Despite a ban on private hands performing “inherently government functions”, 265,000 of the 854,000 people with top-secret clearance in the US are contractors, working in all the most sensitive areas, the Washington Post revealed yesterday. The claims came on the same day that President Barack Obama’s nominee to run US intelligence efforts, James Clapper, headed to Capitol Hill for a confirmation hearing.
Contractors can earn up to twice as much as permanent staff, triggering a talent exodus and leaving behind a young, inexperienced intelligence network.
CIA contractors have worked to recruit spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan, guarded CIA chiefs, detained suspected extremists, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons and trained young spies, the Post said.
“For too long, we’ve depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done” by CIA employees, agency director Leon Panetta was quoted as saying. But replacing them “doesn’t happen overnight. When you’ve been dependent on contractors for so long, you have to build that expertise over time”.
Mr Panetta expressed fears over contracting with corporations, whose responsibility “is to their shareholders, and that does present an inherent conflict”.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said: “You want somebody who’s really in it for a career because they’re passionate about it and because they care about the country and not just because of the money.”
Dr Gates conceded he was struggling to achieve his aim of cutting the number of defence contractors by about 13 per cent.
“This is a terrible confession — I can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defence,” he said, referring to the department’s civilian leadership.
US officials hit back yesterday at earlier Post claims of an inefficient US intelligence network. The paper’s two-year probe found the US intelligence network was so unwieldy and secretive, that even top officials were unable to grasp its size or scope.
Homeland security and intelligence programs take place in about 10,000 locations across the country, while the agencies produce 50,000 intelligence reports a year, a volume so large “many are routinely ignored”, the Post said.
One Obama administration official criticised the report as “a roadmap to our adversaries”.
“The very existence of this database . . . is troubling,” the official told ABC News.
Acting Director of National Intelligence David Gompert said “the reporting does not reflect the intelligence community”. While agencies “operate in an environment that limits the amount of information we can share”, US agents have “thwarted attacks, and are achieving untold successes every day”, he added.
The office of the DNI put out two statements, one in a question-and-answer format and the other debunking DNI-supplied “myths” about private contractors.
Marine Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged “some redundancy and inefficiencies” in the growth of the intelligence agencies.
“At the same time, we are reminded that since 9/11 we have not had a successful major attack on the United States, so there is obviously goodness in having a robust capability,” he said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs praised US intelligence agents. “I don’t think anybody in the intelligence community would abet excessive waste. We have to balance the necessity of the resources needed to fight our adversaries,” he said.