Contract to Spy: Is the U.S. Government using contractors the way you think they are?
Armed Drone on tarmac at Kandahar, Afghanistan military airport Photo By: AFP/Getty Images
September 20th, 2011
09:12 PM ET

Contract to Spy: Is the U.S. Government using contractors the way you think they are?

By CNN Sr. National Security Producer Suzanne Kelly

Let's say there is an American overseas, loading Hellfire missiles onto drones that are targeting and killing terrorists. Would it matter to you whether that person is a private contractor and not a U.S. service member?

That's one of the questions lawmakers are still struggling with some 10 years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which, because of massive shortages in the government sector saw a boom in the private contracting industry.

The temporary hiring practice that began as a stopgap measure has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry where the line is often blurred between functions customarily handled by government employees and those carried out by hired contractors on behalf of the United States.

Contractors working for the military have made the news in recent years, but contractors are also gathering and analyzing intelligence information. Two of the victims of a suicide bomber who infiltrated a secret CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009 were contractors.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said last week that after 9/11, "contractors were tasked to conduct intelligence operations, collection, exploitation, and analysis."

The House Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee took up the issue Tuesday, hearing from a panel of experts about just how large the intelligence contracting community has become - and just how much they are needed.

Not all of that information is for public consumption. In fact, the overall budget remains classified, but experts such as Charlie Allen, a widely respected CIA veteran who now works for the Chertoff Group, a global consulting firm, testified that while there have been some improvements to the process, there is still much work to be done, not only in managing the contractor work force effectively, but in bringing more of a balance to some government agencies as well.

"In recent years, because of the complex, asymmetric threat of terrorism, these numbers have grown substantially, and finding the right balance of government workers, supported by qualified contractors with unique skill sets has become increasingly complex," Allen told the committee.

One of those complexities comes with defining what functions contractors should and should not perform. The catchphrase for this is "inherently governmental," and numerous studies have been done to determine just what that means. Allen testified that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy last week completed a policy letter titled "Performance of Inherently Governmental and Critical Functions."

Mark Lowenthal, who was a high-ranking CIA official before joining the contractor work force, told the committee that during his time as assistant director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production, half of his staff was made up of contractors.

"They managed planning projects for me, they ran investigations for me and represented me at meetings." All of these duties were within the bounds of what contractors should do, Lowenthal testified.

"Their services were vital to the programs we undertook and carried out," he said.

Just how extensively contractors are used in the intelligence world is classified. Still, t former CIA Director Michael Hayden called for an across-the-board reduction in contractor employment by the CIA and requiring that outgoing agency employees wait at least one year before beginning a job as a contractor.

Lowenthal contended that members of Congress need look no further than their own front door when it comes to the contractor controversy.

"Federal agencies have very little say in the employee/contractor ratio," the former CIA official said. "This is largely determined by the budget and the budget is in the hands of Congress.

"The President's budget may suggest allocations between employees and contractors, but the ultimate decision rests here, in the Senate and the House.

Filed under: Afghanistan • CIA • Congress • drones • Intelligence
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  23. Mike

    Service members are usually not well trained and accomplished techies. Most service members who do become well trained and accomplished leave the service to become contractors so they can make more money. There they develop more advanced skills than they usually would in the service.
    The military does not train people as specialists as many may believe. When a service member reaches a certain rank, they effectively become personnel managers with most duties assigned to them that require management skills, not technical skills. Also, service members are tasked with so many various duties that a very small part of their day may be allocated for work requiring technical skill or training. By contrast, contractors do more technical focused work than service members may ever get chance to.

