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.

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