Nuclear Weapons

GAO Says Data on Intelligence Contractors Not Reliable

02.18.14 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Official data on the number of contractors used by civilian intelligence agencies are unreliable, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Nor can the costs incurred by contractors be accurately assessed.

The inadequacy of the data undermines workforce management as well as contractor oversight, GAO said.

“GAO identified a number of limitations in the inventory [of intelligence contractors] that collectively limit the comparability, accuracy, and consistency of the information reported by the civilian IC [intelligence community] elements as a whole,” the GAO report said.  These limitations included changing definitions of what a core contractor is, and variability in the collection and reporting of data on their use.

The resulting inventory “does not provide insight into the functions performed by contractors, in particular those that could inappropriately influence the government’s control over its decisions.”

See Civilian Intelligence Community: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Reporting on and Planning for the Use of Contract Personnel, Government Accountability Office Report GAO-14-204, January 2014.

The intelligence community (IC) workforce is composed of three basic categories of employees:  civilian government personnel, military personnel, and core contractors.

“Core contractors” — as opposed to other individual contractors, manufacturers or service providers — may perform mission-related functions including intelligence collection, processing and analysis, as well as information technology services. (Edward Snowden was considered a core contractor.)

“While the use of contractors can provide benefits in support agency missions, such as flexibility to meet immediate needs and obtain unique expertise, their use can also introduce risks for the government to consider and manage,” the GAO report said.

But as a result of faulty data, US intelligence agencies “are not well-positioned to assess the potential effects of relying on contractor personnel.” The GAO report included recommendations for improving the quality and utility of data on intelligence contractor use.

Stephanie O’Sullivan, the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, acknowledged that there were defects in IC reporting on contractors, but she said that things were getting better.

“There have been challenges associated with conducting the [intelligence contractor] inventory, which was one of the first of its kind in the Federal government,” she told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “However, the IC continues to improve the capture and understanding of data on its core contract personnel.”

Ms. O’Sullivan said that reductions in the contractor population were underway, but that contractors remained indispensable.

“We have… turned the corner and for the past several years have been reducing the number of core contract personnel across the IC, both in numbers and costs. Despite these reductions, core contract personnel have now become an integral part of the IC workforce. We could not perform our mission without them,” she said.

She noted that in some cases, intelligence contractors “have given their lives for this country alongside their government colleagues.”

“Two IC contract personnel were among the nine people killed during a terrorist attack on a CIA facility located near the eastern Afghan city of Khost in December 2009, and two IC contract personnel lost their lives during the attack on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012.”

In any case, “because of the contraction in [intelligence] budgets, contractors are motivated to reduce costs…. In fact, some contractor employees are now being paid less than they were a few years back.”

The new Governmental Accountability Office report appears to represent a successful step in the development of GAO’s role in intelligence oversight.

Ms. O’Sullivan said that several of the specific steps recommended by GAO had been or would be adopted by the Intelligence Community. “These changes will bring greater transparency to the IC’s data on core contract personnel,” she said.

But it seems noteworthy that the new GAO report was requested by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs– not the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Just as the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have produced more incisive public oversight of intelligence surveillance policy than the Intelligence Committees have done over the past year, so in this case the Senate Homeland Security Committee has had more to offer the public in terms of oversight of intelligence contractors.  It is not clear why that should be so.

A GAO official downplayed this question. He said the Homeland Security Committee had a long-term interest in contractor policy throughout the government, including a series of reports requested from GAO. He added that the latest report “was distributed to all committees of jurisdiction, including the intelligence committees.” (More: Bloomberg, WaPo).

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