Book Review: Spies for Hire

If you think you’ve even got a vague notion of how the shadowy side of the U.S. government operates, do yourself a favor and read Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing (Simon & Schuster, 2008). This book is a wide-open window into the creepy new corporate world of spydom that may keep you awake at night.

Investigative journalist (and Foreign Policy In Focus contributor) Tim Shorrock’s remarkable book paints such an alarming picture of the modern intelligence bureaucracy that I found myself pining for the “bad old days” when the federal employees of the CIA, FBI, and all the lesser-known alphabet-soup agencies from the NSA to the DDPO did all their own work.

In college in the 1980s, like many students across the United States, I took part in noisy, angry protests against campus-based CIA recruitment. Now, the spooks recruited despite those efforts are finding themselves greatly outnumbered by growing legions of private-sector contractors. These “Green Badgers,” named for their omnipresent ID tags rather than any critter-like qualities, are employees working for profit-driven companies. They “owe their allegiance to their company, and not the taxpayer,” Shorrock writes. Lots of these “badgers,” however, used to work for the government. Things have gotten so out of hand that the CIA had to ban private-sector recruiters from its cafeteria.

Thanks to his dogged parsing of every single shred of documentation he could get his hands on, Shorrock discovered that about 70% of intelligence work is now outsourced to private companies, creating a nearly $50 billion market that gobbles our taxpayer dollars with insufficient oversight. “This book is an attempt to pierce that veil” of secrecy that shrouds all intelligence work, the author explains. He carries through on that promise, one frightening and shocking detail or anecdote at a time.

Given the nature of this material, this can get tedious, but it’s always illuminating. Shorrock helps the reader understand the string of intelligence scandals for which the Bush administration will surely be remembered. For example, he chronicles the haphazard way that the company CACI obtained its ill-fated contract to conduct interrogations at Abu Ghraib. Then there’s the extreme degree to which telecommunications corporations facilitated illegal and warantless wiretapping. AT&T actually let the National Security Agency “connect a splitter cable [from its] circuits and divert a duplicate stream of [its] global Internet traffic to [a] secret room” that the NSA used on the seventh floor of the company’s San Francisco offices, Shorrock writes.

The question of oversight, along with corruption and cronyism, is central to the book. It’s also the reason why today’s excessive outsourcing of intelligence work threatens U.S. security. “Secrecy has come at a high political cost,” Shorrock writes. “The lack of transparency and the classified nature of most intelligence contracts makes Congress’s oversight job over contractors almost impossible.”

How did we get here? As with other aspects of government services, the intelligence privatization frenzy happened initially because of the anti-government philosophy that reigned during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations but actually took off during the Clinton years. This trend ramped up during George W. Bush’s tenure, with a startling $400 billion in all forms of government contracts in place by 2007, twice the volume recorded in 2000. In theory, having the private sector do this work was supposed to save taxpayers money, but Shorrock’s book makes it clear that this isn’t necessarily so. After all, problems with the intelligence industry are so rife that there’s a lively blog he refers to several times called “The Spy Who Billed Me.”

Emily Schwartz Greco is the Foreign Policy In Focus media director at the Institute for Policy Studies.