    September 29, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  24. M Effer

    Blah, blah, blah...the military is good...the contractors are good...war is good...peace is good. We should all go out and hug a soldier with a contractor while eating a vegan bean burrito bought from the corner quicky mart owned by the "spy" family of Arabic decent who uses the illegal Mexican immigrant as an underpaid cashier. You people are rediculous. Read some of the absolute rubbish you read. I would like you all to stop typing now. I'm a little dumber for having read each and every one of your comments, and may God (or Allah or whoever) have mercy on your politically correct, granola eating, pot smoking, tree hugging souls.
    Hey...I have an idea...let's not go to war with ANYONE and while the borders are being invaded by all of the "evil" illegal immigrants, perhaps we can be attacked by some more religious fanatics and more of our innocent bystanders can get killed. At least it would save them from seeing us destroy ourselves.
    You can all go to hell.

    September 26, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Reply
    • Wiegee

      Go ahead, don't hold back...tell us how you really feel.

      September 28, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Flig


      September 29, 2011 at 9:14 am | Reply
  25. Adam

    I bet the 3 american hikers were freelance spies.

    September 25, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  26. Trish

    We're talking about skill sets. You have a bunch of people who know how to do this sort of work. They happen to be in the private sector due to a variety of reasons, including downsizing during the 90s, not reupping their time in the military, etc. So since the government needs their skills they can either go through the time and effort and money of training new people to do it, or they can hire people who already know how. Since you cannot force someone to be in the military at the moment, they have every right to be in the private sector. And if the government needs what they have in their brains, then they'll pay a contractor for it. In many cases people are not like widgets; they aren't equally interchangable one for another. In theory, sure, an all-government force might be nice, but in practice there aren't the bodies and brains available to do it. You could cut the contractors out...but it would leave an enormous vacuum that the government is not able to fill.

    September 25, 2011 at 12:08 am | Reply
    • Francis

      On the spot.

      September 25, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
    • S

      Yeah. I'll second that.

      September 28, 2011 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • Mike

      I'll third that.

      September 29, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  27. Wastrel

    "...massive shortages in the government sector saw a boom in the private contracting industry." So, the government had shortages, so they hired contractors, who are more expensive than soldiers? No. Bush, Cheney and their buddies hired the contractors, and it was government corruption, plain and simple. Get rid of the contractors, they cannot take the place of the world's finest and least corrupt military organization.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • MWS

      Did you just refer to the American military as the world's least corrupt? I would not say we are bad, but I think you may have just stretched it a little.

      May 9, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  28. bailoutsos

    What? Illegal Mexican workers are loading the Hellfire missiles onto drones?

    September 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  29. Mark

    Sorry, whoever doesn't think that this is already being done is really living in a box. They have been hiring contractors as essentially private mercs forever.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  30. Planner

    Contractors have a niche to fill. Whether you increase the size of the military or hire additional contractors comes down to costs. You hire a contractor because your costs are all up front. Once you have paid the salary the govt. doesn't have any back-end costs like retiree healthcare, pensions etc.

    You pay less for soldiers up-front, but more on the back-end with retirement, retiree healthcare etc. If the need is for a few years, contractors are a cost efficient way to expand the force. If the need is longer term, increasing the size of the force makes sense.

    The real issue is that the govt. chose the contractor route because we thought the conflicts would be short term. After 2-3 years the size of the force should have been dramaticly increased when we realized the wars would last alot longer then initially expected. Why didn't that happen? Draw your own conclusions.

    September 22, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
  31. Beefburger

    "Contractors" call them what they are; MERCENARIES. The world's second oldest profession. When you do not have enough military personnel to get the job done, what are you gonna do? Just let yourself lose? Professional soldiers are a much better value than $16 muffins at the DOJ.

    September 22, 2011 at 7:49 am | Reply
    • S

      Hey, maybe those muffins were amazing, with some of those truffle things stuck in the middle. hah! I would have loved to be that baker, if only for a minute or two. Priceless.

      September 28, 2011 at 9:45 am | Reply
  32. cluelesspeople

    People fail to understand that most contractors are gov't trained to begin with. These are retired military, people who served in the military, former DoD civilians, etc. As a former intelligence officer, it is 100% impossible to get the specialized training I provide to the gov't without having first been involved with the gov't. After retirement, you have a set of skills that can be reapplied to the gov't. The fear mongering that contractors are reckless and more expensive is not true. I win contracts because I am cheaper than hiring federal workers in the long run. Also, as an experienced professional I can provide training to junior level gov't personnel and provide direct combat experience lessons learned. That is were the value is. Being able to retain the people with the skills. Would you rather me provide my support to the gov't or take all my knowledge and experience and dump it in the trash and work in an unrelated field?

    September 22, 2011 at 7:39 am | Reply
    • PK

      Why do I suspect you are already taking home a government pension?

      September 22, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Reply
      • S

        Probably because he stated he was a former intelligence officer.

        September 28, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  33. David Schwab

    It's about time the government comes to terms that the less they are involved, the better. contractors are not cheap but you don't have to pay for their education, their families health care, life insurance, allowances. military is much more expensive. if an ex cia high ranking official likes it, it's for a reason.

    September 22, 2011 at 6:02 am | Reply
    • V. P.

      So that's why you're against the military, you never served. Well the military is worth every cent they're paid and should get more. And before you get stupid, I served for 20 yrs. Have a nice life!

      September 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  34. East Bay Ed

    The use of contractor's in all our foreign operations is just another way of getting around the law. If we don't have the capacity to wage war with our military we should not get involved. As far as I'm concerned the Middle East has not been worth one American life or the cost. Nor is it worth the money we're funneling into these countries, much of witch is not accounted for.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Reply
    • mickey1313

      I agree, it cost way more to use contracters, for anything. The military can do it better, and they use a quality first aproch, not a saveings first aprove. The fact that cheny gave a company he was curently employed by (how is it legal for the VP to be employed anyway), multi-billion dollar contracts is astounding. And bushs family has heavy ties, as in his uncal founded, Rathion, the company makeing all of the drones. The field of government contracting is disgusting and it shows where our tax money goey, to wealthy evil white men.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Reply
      • David Schwab

        you have no idea what you're talking about

        September 22, 2011 at 5:58 am |
      • S

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        September 28, 2011 at 9:48 am |
      • S


        September 28, 2011 at 9:48 am |
      • Mike

        Mickey I think you should reanalyze your information and gather more of it. Your seem to have been affected by popular media consumption, aka spin and exaggeration.

        September 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Beefburger

      You should rename yourself Milqtoast Ed.

      September 22, 2011 at 7:52 am | Reply
    • PK

      Black Water come to mind

      September 22, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  35. Kerry

    I'm against the use of contractors, some who are neither trained professionals, and the government is paying a lot more for their services rather than using their own trained personnel. This, at a time of 9.1% unemployment and when we are all tasked to make sacrifices. The business of intelligence should be kept in-house and not outsourced. We don't need spies of fortune running our intelligence. This is bad for America.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      The vast majority of intelligence contractors are prior service members who were trained by the government.\

      September 29, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  36. SJD

    Frank, let me guess, you must be a contractor with a mighty high opinion of yourself. Furthermore, you must have never spent one day in the U.S. military. People like you and Mike are a good reason to bring back the draft. As a retired military person, I resent your baseless opinions and I resent your implication that those of us who GAVE service to our country somehow "foisted" our retirement and medical care on you. Shame on you.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  37. clark1a

    this was one of Rumsfeld's worst ideas. and as far as saving money ... it doesn't, not even retirement, it just comes from a different pot of money that Congress can "hide" and tell Americans that DOD doesn't cost as much.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  38. Pete from St Paul

    outsourcing saves the money for the GOP ideology of government. It prevents blocks of workers from unionizing and later on retirement benefits.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  39. Than N.

    As a Government IT Contractor, I can tell you there have been many positive things information technology contractors have accomplished: combating terrorism, cleaning up the environment and managing vast amounts of critical data. Many of us work hard to add value for the government agencies we work for.

