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Opinion: Outsourcing intelligence work is a slippery slope

The CIA still hires a lot of private contractors. How many is too many? And where will it stop?

Blackwater Chief Executive Erik Prince testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 2, 2007. Guards from Blackwater, perhaps the most famous of private security contractors, killed 17 unarmed Iraqis in 2007, which got the firm in trouble. It lost its contract to protect the State Department officials in Iraq, and subsequently changed its name to “Xe.” (Larry Downing/Reuters)

BOSTON — The CIA’s outsourcing of black operations was back in the news last week. In June, President Barack Obama’s man in Langley, Leon Panetta, pulled the plug on a private security firm’s contract to help locate and assassinate terrorists, but it was revealed that private contractors are also loading and servicing Predator drones in Afghanistan. The triggers are still pulled remotely from the agency’s headquarters in suburban Virginia.

During the Bush administration, private contractors were involved with interrogating prisoners and sometimes subjecting them to torture. The Obama administration has put an end to that, too, but I was startled to read that 25 percent of this country’s intelligence work force is made up of private contractors along with perhaps 70 percent of the budget.

The CIA has always sought outside help and expertise when it needed it. A relative of mine was asked to hastily help in getting a hold of some airplanes to bomb Quatamala City in 1950s when Guatamala fell out of favor with the United States. During the wars in Indochina the CIA ran a contract airline called Air America that became famous in its own right. As former director of central intelligence, General Michael Hayden, has said: “There are skills we don’t have in government that we may have an immediate requirement for.” The CIA has reached into private firms and universities to garner expertise over the years. Add to that a general pullback of resources after the end of the Cold War, and one can sympathize with the need to outsource to react to 9/11.

Controversy will continue over whether, and how much the Bush administration broke the law by keeping all of this from Congress. Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that “every single intelligence operation and covert action must be briefed to the Congress. If they are not, that is a violation of the law.”

There is always tension between those who run clandestine operations and those tasked with oversight. One of the problems has been that Congress has trouble keeping secrets, and leaks can prove fatal. On the other hand, governments always long for less supervision. The Reagan administration toyed with an idea of an off-the-books intelligence operation, a sort of secret CIA that could avoid scrutiny. Mercifully for the republic, it never came to fruition.

The emphasis on secrecy in the Bush administration, however, went beyond the normal, and led to frightening abuses. It is easy to see how a devastating terrorist attack, coinciding with a political leadership of the likes of Dick Cheney, could push this country sliding toward a police state.