The Outsiders

Contractors are here to stay. So, train federal employees how to manage them better.

In July, The Washington Post ran a three-part series headlined "Top Secret America," which depicted an intelligence contractor workforce so vast and unmanageable that not even the secretary of Defense could say how many nongovernmental employees were in his office. For anyone who has worked in the intelligence community for any length of time, this information was neither surprising nor especially revealing.

Indeed, the Post's breathless coverage recalled that ironic scene in Casablanca when Capt. Renault walks into Rick's bar and casino and declares, "I'm shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling is going on in here!"

This publication and several others have devoted hundreds of pages over the years to the story of outsourcing intelligence. They have chronicled the waste, fraud and abuse committed by the "body shops" that supply intelligence agencies with the private workers they need to perform their missions. Books have been written that catalog the deficiencies that attend this strategy, as have dozens of government audits. What made the Post's series so surprising wasn't that it mischaracterized the downsides of intelligence contracting -- it got those right -- but that it presented this trend as previously unrecognized.

Contract workers began showing up on sensitive missions years before the Sept. 11 attacks. In the 1990s, ex-soldiers found themselves redeploying with their comrades-in-arms, but this time the contract workers were wearing corporate logos on their shirts. The 2001 terrorist attacks came mostly as a surprise to an intelligence workforce that had been pruned in the fallout of the Cold War. Seasoned employees had retired, in search of more lucrative private pastures. When the agencies ramped up for the war on terror, they hired back their old staff on contracts.

Although we know this narrative well, no one defends the outcome. There are good reasons to want more government employees doing government jobs. Chief among them are greater accountability and cost control. But few people have much to offer in the way of alternatives that would right the balance. In large part, that's because the nature of the intelligence workforce -- and the intelligence employee -- has changed.

More than half the current workforce joined after September 2001. For them, committing to a career at a single agency, or even in a single profession, is anathema. If they make a career of intelligence, most will do it from the corporate side, where they'll enjoy more professional freedom and be able to engage the wanderlust that defines the 21st century worker.

So here's an idea. Instead of trying to hang on to an entire workforce, invest more time and energy in training those who stay how to better manage their private counterparts. Although this would treat the trend toward contractors as irreversible, it is a realistic response to what's been happening for more than a decade.

Intelligence officials have done admirable work creating employment policies and incentives to retain today's government professionals, and they should continue that effort. But they also should direct more of their policy energy toward improving contractor management and oversight. Too often, this is treated as a parochial concern of interest only to procurement professionals. This is a myopic and dangerously misguided approach to running intelligence.

The government hasn't failed to manage its contractor workforce simply because it's so big. Rather, there aren't enough people in government today who really understand how to manage contracts on today's scale.

Intelligence leaders didn't need a newspaper exposé to tell them this, but it was a useful reminder.

Their next moves will tell us how closely they've paid attention.

Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State. He was a staff writer at Government Executive from 2001-2005.