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"Incestuous:" The Dangers of Big Unaccountable Contractors

In the wake of the National Security Agency scandal, the mainstream media is obsessing over Edward Snowden’s security clearance. It is asking, along with Senators from the Intelligence Committee, why a systems administrator at Booz Allen Hamilton had access to troves of top-secret documents and whether or not the vetting process for the other 1.4 million people with top-secret clearances is rigorous enough. The fear, the mainstream seems to be pushing on Americans, is that other leaks are in store.

But this is not the real debate. The notion that leaks are more likely with outsourcing, first off, is false. And the idea that they will increase in the future is speculation without reasonable evidence. What about Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis, and Thomas Drake, all of them former government employees who’ve blown the whistle on fraud and abuse within the last 12 years? Snowden is the first major whistleblower from the private sector since the intelligence industry’s boom after 9/11.

This question, which the mainstream media has gobbled up, is a red herring. The real question is this: what happens to our nation’s national security operations, which are ideally conducted in the public’s interest, when they are handed over to corporations that are motivated by money?

Well, “it can cause bad decisions,” says Joe Newman, director of communications at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). The decisions of private firms, he says, are no longer “in the American public’s interests because you have companies that are worried about profits and answering to their boards of directors and shareholders. That’s not something we want in the decision-making process when you’re talking about issues that are vital to our national security.”

It is interesting, Newman notes, that, in the last 18 years, intelligence companies have been charged on hundreds of counts of misconduct but haven’t seen the same kind of scrutiny as they are seeing today.

Take the controversy over NSA’s Trailblazer Project, for example, an outsourced program that whistleblowers Binney, Wiebe, Loomis and Drake say wasted tens of millions — perhaps billions — of taxpayer dollars and, in the end, failed to detect the 9/11 plot. Furthermore, Wiebe, Binney, and Loomis, who designed the competing ThinThread program, assert that the implementation of ThinThread could have thwarted the terrorist attacks. Why, then, didn’t the NSA use the cheaper, yet more effective, program? It’s because Trailblazer was contracted out to a private firm and would have ballooned the NSA’s budget. ThinThread, by contrast, was designed “in-house” by Loomis and Binney. It wasn’t a moneymaking machine.

“The more money you have as an intelligence agency,” Loomis told me last November, “the more prestige you have...It’s the military-intelligence-industrial-complex. Congress approves the wasteful spending because all they want to do is get re-elected. They owe political favors to private sector campaign donors and thus open doors within the intelligence community to satiate their business interests. It’s just incestuous.”

Despite the incriminating evidence against Trailblazer, which shows that the NSA put big business interests in front of those of the public, the mainstream media has chosen not to cover the issue and the government has refused to investigate the allegations of its four former high-level NSA employees. 

“These [private intelligence] companies are so big,” Newman says, “that when they do make mistakes the government can’t do anything to punish them because some of [the government’s] operations would collapse. Companies know that, and they often use that knowledge as the cost of doing business — that they’re going to get a little fine, a slap on the wrist — and then they just work that into their costs…It creates this culture where corners can be cut.”

So far there is no evidence that Snowden’s leaks, along with those of Manning, Kiriakou, and the NSA whistleblower group, have posed or do pose any danger to national security. Indeed, Snowden carefully chose what he would leak and then filtered them through one of the most respected newspapers in the world, The Guardian.

The persecution of Snowden is, as professor Christopher Pyle said yesterday in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, an attempt to protect the special interests of the military-intelligence-industrial complex.

“The fourth amendment,” Pyle said, “which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, only binds the government. It doesn’t bind corporations and that’s a serious problem. The reason we have privatization of prisons, in some ways, is for governments to escape liability. They put the liability on private companies,” who then “charge liability as an operating cost.”