ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File The Contractor Conundrum

Intelligence agencies won't say how many contractors they've hired. But we'll give it a shot.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has finished an unprecedented head count of contract employees working for the 16 spy agencies. The timing could hardly be better, given congressional uproar over outsourcing analysts, intelligence collectors and interrogators. But when it came time to reveal the magic number-how many contractors?- officials were silent.

"I can't give you a percentage that would allow you . . . to impute the size of the intelligence community workforce," Ron Sanders, ODNI's chief human capital officer, told journalists in an April conference call. Disclosing what percentage is on contract, he said, would reveal the size of the workforce itself, and that figure historically has been guarded as a national secret.

The funny thing is, former spy chief John Negroponte gave away the number. There are about 100,000 civilian and military intelligence employees, he said in a speech last year. So, what's the bigger secret-the number of "official" spies or the number of hired guns?

Apparently, it's the latter. So, can you impute the size of the contractor workforce from other sources? Let's see.

Sanders gave some useful clues. For starters, he said, it's smaller than some agencies'-NASA, for instance. Well, as of last year, NASA reported that it employs 43,500 contractors. Assuming that Sanders wouldn't cite a figure any bigger than necessary, let's charitably use 40,000 as the hypothetical number of private spies. Does that figure hold up?

About 35 percent provide technology and administrative support, Sanders said. Using our estimate, that's 14,000. About 55 percent fall into more classic roles-supporting collection, analysis and production, and mission planning. That's 22,000. (The ODNI didn't count contractors who build things-such as computers and satellites-nor food service and other "commercial activities.")

Now, if we take those 22,000, we see that it's about equal to the number of government employees lost before Sept. 11. Former CIA director George Tenet has said that after the post-Cold War budget cuts of the 1990s, the agencies eliminated or didn't refill 23,000 positions. Sanders said the agencies faced a "brutal operating tempo" after the terrorist attacks. Hiring 22,000, then, to make up for a deficit, plus more to provide support, doesn't seem far-fetched. Sanders also said that 40 percent were hired because of their "unique expertise;" many were retired spies.

Here's another important point. Sanders emphatically stressed that the agencies are "not overly reliant" on contractors, but he acknowledged that "contractors have, since the late 1990s, become a critical part. . . and I think the results of the study bear that out."

Sanders also said that a post-Sept. 11 hiring push is in "mid-stride." Don't read that as meaning half complete. But do note that he and others have said that about 40 percent of the current workforce has five years' experience or less. These are the post-Sept. 11 employees, and using Negroponte's number, there are 40,000 of them. That's the same size as our hypothetical contractor workforce. And, Sanders noted, the percentage hired because they're ex-spies is going down. The intelligence community seems to be reaching equilibrium. Now, no one should impute any of these estimates to more than informed speculation. And you should also know that the actual number of contractors is, Sanders said, "an imputed figure." Just defining the methodology for the survey befuddled officials.

But still, does 40,000 make sense in light of what we do know about workforce size, the 1990s cutbacks, the tempo after Sept. 11 and the conclusion that agencies aren't overly reliant on contractors? Yes, it does. And, honestly, is national security worse off for knowing?

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.