Thursday, June 27, 2013

Booz-Allen - the world's most profitable spy organization

Businessweek | Booz Allen and its competitors are able to keep landing contracts and keep growing, critics charge, not because their expertise is irreplaceable but because their Rolodexes are. Name a retired senior official from the NSA or the CIA or the various military intelligence branches, and there’s a good chance he works for a contractor—most likely Booz Allen. Name a senior intelligence official serving in the government, and there’s a good chance he used to work for Booz Allen. (ODNI’s Sanders, who made the case for contractors, is now a vice president at the firm, which declined to make him available for an interview.) McConnell and others at Booz Allen are quick to point out that the contracting process has safeguards and oversight built in and that it has matured since the frenzied years just after Sept. 11. At the same time, the firm’s tendency to scoop up—and lavishly pay—high-ranking intelligence officers once they retire suggests the value it places on their address books and in having their successors inside government consider Booz Allen as part of their own retirement plans.

Rich contractor salaries create a classic public-private revolving door. They pull people from government intelligence, deplete the ranks, and put more experience and knowledge in the private sector, which makes contractors even more vital to the government. “Now you go into government for two or three years, get a clearance, and migrate to one of the high-paying contractors,” says Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. That’s what Snowden did. “You have to have a well-developed sense of patriotism to turn that money down,” Aftergood says.

As a result, says Golden, the headhunter, a common complaint in spy agencies is that “the damn contractors know more than we do.” That could have been a factor in the Snowden leak—his computer proficiency may have allowed him to access information he shouldn’t have been allowed to see. Snowden is an anomaly, though. What he did with that information—copying it, getting it to the press, and publicly identifying himself as the leaker—cost him his job and potentially his freedom, all for what appear so far to be idealistic motives. The more common temptation would be to use knowledge, legally and perhaps not even consciously, to generate more business.

In the wake of the Snowden leak, Congress is paying more attention to contractors like Booz Allen and the role they play in intelligence gathering. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say that the ease with which Snowden was able to gain access to and divulge classified information highlights the need for greater oversight of contractors’ activities. “I’m just stunned that an individual who did not even have a high school diploma, who did not successfully complete his military service, and who is only age 29 had access to some of the most highly classified information in our government,” Senator Susan Collins (R-Me.) told reporters on Capitol Hill on June 11. “That’s astonishing to me, and it suggests real problems with the vetting process. The rules are not being applied well or they need to be more strict.”

Changing them, however, may be easier said than done. “At the very highest level, whether at the White House or the Pentagon, there will always be a contractor in the room,” says Golden. “And the powers that be will turn around and say, ‘That’s a brilliant plan, how do we make that work?’ And a contractor will say, ‘I can do that.’ ”