Snowden case launches open season on contractors

Washington turns the Edward Snowden scandal into another opportunity to attack contractors instead of entering a serious debate about national security policy.

The Edward Snowden leak case is, for understandable reasons, taking on a life of its own, and it has brought to the surface a number of important questions worthy of discussion and debate. However, in the great Washington tradition of never letting a good crisis go to waste, we’re also seeing the darker side of how the system responds to a crisis.

Despite all evidence and facts to the contrary, the temptation for Washington to turn this from a serious discussion of national security policy into a sideshow about less relevant issues has apparently proven too strong for some to resist.

As expected, the media and some in Congress are expressing shock that contractor employees are allowed and required to have security clearances, despite years of legislative and regulatory activity focused on improving that process and despite countless hearings, news stories and reports about both the clearance process and the government’s stark difficulty competing for top technical talent.

Even worse, we have been treated to a series of dramatic exclamations of concern over, and promises to take action on, the role of contractors in the intelligence community, even though there is not one scintilla of evidence that the presence of contractors—who represent a small minority of all those people who hold clearances—has in any way increased the risk of security breaches.

We expect that from groups and individuals who never miss an opportunity to slam the private sector and ascribe it blame for all forms of evil and misdeed, whether the facts support their contentions or not. But when similar commentary comes from thoughtful leaders who ought to know better, it is disconcerting to say the least.

Even as the Snowden case was developing, another parallel example of this fact-free, hyperbolic rhetoric was also unfolding on Capitol Hill. When pressed in a Senate hearing as to whether he agreed that contractors are, “on average” two to three times more expensive than government employees, a top Defense Department official responded “that sounds about right.”

Really?

After all DOD went through over the last several years, after the overwhelming evidence that DOD’s cost comparison “processes” fail to account for large chunks of internal costs, and after former Secretary Gates stopped his insourcing program because it wasn’t generating the expected savings, this official, who was there through all of it, and before, agreed with such a preposterous claim?

I realize, of course, that as a spokesman for our industry, my objectivity is going to be questioned. But just as the private sector has never claimed that contractors are always less expensive than government employees, no one can one legitimately claim the opposite.

The evidence is just too overwhelming.

Moreover, and here is where this relates directly to the issue of contractors in the intelligence community, it is true that for many high-skilled technology jobs private contractor pay is higher because the global market for that talent dictates such and the government’s pay scales are artificially suppressed. That’s one reason the intelligence community has turned to the private sector for support and why cost is not and cannot be the only measure of who should perform work for the government. 

This is only the beginning. Already the American Federation of Government Employees is on the warpath with “briefing papers” that are so over-stated and factually incorrect they would be good fodder for comedy, if some didn’t accept them at face value.

Ironically, they continue to hammer their themes of “overpaid contractors” while still also highlighting and (correctly) complaining about the very pay gap described above. Hearings are being scheduled on the NSA case, including on the contractor aspects of it. And the appropriations and authorization processes are in full gear.

Make no mistake about it. Open season is upon us and there are those who will use the Snowden case in every conceivable way to achieve their political objectives.

Our job is to ensure that fact and substance do not become the first casualties.

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