Spy Management 2.0

Rather than control private agents, why not act like them?

The Union army relied on civilian contractors to conduct surveillance in the Confederate capital and interrogate prisoners and deserters. The most famous of these hired spies were employed by a Scottish immigrant-turned-detective named Allan Pinkerton. The Pinkerton guards played a central role in the war, but their erroneous intelligence might have contributed to significant missteps by Union Gen. George McClellan. The guards later became a private protection and investigations force for industrial tycoons and law enforcement agencies. But they suffered an irreparable blow in 1892, when a bloody brawl with striking steelworkers in Homestead, Pa., left several strikers and guards dead. Congress banned further contracts with the Pinkertons and "similar organizations" that constituted "quasi-military armed forces."

You might wonder why private security forces such as Blackwater Worldwide, whose armed employees in Iraq have killed civilians and suffered casualties of their own, aren't banned under the Pinkerton law. According to the Federal Acquisition Regulation, "an organization providing guard or protective services"-i.e., Black- water-isn't considered a "quasi-military armed force."

But that loophole isn't the reason Blackwater and other private contractors have sometimes failed at force protection, prisoner interrogation, surveillance and other outsourced activities. Rather, significant culpability lies with the intelligence community's "woefully inadequate" contractor management.

That's the conclusion of Army Maj. Glenn James Voelz, who wrote a paper last year for the Joint Military Intelligence College titled "Managing the Private Spies: The Use of Commercial Augmentation for Intelligence Operations." (The Federation of American Scientists obtained a copy and published it in October.) Voelz doesn't examine Blackwater, but he recounts the Pinkerton experience and meticulously chronicles the shortcomings and benefits-of which he finds many-that come with outsourcing intelligence. Voelz proposes provocative solutions to better manage private spies.

The first two are hardly revolutionary: Hire more experts and intelligence retirees in limited numbers, basically a reserve corps, and teach contract management as a discrete function. Those logical approaches are being tried. The third, though, is radical. You might call it the "If you can't beat 'em, act like 'em" approach.

"Rather than simply consuming the products of commercialization," Voelz writes, "the [intelligence community] would recraft itself along a corporate model and become a strategic competitor for the best talent and technology." Today's spies need to meet surge requirements and could benefit from unconventional hiring authorities. Voelz points to the famed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which uses"experimental personnel authority" that exempts the agency from civil service law.

"The most attractive feature" here, Voelz writes, is the "enormous potential for dynamic collaboration as traditional bureaucracy is replaced by a consortium of independent providers. In essence, this has been the model for defense hardware procurement for some time."

This isn't outsourcing. It's the creation of a new intelligence-industrial complex, one that depends on the interplay between private and public sectors to create and fulfill requirements. At best, today's privatization amounts to body shopping by comparison.

Voelz doesn't directly advocate this model for private security forces. But he thinks it offers an untried approach with huge potential for other nonroutine functions. It should certainly stir the passions of outsourcing proponents and skeptics, who are unified in their belief that the current management regime is anything but manageable.

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.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec