Perhaps unknowingly, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior has found the Achilles’ heel of the American war effort in Iraq as it has sought to ban Blackwater USA, sentiments now echoed by Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. The implications of the September 16th Blackwater shooting reach far beyond the fate of a single contractor: Taken to an extreme, they could be used to shut down the US war machine, including intelligence gathering and covert operations. Because the US has become so dependent upon contractors for its national security, allowing a foreign government voice in which firms may operate on its behalf could bring vital security functions to a standstill.
In Iraq, Blackwater is contracted with the State Department to provide Protective Security Details and Tactical Support Teams, the latter quick reaction forces of highly trained and heavily armed operators who respond to emergencies. The company also provides similar services to the CIA. Blackwater has been one of the most visible of the new breed of security and intelligence contractors who perform services that were formerly the exclusive domain of government. In fact, many of these functions have been so heavily outsourced that the government no longer possesses the knowledge or capability to provide them without its contractors.
As readers of The Spy Who Billed Me already know, over the past decade, there has been a quiet revolution in how America fights both her covert and not-so-covert wars: war has been outsourced. Whereas the Pentagon has contracted out peripheral services, such as base and convoy security, US intelligence services have handed over critical functions to the private sector. Over half of the workforce of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS) is made up of industrial contractors, or “green badgers” as they are known in Agency parlance, and intelligence professionals tell me this figure has now most likely surpassed 70%.
The role of CIA employees has been largely reduced to contract managers and support administrators, supervising and supporting corporate program managers, who in turn oversee staff from other firms. Virtually entire branches of the NCS have been privatized. Government employees sign off on services, but their ability to provide adequate command and control of the companies doing the CIA’s business is highly questionable--in at least one case, the ratio of government employees to contracted staff exceeds 1:25. More significantly, contracting officers are trained as bureaucrats—paper pushers—who are not qualified to do the jobs they supervise and who rarely understand the work they are charged with overseeing. And that corporate espionage work is critical: running watch centers, fielding case officers, handling agents and conducting covert operations.
In response to my recent essay in the Washington Post, the Associate Director of National Intelligence Ronald Sanders admitted that the Intelligence Community could not accomplish its missions without contractors. The same is true of the CIA’s Baghdad station: it could not function without contractors. Around half of the Agency’s workforce in Iraq is employed by or contracted through private corporations which are integral to the covert side of the war. As I've written about in fiction in OUTSOURCED, privatization has indeed reached deeply into the Agency’s paramilitary arm, the Special Activities Division (SAD), particularly its Ground Branch.
CIA paramilitary operations in Iraq and elsewhere are dependent upon private business whose employees do the heavy lifting. Allowing a foreign government to ban specific contractors could hamstring CIA efforts in Iraq and elsewhere, leaving it dependent upon its own blue badger staff, an army of young administrators with sharp pencils and little operational experience.
Because of the contracting structure, the Intelligence Community is particularly vulnerable to disruption if key prime contractors were banned. For example, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence utilizes a system through which it has pre-selected prime contractors for its management, professional, engineering and technical service needs: Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SAIC and Scitor. Each of these primes has a group of unique subcontractors ranging in number from five to over two dozen. For example, SAIC offers such subcontractors as BearingPoint, SI International and The Analytic Group. A variation of this system is used throughout the Intelligence Community, although the National Clandestine Service has allowed a somewhat greater degree of flexibility. In any case, barring a prime contractor from a country would stop not only their services to the government, but also those of its subcontractors.
When the Iraqi government recently halted Blackwater operations, the movement of most CIA staff was restricted to the International Zone, impairing their missions. Selective prohibition of other contractors could have more damaging consequences.
As US diplomats in Iraq and US politicians in Congress begin to sort out the politics of the Blackwater shooting, it is imperative that they recognize the potential consequences of allowing such a precedent that a host government may approve or reject a specific contractor that is providing services under US government auspices. And sometime after the dust of the shooting has settled, we might begin asking questions about how dependent we want to be on corporations for essential national security functions and how we want to ensure that the US government actually fulfills its responsibility to provide accountability and oversight in these key areas. Blackwater USA and outsourced security services are at the periphery of national security outsourcing. What we really need to be concerned about are core national security functions, where large corporations dominate and the government is losing control.