight. The current proposals for the Orwellian-sounding National Administration Office discussed in Chapter 9 will almost certainly be left to the next president and Congress to implement or reject, meaning that discussions about expanding access of domestic security agencies to intelligence from satellites and sensors in the sky – and the role that private contractors play in that enterprise – will remain at the top of the national security agenda long after January 2009. In short, spying for hire is not going away anytime soon.

"Empire" is another term, like "ruling class," that isn’t discussed much in polite discourse in America despite the fact that neoconservatives have, since the fall of the Soviet Union, openly used the term to describe their vision of Pax Americana. Every empire needs tools to sustain itself, and the modern U.S. empire needs the most modern sophisticated tools it can find. The suppliers and wielders of those lucrative tools are in all-too-many cases  also the men and women who help set policy for how those tools should be used. Until the empire retreats, it is hard to imagine that they will give them up.  

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Tim Shorrock's Web site is here.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun May 11, 2008 at 09:02 PM PDT.

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