Monday, June 14, 2004

Quietly, without much fuss, there's a new wave of privatization washing through an unexpected quarter of the government: the intelligence agencies:

Private contractors are taking over jobs once reserved for highly trained agency employees: regional desk officers who control clandestine operations around the world; watch officers at the 24-hour crisis center; analysts who sift through reams of intelligence data; counterintelligence officers who oversee clandestine meetings between agency officers and their recruited spies; and reports officers who act as liaisons between officers in the field and analysts back at headquarters.

For which we can offer all the usual justifications. We could say, for instance, that private contractors subject to market incentives reduce expenses:

Desperate to fill their contracts, the companies frequently offer to double a federal employee's salary. Because the recruiters have security clearances, they often make their recruiting pitches at the C.I.A.'s headquarters in Langley, Va. And many of those who do sign on end up going right back to their old office -- only now working for a private company. Thus, after spending millions of dollars training people to be clandestine officers, taxpayers are having to pay them twice as much to return as rent-a-spies.

"The money is incredible," one agency veteran, who handled spies overseas for years, told me. "I doubled my salary to go out and come back in and continue doing what I was doing."

No? Well, perhaps the competition is forcing them to do better work.

Another former agency employee told me that he was among a group of contractors assigned to analyze e-mail messages on computer hard drives snatched by operatives in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. "A lot of it was in Arabic and none of us spoke Arabic -- just a little problem," he said. "None of us really knew what we were doing and we had management who didn't know what they were doing either."

But privatization has one undeniable advantage: employees of private companies, no matter how well compensated, have no civil service protections, and are not subject to existing Congressional oversight processes to nearly the same extent -- even in the intelligence world.

And so the war on accountability continues...

More: on this subject from Jeanne D'arc...


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