Is there a silver lining for Booz Allen?

As damaging as the NSA leaker has been to his former employer Booz Allen Hamilton, how the company responds will be the difference between a momentary embarrassment and a long-term liability.

Since the identity of the National Security Agency leaker was revealed to be a short-term employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, the company has been barraged with critical stories that paint the company is a very negative light.

It’s a classic crisis management moment for the company: Lots of screaming, near hysterical headlines, a breach that was out of its control, scrutiny from customers and Congress, and attacks on its reputation and integrity.

I’m sure there are plenty of other contractors, as well, saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The crisis is compounded in that Booz Allen can’t open its kimono and explain what it does and how it does it because the customer is one of the more secretive agencies in government.

Booz Allen can’t follow the example of CACI International, who counterattacked when it was accused of taking part in prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib prisoner in Iraq. CACI put out a vocal and proactive response. CACI Chairman Jack London even wrote a book: CACI: Our Good Name.

I don’t expect anything like that from Booz Allen, though I’m sure they want to defend themselves, and I’m sure they are seething over headlines such Bloomberg’s “Booz Allen’s Top-Secret Profit Machine.”

And the implications in many of the stories are that making a profit as a government contractor is somehow an evil thing. I find that particularly galling. When you look at the employees of companies such as Booz Allen, and you see the large number of former government and military employees, profiteering isn’t what comes to mind.

Instead, you see a group of people who believe in the mission of government. Now, that might cloud their world view into seeing greater risks and dangers than the average person, but it doesn’t mean they are "profits at all costs" kind of people.

But again, Booz Allen is limited in its response. Outwardly, the company will look the same, but I’m sure underneath there is a churn of activity and a hunt for answers:

  • How did a three-month employee get such access?
  • Why didn’t managers and direct supervisors notice anything askew about Edward Snowden?
  • What are the warning signs that an employee is a risk?
  • What kind of training do supervisors and managers need to identify those risks?

I'm sure every Booz Allen employee who came into contact with Snowden is being interviewed and reinterviewed. The paper trail from his first application to his hiring letter are being scrutinized. How did someone who felt the way Snowden did slip into the organization?

The silver lining for Booz Allen will come from its response. I couldn’t help thinking yesterday about Lockheed Martin and the RSA security breach a few years ago. The potential for damage was great, but the incident now is almost a point of pride for Lockheed because of the way the company responded.

Booz Allen might never stand up and explain how it responded, but the company can survive and move forward.

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