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Posted at 12:30 AM ET, 07/23/2010

Intelligence oversight panels dodge contractor reform

By Jeff Stein

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long wanted more members of Congress to know what’s going on at the CIA, but why doesn’t she announce a full-fledged investigation into the intelligence contractor mess, complete with televised hearings?

Why has it fallen to The Washington Post to get everyone talking about the spy world's mercenaries?

For weeks now the Speaker has been holding the intelligence authorization bill hostage, insisting that the final measure include expanding the number of House members who can receive Top Secret briefings.

Nobody needs a Top Secret briefing to see the elephant in the room.

Relying on public records, The Post has just revealed “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.

Why aren't Pelosi and the intelligence committees taking that on?

To be sure, there have been plenty of oversight drive-bys.

The Senate intelligence committee "does sustained reviews of this subject," an aide to Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. "The committee receives updated figures on the size of the problem annually; it has met with the top [human resources] guy for the IC; and has had multiple discussions at the head-of-agency level with CIA, NGA [National Geospatial Agency] and DHS intelligence.”

Feinstein has also supported an intelligence authorization bill that would have reduced the contractor force by 10 percent between fiscal years 2009 and 2010, the aide said on condition of anonymity because, well, that’s the only way they will talk to us.

Wow, 10 per cent. I guess you have to start somewhere. But the bill has never passed.

In the Clapper hearing, Feinstein also said she was “pleased that [contractors] are no longer being used to conduct interrogations” and pledged to “keep pushing” to reduce their overall numbers “until contractors are not used for any inherently governmental purpose.”

Good luck with that.

Likewise, the House intelligence committee has taken swipes at the contractor mess.

“We've looked into it,” said a Republican staffer. “It's been the subject of provisions in authorizations past, including one by Mike Rogers [R-Mich.] involving inherent government functions.”

He added, “I don't think there's been a formal hearing of the full committee on that specifically recently, but you'd have to check with the Dems.”

I did, but a spokesman for the chairman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, didn’t respond to my inquiry.

Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, however, a senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, did respond.

On Wednesday Eshoo had “praised” the Post investigation into intelligence contractors, which she said “in so many ways makes the case for strong oversight — and that’s Congress’s job.”

An Eshoo aide said “she would” support full scale hearings on intelligence contractors.

Here's the thing, as Washington old-timers know: Without an all-out investigation and full-dress hearings, chances are intelligence contractor reform will fall by the wayside, like so many other “burning” issues that die like fireflies in Washington's summer nights.

Only a big show grabs the public by the lapels, which in turns gives Congress and the White House the spine to do something. Without the Watergate hearings, surely Nixon would have escaped judgment. The same goes for the dramatic hearings on the Vietnam War; CIA assassination plots; the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostages deal; Gulf War syndrome; Wall Street greed and nicotine in cigarettes.

Only big-time hearings have the power to shake the public out of its lethargy -- and, it must be said, ignorance -- to demand reform.

L. Britt Snider, an expert on intelligence oversight by virtue of holding top jobs at the Senate intelligence committee, the CIA and the 9/11 commission, not to mention writing scholarly papers on it, says "the use of contractors has been a perennial topic ..."

“People were certainly aware that the contractor base had exploded after 9/11,” he said in a phone interview, “but I'm not aware that anyone ever did a systematic look into what was happening."

Back to Pelosi: An aide, who like all the others speaks only on condition of anonymity, said she “certainly sees a need to step up oversight.” But after taking an informal sounding, he added, Pelosi found “there wasn’t any momentum for it.”

By Jeff Stein  | July 23, 2010; 12:30 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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nobody becomes "an expert on intelligence oversight"
simply "by virtue of holding top jobs at the Senate intelligence committee, the CIA and the 9/11 commission ..."

Consider George Tenet.
He didn't understand Intelligence at all. What he was good at was kissing up and protecting his superiors from accountability.
And being a Senate staffer is a pretty good place for learning those skills, even if you don't learn anything about the oversight of Intelligence.

Posted by: BrianX9 | July 23, 2010 2:25 AM | Report abuse

This is more than a little misleading. If contractor numbers are (hopefully) restricted, government agencies will just lobby strongly for more government employees...and our spineless politicans will cave in. The whole "structure" needs serious reevaluation and rethinking, as the POST series highlights: we're now spending hundreds of billions of dollars, and continuing to expand a huge secret bureaucracy to increasingly monitor and track Americans, all in the name of "counter-terrorism"...but far beyond the scope of any "threat" we actually face. There are, at most, a few thousand "terrorists" at best guess.

