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Posted at 3:15 PM ET, 07/29/2010

Intelligence panels take baby steps on contractor reform

By Jeff Stein

Word is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the White House are still jawing over who gets to know what about top secret operations, a struggle that has all but frozen passage of the intelligence authorization bill.

Pelosi’s people maintain that her insistence on letting more lawmakers than the Gang of Eight into spy agency briefings won’t deflect the intelligence committees from a far greater problem -- the sprawling, unaccountable, redundant contractors who are gorging on an estimated $75 billion intelligence budget without measurably helping U.S. national security officials understand the threats we face.

“It’s a separate issue,” said someone familiar with Pelosi’s thinking, on the usual not-for-attribution basis.

So what's the holdup? Perhaps the speaker and the White House are working on a face-saving way to decouple the notification issue from contracting.

And now that Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has already abandoned a modest provision that would have let the Government Accountability Office evaluate the spy world’s programs, the way should be clear toward passage of the authorization bill.

What's left in it? It includes the baby steps the panels are taking to get a belated grip on spy-world contracting, “what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America created since 9/11 that is hidden from public view, lacking in thorough oversight and so unwieldy that its effectiveness is impossible to determine,” as Dana Priest and William M. Arkin put it in their remarkable Washington Post series.

Of course, the House intelligence committee folks are touchy about the accusation that Congress hasn’t done anything meaningful on contractors, who have been bleeding the intelligence agencies for years with their much higher salaries and perks.

The best that committee's defenders seem to be able to come up with are provisions in the authorization bill -- passed by the House and Senate but awaiting conference -- that would take a head count of contractors and give the spy agencies the flexibility to punch through their personnel ceiling if they’re doing it by accelerating the conversion of contractors to government employees.

Panel spokeswoman Courtney Littig also cited "the many budget briefings and hearings (in addition to the staff-level briefings and updates) in which the committee discussed FTEs (full-time employees) and contractor levels for each IC element."

One such closed-door hearing occurred May 5. “Without going into too much detail, the primary subject of discussion was the IC Base Workforce Study, which charted contractor conversion, contractor levels, and FTEs," Littig said.

She also cited legislation introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), which would limit the use of contractors in inherently governmental functions.

This is good stuff, but small potatoes. What Feinstein and her House counterpart, HPSCI chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), need to do is bring these hearing out into the open.

The Post managed to put a spotlight on the spy agencies’ nicotine-like dependence on contractors without publishing classified information -- why can’t the intelligence committees?

Even Schakowsky talks about Congress and the administration giving only “lip service that we need to reduce the number of contractors.”

“It’s been disappointing to me that in the last few months we’ve seen Blackwater get another big contract with the CIA and with the State Department,” she told the emptywheel blogger Marcy Wheeler over the weekend.

“I would really question the commitment -- any commitment -- to reducing the number of contractors ... even in the most sensitive missions,” she said.

Everybody’s waiting for the other guy to go first.

Littig says HPSCI “has put pressure on the IC leadership to replace contractors with permanent government employees,” but “they have been slow to take action.”

No surprise there: What’s in it for them? Has anyone noticed the cushy jobs top intelligence officials are landing with the contractors?

Pelosi, according to an aide, thinks “that the Post series elevates the issue and brings more awareness” to it.

And she is hoping, the aide said, that “now public pressure may build to do something about it.”

By Jeff Stein  | July 29, 2010; 3:15 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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