WASHINGTON — The revelation of a top secret US National Security Agency intelligence program by a low-level contractor with access to the sensitive data has sparked a spirited defense debate about the people who have access to classified material and whether existing policies need updating.
“I’m reading as cautiously as everybody else — the developments that we’re seeing — because that does portend changes in relationships, there’s no doubt about it,” Sean O’Keefe, chairman and CEO of EADS North America, told Defense News on June 12. “The United States government has a marvelous capacity of way overcorrecting when incidents come up, and this is an important one.”
O’Keefe, a former NASA administrator and Navy secretary, was reacting to the much-publicized revelation of Prism, an NSA effort to monitor email and other forms of electronic communication. Details of the program were released by a former CIA and industry intelligence analyst.
O’Keefe pointed to the government regulations that emerged last year that have restricted federal employees’ participation at events and conferences.
“In an environment where you’re trying to improve transparency, dialogue ... how do you do this? You shut off any possibility to have any kind of professional exchange,” he said.
Though some senior industry officials are wary of congressional or executive branch overreaction, there are few signs that a knee-jerk reform effort is afoot.
The Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters that lawmakers are crafting legislation to limit some private-sector contractors’ access to some sensitive data.
But the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told Defense News on June 13 that it is unlikely Congress will overhaul the structure of the US intelligence community because Eric Snowden, a former CIA and Booz Allen Hamilton employee, disclosed the highly classified national security programs.
Asked whether lawmakers should try to limit the number of private-sector contractors with access to key anti-terrorism programs, he replied, “I don’t think so.”
“Not right now,” Chambliss said. “Nothing indicates that we should, from what I’ve seen.”
Lawmakers have questioned how Booz Allen Hamilton allowed a 29-year-old community college dropout to have access to tsensitive anti-terrorism programs.
“I’m just stunned that an individual who did not even have a high school diploma ... and who is only age 29, has access to some of the most highly classified information in our government,” a Senate Intelligence Committee member, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters last week.
She echoed a long list of members in suggesting the company needed to tighten its hiring and security guidelines.
Still, most members who spoke with Defense News were reluctant to force the intelligence community and Pentagon to convert some jobs now being done by private-sector employees to government positions.
EADS does not conduct the types of intelligence processing done by other companies, such as Booz Allen Hamilton, but it does build satellites and other communication equipment that transfers classified data.
Asked if the company wants to get into the intelligence processing arena, O’Keefe said, “I think there are certain segments of it that are interesting, that’s for sure. We’re responding to that.”
Should lawmakers mandate a downsizing of the intelligence contractor sector, it would be a huge hit for firms like Booz Allen just as military and intelligence budgets are shrinking in the sequestration era.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who often calls for national security reforms, sounded skeptical about forcing intel agencies and the Pentagon to cease using contractors for some jobs.
“Yeah, maybe,” McCain told Defense News. “But it’s more of an issue of who has access.”
Chambliss, whose panel would be charged with crafting any intel reform bill in the upper chamber, said, “It’s certainly beneficial from time to time to have contractors employed by various government agencies. We have to review the system to see if the system is working.”
Still, a handful of lawmakers last week called for Congress to prevent sensitive work from being farmed out to private firms.
“We have discouraged the best and brightest people that we desperately need in the defense-intelligence establishment because they can get paid two or three times what we’re paying them” in a civilian job, said a House Appropriations Defense subcommittee member, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.