BOOK REVIEW Over-the-counter cloak and dagger Spies For Hire by Tim Shorrock
Reviewed by David Isenberg
Among the many issues that have become the subject of public debate in the
years since the September 11, 2001, attacks are the functions of the United
States intelligence community and outsourcing of role and activities to the
private sector. The numerous reports that have been issued on intelligence
activities in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon and the inquiries into what the US government knew or didn't know
about Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs attest to the
continuing interest in this issue.
And many activities that used to be consider the sole prerogative of the public
sector, such as military support functions, have
become the subject of heated debate thanks to the activities of private
military contractors, such as Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and a host of
others operating in Iraq and elsewhere.
But nobody has ever bothered to examine the scope and impact of private
contractors in the US intelligence community. That is, until now. Thanks to Tim
Shorrock, an investigative journalist who has been researching and writing on
the intersection of national security and business issues for over 25 years, we
now have a path-breaking book that reveals in copious detail just how far the
US intelligence community depends on private contractors.
After reading his book one realizes, to paraphrase the old American Express
commercial, that the intelligence bureaucracy can't spy without them. If James
Bond were operating today he would have a contract, not a license, to kill.
It is difficult to overstate what Shorrock has accomplished here. Writing about
any aspect of American intelligence community is always difficult. Agencies
routinely offer no comment when asked for information. And given the standard
operating procedure of wrapping every bit of information in layers of
classification teasing out even the most innocuous of figures is a feat worthy
of Sherlock Holmes. Yet, after four years of research, he has uncovered so much
that his book is destined to be the gold standard on intelligence contracting,
just as Peter Singer's book, Corporate Warriors, did for private
How dependent is the intelligence community on private-sector spooks? Consider
just a few of the facts Shorrock uncovered.
Intelligence contracting has become a $45 billion industry, taking up more than
70% of the $60 billion the US government spends annually on intelligence. Taken
as a percentage, this is vastly more than the Pentagon spends on private
The companies that make up this intelligence-industrial complex range from the
familiar behemoths like Lockheed Martin to major Beltway bandits such as SAIC
and Booz, Allen, Hamilton, to tiny and obscures ones like SpecTal and Scitor.
The work they do range the gamut, from analyzing signals intelligence gathered
by the national Security Agency to providing disguises for CIA officers
Private sector involvement in government surveillance goes far beyond the
telecommunications industry to include many of the nation's top information
technology companies. At least 50% and as much as 75% of the people at NSA
headquarters and its ground stations around the world are contractors.
Contractors have taken over the training of military interrogators at the US
Army's Intelligence Center in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. And around the world
contractors are taking the place of government operatives. In Pakistan
three-quarters of the officers at the CIA station in Islamabad since 9/11 have
been private contractors. In Baghdad, contractors have sometimes outnumbered
government employees and have taken supervisory positions overseeing what CIA
agents do every day.
Dismayingly, but not surprisingly, official information about the scope of
intelligence contracting has been deliberately suppressed by the US government.
In 2006, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence ordered a study of
contracting within the 16 agency intelligence community. But when the time came
to release the study in 2007 the ODNI refused to release it. Thus Shorrock's
book is the only public source available for an in depth understanding of our
outsourced intelligence system.
The key question is whether this outsourcing is really bad. After all,
defenders of private military companies argue they just fill a market need. If
they follow the contract and the law there is no problem.
Actually, there is. For all the public hand-wringing private military and
security contractors have essentially tactical wartime roles, fulfilling
specific tasks ranging from logistical support to guarding infrastructure and
people. But private intelligence contractors are part of a strategic role. They
are part and parcel of the process that generates the intelligence that decides
whether a nation should go to a war in the fist place. Think back to the
debates over Iraq concerning aluminum tubes, uranium from Niger, and mobile
biological labs and then imagine how confident you would feel if such
intelligence was the product of firms whose primary motivation was making a
His bottom line is that the vast complex of companies intertwined with the
intelligence agencies has created a national Surveillance State made up in part
by private interests whose contracts are classified and beyond the reach of
congressional oversight committees.
As he wrote recently in the Washington Post Book World:
I try to
communicate in my book that this goes beyond mere outsourcing. The private
sector is now an integral part of US intelligence, operating at extremely high
levels of national security. We've always had a revolving door in defense. But
this is more than that. It's a wholesale transfer of operations that used to be
done only by government operatives now being done for profit by private
companies. We as a nation really need to grapple with this. I don't think most
people believe its OK to have interrogations of enemy prisoners being carried
out by contractors; but that's what is happening. They're involved in NSA
spying too, and every other major operation. Even some agencies are saying they
want contractors out of intel analysis. In my opinion, a lot of these
operations need to be nationalized, essentially, and returned back to
Actually, the implications of all this may be even
worse than Shorrock thinks. One thing research in recent years has shown is
that once government contracts out one of its capabilities, it cannot easily
take it back in-house.
Spies For Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing by Tim
Shorrock, Simon & Schuster, May 2008. ISBN: 0743282248. Price US$27.00, 448
David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security
affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a member of the Coalition for a
Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute,
contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the
Independent Institute, and a US Navy veteran. The views expressed are his own.