As the Edward Snowden leak case reminds us, the United States government has increasingly outsourced its intelligence operations to private firms like Snowden's erstwhile employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, which raked in $1.3 billion from its intelligence work alone last fiscal year.
Whatever your thoughts on Snowden -- reckless lawbreaker or whistleblowing hero -- his bold disclosure of sensitive National Security Agency operations raises basic questions about America's privatized intelligence apparatus.
Can for-profit intel contractors be expected to have the same allegiance to the U.S. government as the government's own employees?
Despite the contract boom of the last decade, that question long predates 9/11. Way back in 1947, Hoyt Vandenberg, the second director of central intelligence, warned Congress of the perils of relying on contract intelligence work during a hearing on the National Security Act, which reorganized the U.S. intelligence network after World War II. Speaking to Rep. Fred Busbey (R-Ill.), Vandenberg explained how the government was winding down a small, "clandestine" intelligence operation it had contracted out during the war.
Vandenberg had found it costly and unproductive to "hire out" such work, going so far as to call it a "gravy train:"
It cost us more to run this very small and, in my opinion, inefficient organization than it has cost us to run a much wider organization that is very closely controlled, and we have our own people who control the funds and who control the allocations of priorities. We have our finger on every man through a series of localized people in control, instead of having it hired out to somebody.
Cost and efficiency aside, Vandenberg warned that contractors don't necessarily share the same interests as the government itself:
[I]t is not a thing for contract operation, because the chances of the U.S. government in peacetime getting in tremendous difficulties behooves us to keep it right under our thumb; and you cannot keep it under your thumb when you are contracting for it. I do not care how good the contractor is, he has not the same interest in it that the people who are responsible to the government must have.
Read the hearing transcript here.