Secretive Private Intelligence Contractors Need Better Oversight

The capacity for secrecy gets even deeper in the private sector – too deep. By Michael German

Editors Note: “ Rethinking Intelligence ” is a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law that examines the contemporary U.S. intelligence community, which fellow Michael German argues “has grown too large, too expensive, too powerful, too ineffective, and too unaccountable to the American people.”

In this occasional series, Defense One presents a selection of commentaries and interviews conducted by the Brennan Center with officials from defense, homeland security, federal law enforcement, Congress, intelligence, and other groups who present their ideas to improve the business of American intelligence.

Their arguments tackle three fundamental questions: what is the scope of the new intelligence community, why does it sometimes fail, and how should the US reform it? For more, visit the Brennan Center online .

The possibility of waste, fraud, and abuse exists in any government program. We minimize this risk through transparency, independent oversight and public accountability.

Secret intelligence programs, however, are a different story. Not only do secret programs suffer from an obvious lack of transparency, but since 9/11, the United States has drastically expanded and changed the way it conducts intelligence, defense and homeland security operations. That growth, without transparency, threatens not just the American taxpayers’ bottom line, but ultimately our national security.

Nowhere is this risk more apparent than in the government’s outsourcing of sensitive national security and intelligence operations to private contractors, whose share of the intelligence budget has reached up to 70 percent .

Danielle Brian , executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan watchdog organization, recently articulated the risks this outsourcing poses to public accountability, civil rights and democratic control over national security programs:

“You now have…millions of people who are getting clearances that are not working for the federal government. And they are working for entities whose purpose is not the public interest but the bottom line,” Brian said.

“The capacity for secrecy is even deeper in the private sector,” she said, where contractors are not subject to public tools like the Freedom of Information Act, and independent watchdogs, like POGO, cannot evaluate contractor job performance. “So, what’s already mostly secret in the government is that much more secret when it’s in the private sector.” That, Brian argued, causes a conflict between profit motives, such as the data collected by telecommunications companies, and the real intelligence value of that data deemed valid for national security gathering despite privacy concerns.


A Washington Post investigation in 2010 identified almost 2,000 companies working on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence. The Office of Management and Budget revealed in 2014 that more than 5.1 million people — including over a million contractors — held security clearances. As Brian suggests, giving profit-motivated companies access to incredibly valuable and sensitive information held by the intelligence agencies poses a number of grave risks.

The first and most obvious is the risk of misuse of the volumes of sensitive information the intelligence agencies collect. Intelligence officials’ claims that their agencies closely guard these databases were belied by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks. That his intent was to expose these secrets to journalists as a public service, rather than sell them, is what makes his case stand out. But several cases of espionage demonstrate that his access to sensitive information and ability to abscond with it was not unique.

The impact on democratic governance is equally substantial. Americans have had to rely on journalism and leaks — rather than official oversight mechanisms — to learn that intelligence agencies entered into secret agreements with private companies to illegally obtain customers’ communications, and weaken encryption standards. that protect the internet from hackers and cybercriminals. When whistleblowers exposed the telecommunications companies’ role in these illegal schemes in violation Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights, the Justice Department failed to prosecute and Congress passed a statute immunizing them from private lawsuits.

That the companies that engaged in intelligence and surveillance operations also provided campaign contributions to the members of Congress charged with overseeing these intelligence activities only raised more public skepticism about integrity in government.

Without the legal tools to uncover these secret deals, it is impossible for watchdog groups like POGO to hold intelligence agencies, contractors and our elected representatives accountable, absent whistleblowers willing to risk their freedom.

Waste, fraud, and abuse in defense programs raise serious security concerns as well. Clark Kent Ervin served on the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which issued a 2011 report identifying between $31 and $60 billion in U.S. taxpayer money lost to waste and fraud. In an interview, Ervin made the startling connection between ill-spent money paid to contractors in Iraq and the fall of the Iraq army at the hands of ISIS:


The U.S. government has long claimed that stopping the flow of money to terrorist groups is one of its highest priorities. It has aggressively targeted American Muslim charities, often without public charges or due process, chilling the provision of humanitarian aid to conflict zones around the world and the free exercise of religion . Yet the second largest source of income for Afghan insurgents, behind only drug dealing, wasn’t diverted charity, it was U.S. tax dollars contractors paid for protection. The Commission concluded these funds posed a direct threat to the U.S. war effort.

As the U.S. renews its military engagement in Iraq, and initiates a new one in Syria, it will again heavily rely on contractors . Ensuring our tax dollars aren’t funding our enemies should be among our highest priorities. It can only be accomplished with rigorous oversight and public accountability.