Sadly, our political "leaders" lack any backbone to discuss some essential details: there have been fanatics using acts of terrorism for at least 2,000 years and will be for another 2,000 years; no nation/regime in history has EVER stopped all acts of terror, nor will we; fanatics actually have little to gain from another terrorist attack: we're already spending ourselves into bankruptcy, melt into widespread panic at even an attempted terrorism act, and have political "leaders" who would rather use "terrorism" as a political football than be honest about it. What happens when there is another attack, or even an attempt? Even more spending, an even larger secret bureaucracy, even more undermining of our rights and freedoms?

Posted by: Rigged | July 23, 2010 4:17 AM | Report abuse

Why hasn't Congress taken this on? Because doing so would draw attention to their responsibility for it.

- Contracting has arisen in large part because of Congressional failure to provide the Intelligence Community with budgetary stability;
- The Intelligence Community does not print US dollars. Congress has authorized all monies spent.

I suppose another question would be why should the Intelligence Community, especially in the wake of 9/11, be any different than many other public sectors in this age of the government's attempt to keep the economy going?

Posted by: MyJobsMyCredit | July 23, 2010 5:54 AM | Report abuse

Congress doing its job starts with overseeing where money goes. This contractor thing is nothing other than "welfare for spooks". Their training was likely paid by the government and then they wrap themselves in the flag and claim their patriotism. Washington Post: take a best guesstimate of how many contractors there are and how much they are funded and print this number as the cost of providing "intelligence".

Posted by: citizen625 | July 23, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

I think people are missing alot of the politics involved.

There is a huge percentage of the population that is deathly afraid, or at least they vote and comment like they are, of a terror attack. It is these people's attitudes and votes that are at the heart of the problem.

Example: Republicans attack Obama after the Administration thwarts a terror attack or catches a terrorist. They attack Obama, for allowing the law-enforcement-officers on-scene to advise the terror suspect of their constitutional right to not-self-incriminate. Shoot, I'll probably get attacked on this forum by people saying that "terrorists" non-citizens don't get due-process.

"Keeping America Safe" is so important that any attempt by either side to do any reform (except when reform means more money and more authority) is a political loser.

Look at the rationale for using Blackwater or Xe as it's now known. State Department says "I need these contractors to provide security. State Department is unable to provide security for diplomats, without the help of Blackwater. In your zeal to decrease reliance on contractors, are you willing to put our diplomats lives at risk?"

The Dems are scared of "being weak on terror" and National Security is the only issue that the republicans believe the government should be funded to do. Not to mention that High-ranking Republicans in the intelligence world are CEOs of the companies that profit the most from the National Security Industrial Complex. It's a god-awful mess, for which both parties are to blame. And like most important issues of our time, scumbag congress critters aren't willing to put politics aside, and maybe take sime fire from their respective constituencies, to do what is right. Washington, Lincoln, Franklin, et cetera would roll over in the graves if they saw America today. We should all be ashamed.

Posted by: JoeMck | July 23, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Jeff, with respect, your emphasis on the recent WaPo series is just a little corporately self-serving. It was a semi-hysterical, over-written, elaborately detailed statement of the obvious: too many contractors.

Among the dozen or so key issues the article avoided is the clear fact that Congress is fundamentally responsible for the mess. After 9/11, what was the one intelligence-related area of government that didn't get touched in the reorganizations? Congress's oversight. Who benefits most from the mega-contractors' fund-raising? Congressmen and women. Who gets high-paid jobs with the mega-contractors, aside from Senior Intelligence Service retirees? Senior Congressional staffers. How many color charts did the WaPo series present clearly illuminating Congress's intimate responsibility? Zero.

Posted by: mike_leavitt | July 23, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Jeff, consolidation will take place in our country's IC. What I as a reader would love to see from the WaPo is an in-depth report on the IC's of the terrorist groups,narco terrorist states and countries like Iran, Syria, Russia, China, North Korea ,Cuba and any other nasty foreign IC you think would be worth a look. In fairness, don't you think it would be fascinating to read about their IC support complex? If they were to give WaPo journalists a tour of some of their IC facilities ( as our great country did ) , would that indeed not be a very good read? Any comments?

Posted by: Wildblueyonder | July 23, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

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