The National Security Agency (NSA) operates in the dark—little is known about its operations and programs. Edward Snowden changed that to some degree, but there is more to NSA than bulk international and domestic surveillance operations. While NSA’s budget isn’t released publicly, the Director of National Intelligence recently disclosed that $53.9 billion was requested for fiscal year 2016 for all national intelligence programs; point being, there is a lot of intel spending that is difficult to administer and oversee.
The Project On Government Oversight is concerned that NSA’s excessive secrecy isn’t just a threat to democracy, it’s also an open invitation for corruption. For example, the Defense Department (DoD) Inspector General (IG) published a report in 2012 entitled Pervasive Labor Mischarging by Contract Employees of the NSA. The report was initiated because “wide spread [sic] allegations of cost mischarging on cost reimbursable contracts were identified by the NSA OIG.”
The IG report highlighted three overbilling cases from 2010 to 2012, including charging “thousands of hours of labor, when the personnel alleged to be performing work were never present at the NSA facility.” The result for the contractor employees was criminal punishment, including home detention and fines.
Certainly, false statements and fraud occur on all types of federal contracts, but agencies such as NSA that operate in the dark and in compartmentalized environments create an accountability vacuum. Oversight and accountability are challenged because intelligence personnel have minimal whistleblower protections, or in the case of contractors, no protections at all, and there are genuine fears of retribution and loss of a security clearance. Those factors are further compounded by the lack of transparency in intelligence contract spending and contractors that don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.
It seems that the feeling might be mutual. In the case of the three prosecutions that were the subject of the DoD IG’s investigation, the government bought into the “one bad apple” excuse and decided not to punish the companies involved, a real who’s who of federal contracting: Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, CACI, Northrup Grumman, and SRA International.
The Baltimore Sun has reported other cases of NSA employees and contractors who scammed the agency in recent years. Instances of bribery, inflated time sheets, and steering contracts to relatives have resulted in the prosecution of 11 individuals since 2007.
Overseers in Congress have been asking hard questions about intel contracting for years, focusing on the cost of contractors and the type of work they are performing as well as whether the government has the right intel workforce balance. Last year, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing at which then-Chairman Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) expressed concerns with the overreliance on contractors in the intelligence community.
Carper’s concerns are real. Last year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the civilian intelligence community’s use of contractors created risks for the government, including contract management problems, and restated concerns about the use and cost of intelligence contractors.
As the GAO report highlighted, it is difficult to provide a general assessment of intelligence contracting. The best data that has been made publicly available is from a mid-2000s inventory of intelligence contractor personnel, which documented that the intelligence budget was roughly $42 billion. Approximately 70 percent of the intel budget was spent on contracts (not contractors) and contractors comprised approximately 28 percent of the total intelligence workforce. Outsourcing intelligence functions was largely the result of the downsizing of the federal workforce in the 1990s and the subsequent surge in national security demands after 9/11.
There is no doubt that contractors play an important role in the intelligence community, but with secrecy comes increased vulnerability to corrupt practices. Let’s hope the NSA and other intel agencies know as much about the contractor workforce as they do about the people who they surveil.