WASHINGTON – The unprecedented leak of National Security Agency secrets by an intelligence contractor, including bombshells about top-secret programs to collect telephone records, email and other personal data, was probably an inevitable consequence of the massive growth of the U.S. security-industrial complex.
Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old who identified himself as the source behind stories in The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers, has worked at Booz Allen Hamilton and other intelligence contractors. Before entering the private sector, he held a series of technical jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Snowden was among tens of thousands of private intelligence contractors hired in the unprecedented push to “connect the dots” after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. They work side by side with civil servants as analysts, technical support specialists and mission managers. An unknown number have access to secret and top-secret material.
Several years ago, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) estimated that almost 1 in 4 intelligence workers were employed by contractors.
The growing reliance on contractors reflects a massive shift toward outsourcing over the past 15 years, in part because of cutbacks in the government agencies. It has dramatically increased the risk of waste and contracting abuses, government auditors have found, in part because the government has repeatedly acknowledged that it does not have a sufficient workforce to oversee the contractors.
But given the threat of terrorism and the national security mandates from Congress, the intelligence community had little choice. In a briefing presentation several years ago, the DNI estimated that 70 percent of the intelligence community’s secret budget goes to contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton.
The former director of Naval Intelligence, retired Rear Adm. Thomas Brooks, said in a report in 2007 that private contractors had become a crucial part of the nation’s intelligence infrastructure. “The extensive use of contractor personnel to augment military intelligence operations is now an established fact of life,” he said.
Since Sept. 11, more than 30 secure complexes have been constructed to accommodate top-secret intelligence work in the Washington area. They occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons.
An examination by The Washington Post in 2010 found that 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the country.
At the same time, tens of billions of dollars have been spent by intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security on computers, networks, satellite systems and other technology to collect and mine information. Those systems have been shown repeatedly to be vulnerable — to attacks and exploitation by both hackers and insiders.
The most notable example is army Pfc. Bradley Manning, 25, who downloaded more than 700,000 classified documents from secure military networks. He is accused of passing them on to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, in what was the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history.
Manning is being court-martialed on 22 charges, including aiding the enemy, and could face life in prison. He obtained access to the documents while working as a low-level intelligence analyst on assignment in Baghdad, during the war in Iraq.
The documents leaked by Snowden have been fewer but far more sensitive, including top-secret material.
Snowden’s release of scores of pages of top-secret material about a data surveillance program, code named PRISM, and an NSA program to collect information about millions of phone calls from Verizon, underscores one of gnawing worries in the national security community: The more people allowed in the top-secret tent, the higher the risk of leaks.