David Isenberg: The Perils of Privatizing Intelligence

IO Impotency
David Isenberg
David Isenberg

Ever since former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden started revealing national Security Agency documents earlier this year there has been renewed debate about what is the proper balance between public and private sector roles and participation in the intelligence community.  This is an issue, which, in recent years, has periodically come up, but has not received the same critical scrutiny in the sustained way the role of private military and security contractors operating in Iraq or Afghanistan has.

But with the advantage of hindsight there were warning signs long before Snowden appeared on the scene. For example, consider an article published in a past issue of the Brown Journal of World Affairs (Fall 2011). The author is Armin Krishnan, a visiting assistant professor of security studies at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of the book War as Business.

The first thing to note is that he is not, per se, opposed to privatizing some functions of the intelligence community which, traditionally, have been held to be an “inherently governmental” function and, thus, only to be performed by government workers. He writes, “The outsourcing of intelligence gathering is not necessarily a problem in itself and is certainly nothing new in the United States. The U.S. government has a long history of reliance on contractors and private companies in the field of intelligence.”

That said, he still thinks intelligence outsourcing has gone too far.  Among his reasons:

The trend toward intelligence privatization and outsourcing is a cause for concern for many reasons. First, it breeds corruption and gross inefficiency. Second, it has resulted in massive abuses of civil liberties and human rights. Third, it weakens the quality of intelligence products, as national intelligence becomes dominated by private interests with strong incentives for biased reporting. Fourth, it creates difficulties for the control and oversight of intelligence activities, as it is more difficult for the government to monitor contracted companies and private companies have less obligation to turn over information to congressional oversight bodies. Fifth, in the long term, it will cause a loss of core competencies and expertise to the private sector, especially as it concerns technology.

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