White House Considering Privatized Spy Networks

Mike Pompeo speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, D.C. Currently, he serves as Director of the CIA. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Last week, BuzzFeed News published troubling allegations that the Trump administration is “considering a package of secret proposals” to privatize covert intelligence and counterterrorism operations. According to unnamed sources cited in the article, the proposals involve paying a private security company to set up an intelligence network, run propaganda efforts, and help capture wanted terrorists.

The company, Amyntor Group, is run by U.S. covert ops veterans. Company vice president John Maguire is a former CIA field case officer. Amyntor is based in Whitefish, Montana—a town that has become famous recently thanks to homesteading neo-Nazis and an energy company that won, then lost, a controversial $300 million contract to restore power to Puerto Rico.

The article notes that the Amyntor proposals were pitched to the Trump administration this summer. This was around the same time Erik Prince, the founder of notorious private security firm Blackwater, and Stephen Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns DynCorp International, were trying to convince the administration to replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan with contractors. At the time, we pointed out that a federal regulation bars contractors from performing inherently governmental functions, or functions that directly impact the government’s discretionary authority, decision-making responsibility, or accountability. The regulation specifically lists directing intelligence operations as an inherently governmental function, which could create legal problems for the administration and Amyntor if the proposals are green-lighted.

Legality concerns are only part of the problem. Recent history has shown that privatizing intelligence and counterterrorism work can lead to bad outcomes. Contractor linguists played a role in the abuses that took place at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. There was also the controversy over the CIA paying two contractor psychologists $81 million to devise an interrogation program that yielded very little intelligence and may have violated U.S. law and international human rights treaties. Both instances caused untold damage to the United States’ international standing and may have compromised our national security.

Additionally, hiring Amyntor or any other private company could result in a bad deal for taxpayers. In 2008, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that the intelligence agencies paid contractors 1.66 times what they paid federal employees to perform the same work. The Project On Government Oversight found that contractor language specialists, who are often used to perform intelligence functions, cost taxpayers almost twice as much as government employees. Ensuring Amyntor employees do not perform inherently governmental functions or otherwise violate laws or treaties would require heightened oversight by the government, which only adds to the costs.

The status of the Amyntor deal remains uncertain. An unnamed U.S. government official told BuzzFeed News that the proposals are “absurd” and “not going anywhere.” But the fact remains that contractors are taking on a growing number of governmental functions. Oversight of those contractors must also continually grow to ensure laws are not broken, national security is not undermined, and taxpayers are not ripped off.