    Than Nguyen

    September 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Reply
    • mickey1313

      even so, it costs the government much more for a good contractor then a federal employee, and that employee is paied less and hass poorer benifits then if they were a fed.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  40. Sunil

    It is amazing that this discussion is going on. There are some jobs like defence, policing, spying etc should never be outsouced. All contractors, by defination, are in line to maximize their profits. When the motive is to maximize profits, some thing else is to give. Let us not forget the of hiring Kuwaity company for securung our ports, a few years ago. TSA is out sourced and we have seen security being brached a number of times. When will we learn. I know we are a capitalistic society but some of the jobs have to be done in-house.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
    • mickey1313

      the funny thing is, a "capitolist" socity would have the best product (or in this case company) do the job. A balance between cost and effectivness. However with the no-bid cost plus contracts going out for the past 10 years, companies do a piss poor job, and they cost a fortune. Blackwater, CACI, Haliberton/KBR, the list goes on. the war would cost less then 1/2 of what it has if we did everything in-house, not to mention we would be useing interagators that actually speak arabic.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  41. POD

    The Romans tried see where it got them.....a one way ticket to destruction

    September 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • Aleksandar

      Contractors are not uncentivised to roll over their canortcts, in fact their entire credibity is based upon their ability to get the job done within the achievable expectations of their CLIENT. It may surprise the author but good contractors have customer satisfaction at the top of their priorities.If solution improvement is a requirement, call it out. More often than not the mandate of the contractor is to execute a scope defined by a consultant.A lazy manager is nothing else but a lazy manager, and there are many of these embedded in the permanent workforce.Why not get rid of contractors? Businesses need to have a holistic view of their resource needs to deliver on the goals and objectives. A mix if full time, part time pernament and contract resource pools is common, it is the management of the mix that is key. As tragic as it is how would corporates make the last quarter head count tweaks without having contractors to terminate temporarily?Outsourcing is a legitimate part of the mix, but the canortcts associated with outsourcing carry rigidity and unefficiency too. Contractors are the more efficient way of outsourcing one off work packages.The fact is that poor and lazy managers are the wasteful layer of organisatons. Keep them focussed, efficient and effective, and you they will drive the right resource mix for the business.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:02 am | Reply
  42. Richard

    I do not think we should contract out killing. If a terrorist needs to be eradicated, that should be a function of my government, not mercenaries. Contractors can build the drones, maybe even service them, but I do not like the idea contractors operating the drones and deciding whether to fire missiles in an overtly offensive action.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  43. Barking Alien

    This is a really good idea...not. Why not just out source the government so next time you call up the government or spy agencies they answer and say "This is USA govenment, my name Peggy".

    September 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • George Washington

      Or,"Hello, this is Quiky Mart and CIA intelligence. How may this one help you?"

      September 21, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Theravade

      This debate is completely misleading. The people employed to do these jobs are pretty much going to be the same former washouts or retirees regardless. Their security clearances are adjudicated by the same agencies and their work is ultimately managed or mismanaged by the same gov't organizations who pay the bills. This is a payroll/staffing issue. If they are actively engaged in combat (shooting people) then it becomes (somewhat arbitrarily) an international law issue. I wouldn't want to be a non-combatant around any of these people regardless.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  44. common sense

    Shut up? How American of you Frank. Paid contractors to silence dissent and keep the military industrial complex humming for eternity. God Bless America.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  45. Gaddffly

    Good idea, A CIA booth at the Bejing job fair to hire foreign nationals to spy and fight against other countries. Reminds me of Catch-22 when they were paid to bomb their own air base. haha

    September 21, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Reply

    contractors are used because they do not want another Vietnam public protest. if our country replaced these private contractors with troops, the public will know more about where are army is and what they are doing. this way all we see is a contract bill with no purpose. if our armed forces can not handle a operation with out paying mercenaries then we should not be involved or spread this thin

    September 21, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  47. Donald Jones

    They have always used paid spies, James Bond was and will always be a fiction

    September 21, 2011 at 11:39 am | Reply
    • mickey1313

      If you do not think that we have Bond like guys in the CIA, and the brits dont have them in the MI-5, you are a fool, espinage has and always will be a big part of the way our nation does business.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Reply
      • Beefburger

        REAL intelligence work is done by groups of working shleps that pour over stacks of documents in the wee hours of the morning, analyzing data and pictures while trying not to leave a coffee ring on some important paper.

