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What You Should Know About The Intelligence Community’s Contractors

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"What You Should Know About The Intelligence Community’s Contractors"

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Booz Allen facility in Maryland (Credit: Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

The Sunday afternoon revelation that former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden was behind the leaks that set off the last week’s string of stories on potential overreach on the part of the National Security Agency (NSA) has led to many questions about the world he inhabited. Why would a contractor have access to such highly secret materials? What was a contractor doing at the NSA in any event? Who is Booz Allen Hamilton and why do they have such reach? Here’s what you need to know:

Number of private contractors exploded since 2001. After 9/11, the budgets of the Pentagon and intelligence community grew to almost double their 1998 rates. To keep pace with this expansion, without bringing more federal workers into the fold, federal contractors were signed up to provide the labor instead.

Private contractors may be more expensive than government employees. Many former government employees make the switch into private contracting, which can serve to drive up the amount they wind up costing the American taxpayer. A 2007 report to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the average government employee working as an intelligence analyst cost $126,500, while the same work performed by a contractor would cost the government an average $250,000 including overhead. The total annual budget of the intelligence community is itself secret; only the top line is reported to the public. For Fiscal Year 2014, the Obama administration requested $48.2 billion for the National Intelligence Program, encompassing “six Federal departments, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.” Of that amount, according to a 2007 article, an amazing 70 percent goes towards private contractors.

There are thousands of companies in the game. Of the more than one thousand contracting firms competing for federal dollars, Booz Allen Hamilton is just one of the largest, earning $1.3 billion, 23 percent of their total revenue, from intelligence contracts over the last fiscal year. Booz Allen shares that tier with names like Northrup Grumman and Science Applications International Corporation. It also includes companies like Lockheed Martin, which in addition to selling airplanes and missiles to the government, also provides staffers to man the programs the various departments set up.

Contractors are prevalent in the intelligence sector. Analysts looking for patterns among information, technology staffers building IT systems and making sure the networks stay functioning, front office administrative workers, sometimes even the intelligence collection specialists themselves are all positions contractors fill. This takes place across the range of intelligence collection including signals intelligence (SIGINT), of the sort that the NSA performs and has led to the current scrutiny, as well as human intelligence gained directly from sources and geographic intelligence gathered from spy satellites.

Contract work extends throughout the government. Outside of the intelligence sphere, contractors fill positions in nearly every part of the federal government. From the Department of Defense, to the Department of Homeland Security, to the Department of Health and Human Services, private contractors are in the business of actually executing a large portion of what the government is lawfully obligated to do. These positions exist for even the most shadowy of operations, including openings for human targeting analysts, who help the military and intelligence community determine who to place in the cross-hairs of drone strikes.

More than half a million private contractors can access the country’s secrets. A large degree of surprise also was related to the fact that Snowden had access to many of the documents he obtained so soon after beginning to work for Booz Allen. Once obtained, a clearance is a relatively hard thing to lose, so long as you remain employed by a company that does work requiring you to hold one. These clearances also only need to be renewed every five years while active. According to a 2013 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a total of 483,263 contractors held Top Secret clearances in 2012, the highest level one can obtain, with another 582,524 holding them at the Confidential and Secret levels.

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