Time to Nationalize the Intelligence Industry

That’s basically what I argue in this op-ed I just posted at the New York Times – my first byline ever in the Gray Lady.

We’ve allowed contractors to conduct our most secret and sensitive operations with virtually no oversight. This is true not only at the N.S.A. Contractors now work alongside the C.I.A. in covert operations (two of the Americans killed in Benghazi were C.I.A. contractors; we still don’t know who their employer was).

They also analyze imagery and intercepted intelligence to track and kill suspected terrorists for the United States Special Operations Command. In April, the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General found that nine of 28 tasks outlined in a $231 million contract the command awarded “may have included inherently governmental duties.” In other words, contractors were involved in secret and highly sensitive operations that by law are reserved for government operatives. After Blackwater’s sordid history in Iraq, we don’t need more unaccountable actors fighting terrorism for profit.

Finally, there’s the revolving door — or what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called “undue influence.” With few regulations and no questions being asked on Capitol Hill, hundreds of former top N.S.A. and C.I.A. officials have migrated from government to the private sector and back again. The poster boy is Michael McConnell, who served as N.S.A. director during Bill Clinton’s first term, then went to Booz Allen for a 10-year stint, became director of national intelligence for George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009, and is back at Booz Allen today.

We have no way of knowing how people like Mr. McConnell formed their business relationships, and what agreements or compromises they might have made to get their private-sector jobs (and vice versa). They may be honorable men, but as recent history has shown us, there’s no reason to take them at their word. And the current one-year ban on lobbying for former officials does little to prevent conflicts of interest.

Congress must act now to re-establish a government-run intelligence service operating with proper oversight. The first step is to appoint an independent review board — with no contractors on it — to decide where the line for government work should be drawn. The best response to the Snowden affair is to reduce the size of our private intelligence army and make contract spying a thing of the past. Our democracy depends on it.

I also posted this take a few days ago on the Booz Allen Hamilton/NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The headline might have been a little over the top, but my comparison of our privatized surveillance state to the East German Stasi is quite valid, in my opinion. But this right-winger in the Wall Street Journal didn’t think so, and accused me of “red-baiting” the N.S.A. I loved that one. No, my friend, this is what red-baiting looks like!

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