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Snowden case highlights the trouble with outsourcing intelligence gathering

It is, in some sense, the worst of all possibilities. Not only is the federal government farming out ever more of its most sensitive responsibilities, but it is doing so without the means to supervise those civilian workers.

Whatever anyone thinks of Edward Snowden’s decision to disclose top-secret information about Washington’s telephone and Internet surveillance programs, the fact is that Snowden was a hired gun. He worked for a company called Booz Allen Hamilton. Companies such as that are estimated to comprise 70 percent of the intelligence community’s secret budget.

Government spending cutbacks over the past 15 years, together with the jolt from the 9/11 terror attacks, have pushed Washington to outsource vast amounts of its intelligence gathering operations. Snowden is but one of tens of thousands of private intelligence contractors hired since then.

On its own, that creates an exponentially greater number of opportunities for abuses, from financial improprieties to information leaks. Compounding that problem is the government’s repeated acknowledgments that it lacks the staff to supervise the contracts.

Thus, some of the country’s most sensitive and critical work is being overseen by non-government workers whose work habits are beyond the government’s ability to monitor. Trouble was inevitable.

It’s not just the intelligence community that is expanding to include contractors. The State Department is also in the game. Academi – better known by its previous name, Blackwater – is a private military company that has provided security services in Iraq and Afghanistan under a contract with the State Department. The company changed its name after publicity about unjustified shootings.

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, the CIA, NSA, Pentagon, State Department and any other agencies contracting out sensitive work need the resources to oversee the tasks that are being undertaken in the name of American taxpayers.