Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How Not to Run a War

Bush thought he could fight a war on the cheap by "contracting out" the fighting. This includes spy services! And what the US has now is nearly a quarter of a million people with "top" security clearances fighting the war as a "profit centre" for some corporation. Not only does this mean the incentives are wrong -- profits over patriotism -- but the costs have skyrocketed because nobody puts their lives on the line for money, for patriotism yes, but when it is strictly money, the bodies become expensive.

Here's a bit from the Washington Post's series on the growth of "top secret" America:
Contractors can offer more money - often twice as much - to experienced federal employees than the government is allowed to pay them. And because competition among firms for people with security clearances is so great, corporations offer such perks as BMWs and $15,000 signing bonuses, as Raytheon did in June for software developers with top-level clearances.

The idea that the government would save money on a contract workforce "is a false economy," said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official and now president of his own intelligence training academy.

As companies raid federal agencies of talent, the government has been left with the youngest intelligence staffs ever while more experienced employees move into the private sector. This is true at the CIA, where employees from 114 firms account for roughly a third of the workforce, or about 10,000 positions. Many of them are temporary hires, often former military or intelligence agency employees who left government service to work less and earn more while drawing a federal pension.


So great is the government's appetite for private contractors with top-secret clearances that there are now more than 300 companies, often nicknamed "body shops," that specialize in finding candidates, often for a fee that approaches $50,000 a person, according to those in the business.


The Post's estimate of 265,000 contractors doing top-secret work was vetted by several high-ranking intelligence officials who approved of The Post's methodology. The newspaper's Top Secret America database includes 1,931 companies that perform work at the top-secret level. More than a quarter of them - 533 - came into being after 2001, and others that already existed have expanded greatly. Most are thriving even as the rest of the United States struggles with bankruptcies, unemployment and foreclosures.
What I don't understand is Obama's complicity in keeping this "privatization" of the war going. He won office on a slogan of "change you can believe in" and ends up being a Bobbsey twin of Bush's. OK... it isn't quite that bad:
Nine years later, well into the Obama administration, the idea that contractors cost less has been repudiated, and the administration has made some progress toward its goal of reducing the number of hired hands by 7 percent over two years. Still, close to 30 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies is contractors.
But a 7% reduction sounds like Obama isn't trying very hard.

I know something about the crazy world of "contractors". I worked for a Canadian company that managed "secret" work done by mapping and intelligence agencies in the Washington DC area. Our managers didn't have security clearances, so you have the strange world where our management "managed" workers who worked in vaults that were closed to the managers, i.e. the managers never got to see what the workers were doing. How does that work? Doesn't that strike you as bizarre? I found it to be straight out of cloud cuckoo land. I believe the operation was run well because the company I worked for was highly ethical and actually very well managed, but I still have a very hard time trying to figure out how management could "assign tasks", ensure quality in work, or plan for enhanced operations when management was not allowed to walk into the area and directly oversee the work being done!

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