Are private contractors undermining the intelligence community?

There is broad public agreement that the government must take measures to respond to the explosive growth of contracting in the intelligence community during the past decade. The government tends to contract out services when it does not have employees with the skill set to perform a function (like building a surveillance drone), or when it needs to rapidly fill personnel gaps in a new program area. In the ten years that have lapsed since the September 11 attacks, however, contractors have gone from filling gaps in the intelligence community to being a large percentage of the people working on behalf of the country’s intelligence agencies.

The biggest problem facing the intelligence community is not that some contractors abuse the system, but that the government has designed a system that encourages abuse. Ultimately, the government is responsible for the conduct of the companies it contracts to perform functions; while violations of the rules in place merit investigation and prosecution, contractor behavior labeled as “misconduct” is often perfectly legal and within the bounds of the contract agreements companies sign with their government clients.

The current state of IC contracting is incoherent. There is broad confusion about the nature of appropriate government and contractor roles, along with inconsistent accountability and poor resourcing for accountability mechanisms. Contracts are often worded vaguely or incompletely, and ever-changing requirements, deliverables and performance metrics (all of which are supposed to catalogue and record how a company fulfills a contract) create an environment rife for exploitation by companies seeking to extract revenue from the process.

Perhaps the most prominent example is the “blanket-purchase agreement” awarded by the Department of the Interior (DoI) to the contracting firm CACI in 1998 to supply, among other services, inventory control for the U.S. Army. The contract was worded vaguely with poor government controls, and its structure — the contract was awarded by the DoI but administered by the Department of the Army — made accountability difficult if not impossible. By 2004, CACI contractors, hired under this inventory and logistics contract, had been assigned to the interrogation facility at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. While none of the contractors involved in prisoner interrogation were indicted for misconduct, the vaguely worded contract awarded by the government allowed for the contractors it hired to be used inappropriately.

Most contracts never approach that level of questionable conduct, however. Rather, through vague language, open-ended requirements and unclear performance metrics these contracts allow companies to send workers into government facilities without clear expectations for work output and job performance.

It is difficult in many cases for the government to keep track of all contractor activities on a given project.

Every contract the government issues for a company to perform work is defined by the Statement of Work (SOW). This defines the parameters of the work the contractor will perform, including a description of the project, expected duties the contractor must fulfill, and the outputs and metrics by which performance will be measured. These are often poorly written, kept intentionally vague, and wind up not actually addressing the stated intent of the contracts.

As one example, every SOW I’ve had to either administer, edit or write has stipulated the number of employees the contractor should hire. That is, one of the primary ways the government measures a contractor’s performance is based first and foremost on the number of people hired to work on the contract. This has two serious consequences that affect the contracting environment: It fails to make a distinction between effective workers and their less effective counterparts; it also confuses head count with contract performance.

The SOW system is also unclear on what constitutes deliverables and contract outcomes. In the intelligence community, this is most often expressed as a certain number of reports required by each contractor. This, too, is a poor measurement of performance. It also misidentifies what an outcome is.

Requiring the production of a required number of reports from a required number of contracted analysts is not a measurement of output. The reports the IC generates each year are not just outputs from the analytic process but inputs to the policy process. If the output being measured by the SOW is irrelevant or inconsequential to the decisions being made, then is it really measuring the effect of the contract, or merely the paper it generated? I have written dozens of reports that counted toward my employer’s fulfillment of a contract, which had nothing to do with the government’s preferences or needs for making a decision.

A basic sense of project design is absolutely necessary to properly balance contractors and government employees. For example, in response to the rising threat of terrorism from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Defense Intelligence Agency decided to dramatically expand the number of analysts working on Yemen last year. However, this expansion was not necessary, per se. Rather, the government decided that studying Yemen was a priority, so it assigned extra personnel billets to study Yemen — and because hiring government employees is a time-consuming process to begin with, but requires an intolerable amount of time for the intelligence community, it asked contractors to bid for the opportunity to staff this new priority research area. The government could only staff this new research area in a timely way with contractors. But the decision to increase the number of staff working on Yemen did not direct correlate to the value extra analysts would bring to the table.

Many of the problems that exist within the intelligence contracting community begin with the government lacking the knowledge and means to design and manage its contracts. Rather than focusing on the numbers and balance of the contracted workforce, it would be better to examine the broader systemic issues that require the use of contractors in the first place. By addressing the need for contractors, and by making the process of contracting both more transparent and more accountable, many, if not most, issues of balancing contractor with government employees will resolve themselves.

Adapted from Joshua Foust’s testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Subcomittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.

I would add that $100 million to Mantech for intel service is an example. Who benefits?

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