Private contractors' key role at issue in NSA leak

Tuesday - 6/11/2013, 4:44pm EDT

FILE - In this April 18, 2013 file photo, National Intelligence Director James Clapper prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington. When the federal government went looking for phone numbers tied to terrorists, it grabbed the records of just about everyone in America. Why every phone number? “Well, you have to start someplace,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC News on Monday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

JONATHAN FAHEY
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- People like Edward Snowden -- nearly 500,000 employees of private firms with access to the government's most sensitive secrets -- play a crucial role: They help monitor threats to national security.

When Snowden, an employee of one of those firms, Booz Allen Hamilton, revealed details of two National Security Agency surveillance programs, he spotlighted the risks of making so many employees of private contractors a key part of the U.S. intelligence apparatus.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, called Snowden's leak "gut wrenching."

The leak could lead the nation's intelligence agencies to reconsider their reliance on outside contractors, said Joseph Augustyn, a former senior CIA official and principal at Booz Allen.

"I think it would call into question the role of the defense contractors," Augustyn said.

Booz Allen, based in McLean, Va., provides consulting services, technology support and analysis to U.S. government agencies and departments. Last year, 98 percent of the company's $5.9 billion in revenue came from U.S. government contracts. Three-fourths of its 25,000 employees hold government security clearances. Half the employees have top secret clearances.

The company has established deep ties with the government -- the kinds of ties that contractors pursue and covet. Contractors stand to gain an edge on competitors by hiring people with the most closely held knowledge of the thinking inside agencies they want to serve and the best access to officials inside. That typically means former government officials.

The relationship often runs both ways: Clapper himself is a former Booz Allen executive. The firm's vice chairman, John "Mike" McConnell, held Clapper's position under George W. Bush.

"That really illustrates the ingrown nature of the relationship of NSA and its contractors," said Steven Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

The ties between government and contract workers are so pervasive in Washington that those on each side are known by nicknames: Contractors are called "green badgers" for the color of their identification badges. Government workers, who sport blue, are known as "blue badgers."

The reliance on contractors for intelligence work ballooned after the 9/11 attacks. The government scrambled to improve and expand its ability to monitor the communication and movement of people who might threaten another attack.

"After 9/11, intelligence budgets were increased, new people needed to be hired," Augustyn said. "It was a lot easier to go to the private sector and get people off the shelf."

The reliance on the private sector has grown since then, in part because of Congress' efforts to limit the size of federal agencies and shrink the budget.

Of the 4.9 million people with clearance to access "confidential and secret" government information, 1.1 million, or 21 percent, work for outside contractors, according to a report from Clapper's office. Of the 1.4 million who have the higher "top secret" access, 483,000, or 34 percent, work for contractors.

Applying for a security clearance requires disclosing one's job history, residences, education, spouses, relatives, friends, mental health, criminal activity, finances and allegiance. Investigators use that information to probe an applicant's past five years for confidential and secret clearance and 10 years for top secret clearance.

Investigators check with local law enforcement officials where applicants lived, worked or attended school. Sometimes, they issue lie-detector tests and psychological evaluations. A top secret clearance costs the government $4,005 per investigation, according to the Government Accountability Office. Lower-level security clearances cost $260.

Once given security clearance, workers can access offices, files and, most important, dedicated communications and computer networks that are walled off from the public.

Snowden previously worked for the CIA and likely obtained his security clearance there. But like others who leave the government to join private contractors, he was able to keep his clearance after he left and began working for outside firms.

Because clearances can take months or even years to acquire, government contractors often recruit workers who already have them.

Snowden says he accessed and downloaded the last of the documents that detailed the NSA surveillance program while working in an NSA office in Hawaii for Booz Allen, where he says he was earning $200,000 a year.

Analysts caution that any of the 1.4 million people with access to the nation's top secrets could have leaked information about the program -- whether they worked for a contractor or the government. It was a government employee -- U.S. Army Soldier Bradley Manning -- who was responsible for the last major leak of classified material, in 2010.