Friday, June 01, 2007

Who watches the watchmen?

Or, maybe it should be, who holds the spies accountable?

Salon has an article, The corporate takeover of U.S. intelligence, about the new trend of outsourcing intelligence business to private contractors, and the lack of oversight of these contractors.

More than five years into the global "war on terror," spying has become one of the fastest-growing private industries in the United States. The federal government relies more than ever on outsourcing for some of its most sensitive work, though it has kept details about its use of private contractors a closely guarded secret. Intelligence experts, and even the government itself, have warned of a critical lack of oversight for the booming intelligence business.

On May 14, at an industry conference in Colorado sponsored by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. government revealed for the first time how much of its classified intelligence budget is spent on private contracts: a whopping 70 percent, or roughly $42 billion. The figure was disclosed by Terri Everett, a senior procurement executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the agency established by Congress in 2004 to oversee the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence infrastructure. A copy of Everett's unclassified PowerPoint slide presentation, titled "Procuring the Future" and dated May 25, was obtained by Salon. (It has since become available on the DIA's Web site.) "We can't spy ... If we can't buy!" one of the slides proclaims, underscoring the enormous dependence of U.S. intelligence agencies on private sector contracts.

The DNI figures show that the aggregate number of private contracts awarded by intelligence agencies rose by about 38 percent from the mid-1990s to 2005. But the surge in outsourcing has been far more dramatic measured in dollars: Over the same period of time, the total value of intelligence contracts more than doubled, from about $18 billion in 1995 to $42 billion in 2005.

While such large numbers, and especially such increases, should always get notice, it's especially troublesome when cloaked in secrecy.

Because of the cloak of secrecy thrown over the intelligence budgets, there is no way for the American public, or even much of Congress, to know how those contractors are getting the money, what they are doing with it, or how effectively they are using it. The explosion in outsourcing has taken place against a backdrop of intelligence failures for which the Bush administration has been hammered by critics, from Saddam Hussein's fictional weapons of mass destruction to abusive interrogations that have involved employees of private contractors operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Aftergood and other experts also warn that the lack of transparency creates conditions ripe for corruption.

Given how stories about Pentagon contracts to companies like Halliburton have been filled with examples of gross misuse and corruption, such worries would seem very reasonable to me.

The Democrats are trying to do something about this

Both the House and Senate are now considering intelligence spending bills that require the DNI, starting next year, to provide extensive information on contractors. The House version requires an annual report on contractors that might be committing waste and fraud, as well as reviews on its "accountability mechanisms" for contractors and the effect of contractors on the intelligence workforce. The amendment was drafted by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who introduced a similar bill last year that passed the House but was quashed by the Senate. In a statement on the House floor on May 10, Price explained that he was seeking answers to several simple questions: "Should (contractors) be involved in intelligence collection? Should they be involved in analysis? What about interrogations or covert operations? Are there some activities that are so sensitive they should only be performed by highly trained Intelligence Community professionals?"

If either of the House or Senate intelligence bills pass in their present form, the overall U.S. intelligence budget -- approximately $48 billion this year, by most estimates -- will be made public. Such transparency is critical as contracting continues to expand, said Paul Cox, Price's press secretary. "As a nation," he said, "we really need to take a look and decide what's appropriate to contract and what's inherently governmental."

What's the odds of such a bill passing without a presidencial veto?

In general, US spending is quite corrupt by European standards, which has much to do with the lack of accountability, and the general acceptance of bringing "pork" back to the districts of the politicians. Due to EU rules about public spending, such things are not generally possible in the EU (though corruption certainly still happens in other forms). Anything that can make public spending more transparent is a good thing.

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Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Outsourcing intelligence. And I thought it was bad when they outsourced military operations to a lot of mercenaries also without accountability for any torture they might perform.


Well, since private corporations are taking over, better start saving up for my Armored Core, so that I can start taking missions for the Cola Wars. Wonder who offers more credits and better AC parts, Coca-Cola or Pepsicola?


June 02, 2007 4:49 AM  

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