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Post-9/11 outsourcing of U.S. intelligence raises risks

The unprecedented leak of National Security Agency secrets by an intelligence contractor, including bombshells about top-secret programs to collect telephone records, email and other personal data, was probably an inevitable consequence of the massive growth of the U.S. security-industrial complex.

Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old man who identified himself as the source behind stories in The Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers, has worked at Booz Allen Hamilton and other intelligence contractors. Before entering the private sector, he held a series of technical jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency.

In a statement Sunday, Booz Allen said, “Booz Allen can confirm that Edward Snowden, 29, has been an employee of our firm for less than 3 months, assigned to a team in Hawaii. News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm. We will work closely with our clients and authorities in their investigation of this matter.”

Snowden was among tens of thousands of private intelligence contractors hired in the unprecedented push to “connect the dots” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They work side-by-side with civil servants as analysts, technical support specialists and mission managers. An unknown number have access to secret and top-secret material.

Several years ago, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimated almost one in four intelligence workers were contractors.

The growing reliance on contractors reflects a massive shift toward outsourcing over the past 15 years, in part because of cutbacks in the government agencies. It has dramatically increased the risk of waste and contracting abuses, government auditors have found, in part because the government has repeatedly acknowledged that it does not have a sufficient workforce to oversee the contractors.

In a briefing presentation several years ago, the DNI estimated that 70 percent of the intelligence community’s secret budget goes to contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton.

Since Sept. 11, more than 30 secure complexes have been constructed to accommodate top-secret intelligence work in the D.C. area. They occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons.

At the same time, tens of billions of dollars have been spent by intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security on computers, networks, satellite systems and other technology to collect and mine information. Those systems have been shown repeatedly to be vulnerable – to attacks and exploitation by both hackers and insiders. The most notable example is Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, 25, who downloaded more than 700,000 classified documents from secure military networks. He is accused of passing them on to WikiLeaks, in what was the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history.

The documents leaked by Snowden have been fewer but far more sensitive, including top-secret material. None of Manning’s documents were top secret.

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