Opinion: Outsourcing intelligence work is a slippery slope

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.

“Blackwater,” so sinisterly named, is only the most famous of the private security contractors. It has changed its name to “Xe,” as if assuming an alias would provide a new cloak to hide its dagger. I can remember being told when I arrived in Baghdad in the autumn of 2005 that these private contractors were trigger happy, were not supervised as were normal soldiers and could literally get away with murder. Indeed, Blackwater guards killed 17 unarmed Iraqis in 2007, which got the firm in trouble. It lost its contract to protect the State Department officials in Iraq.

But once having kicked the firm out the front door, the State Department appears to have hired some of them back through the side door.

What are the permissible limits of outsourcing? The danger comes when the private contractors are not under the same discipline and control that federal employees would be under. In a sense the United States has long been outsourcing interrogation when it sends terrorist suspects to countries such as Egypt to be treated more roughly than our laws would permit. The euphemism, “extraordinary rendition,” has become part of the language. With the intelligence services so heavily outsourcing, can outsourcing of entire wars be far behind? France used to outsource its colonial wars. The storied French Foreign Legion, made up of foreign soldiers but officered by Frenchmen, fought in Africa and in Asia to maintain the French empire. After World War II, there were many Germans in the Legion, many of whom had actually fought against France only a few years before. After 1956, and the failed Hungarian Revolution, there was an influx of Hungarians. One hopes there was always a supply of Anglo-Saxons with broken hearts and unhappy love affairs to keep up tradition.

The tradition was that no one looked into your past, and that after a five-year term you could have French citizenship. Given the number of soldiers in the American army who are not yet citizens, I often wondered if an American Foreign Legion, with full citizenship rights at a tour’s end, might one day be seen as the answer to the Army’s recruiting problems.