        September 22, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  48. HR

    The real question is if those former employees are still needed....why not have them as employees instead of a contractor...that way govt. spends less comparatively, employee gets more and no middlemen takes his commission

    September 21, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • frank

      Because a skilled contractor knows he can command a higher salary than the less skilled government workers that relies on sucking on the government teat rather than relying on the market demands of their skill set.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Reply
      • George Washington

        Mean while the contractors skill set is sucking on the government teat. Just now they can suck harder....
        Get rid of most contractors in these positions and have less problems with security.

        September 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
      • HR

        From tax payers point of view why should the govt. spend more for the same job. If quality of employee is a problem, how do you know the contractors are more efficient....the only fact is they cost more for the same job

        September 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • mickey1313

      because the contract companies are in bed with the government. people like Frank, below, are lieing, or stupid. There contract was gotten from a friend of the one in charge, probibly by doing favors of an ilegal varity. He thinks he is worth more, because he is in fact sucking the teet of the system, in a fair market system he would get a radical pay cut and he would be sad. Funny that he probibly votes republican and thinks he is a patriot, when in fact hi is anti-american and working for the fascists they claim to hate.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  49. Dich0t0my

    Agreed. Furthermore, having worked for both the ability to fire incompetent people in the private sector ensures the idiots in government don't screw things up. (current govt. employee looking to go back to contracting)

    September 21, 2011 at 10:48 am | Reply
  50. JT

    Most contractors are former US military and govt civilian employees; I don't see what the big deal is.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • D


      September 21, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • Cogito

      The big deal is that the government is (supposed to be) accountable to the American people, whereas private contractors are not.

      That's without even getting into the fact that contractors get paid much more than active-duty military personnel...i.e. they suck up more taxpayer dollars. I don't pay taxes so that Halliburton, Xe etc can enrich themselves, yet I am.

      If we can't do the job with the standing military we have, and the public support for the war(s) in question is so lacking that conscription to enhance that standing military is an unpalatable and untenable option, then we shouldn't be there.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
      • JeffinIL

        This ^

        September 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
      • Paul

        Private contractors are accountable to the other party to their contracts: in this case, the government. Too many people say that contractors are not accountable without any proof. Truth is contractors are as much accountable as intelligence agencies are. That is, not that much accountable.

        September 21, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
      • frank

        One contractor can do the work of 10 military/government workers. Plus, the burden of retirement and medical benefits is not foisted upon generations of taxpayers.

        Contractors are the most cost effective method of achieving our goals.

        If you don't like it, demand Congress reduces government waste, pension and medical expenses.

        Otherwise, shut up.

        September 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
      • Mike

        That is the biggest misconception that contractors get paid more than lazy government workers.
        I'm a contractor and the people making the big bucks are in fact Government workers who make POOR spending choices daily! The fact is contractors are held to a higher standard then government workers in terms of accountability. We have to LIVE UP TO our contract were as most government workers cost and on there job while riding contractors to do theirs.

        September 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • mickey1313

      because when a solder kills tortures or mames an iraqie, they are cortmartialed, when a contractor does the same thing, they are sent home, no punishment, no acountability. murderers for hire that what blackwater is. They murdered americans in LA after Katrina, then they went to Iraq to slaughter as many brown folks as they could.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Reply
      • JT

        Have you been to Iraq lately and/or can you readily identifiy it on a map?

        September 23, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
      • Mark

        @mickey1313.. really need to learn to spell.... solder=soldier, iraqui=iraqi, cortmartialed=Court-martialed, acountability=accountability

        September 27, 2011 at 9:53 am |

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