Outsourcing for killers

Following reports the CIA hired private spies to be assassins, former U.S. intelligence officials are defending the use of contractors, estimating one out of three intelligence workers is on contract.

Such former bosses as Michael Hayden, who headed the CIA from 2005-2009 and the National Security Agency from 1999-2005, Michael Chertoff, who ran the Department of Homeland Security, and Jack Devine, a 32-year CIA veteran and former director of operations, won’t talk about specifics. But they insist assassinations weren’t discussed on their watches and that they applaud in general hiring contractors to handle work for which CIA employees supposedly lack skills.

Speaking at the National Press Club, the three men, who all had the nation’s highest security clearances, defended private businesses that contract for national intelligence operations. (Chertoff and Hayden both profit from security management; Devine runs an international crisis management firm but says he has no government contracts.)

The New York Times was first to report that the CIA spent millions of dollars to hire private security employees who worked for controversial Blackwater USA (now Xe Services) to find and kill al-Qaida operatives in 2006.

Current CIA director Leon Panetta told Congress in June that he had ended a secret program, never fully operational, aimed at rounding up terrorists and, if necessary, assassinating them. The fact that private contractors were involved is a new element of the story.

So far, everyone seems to agree that despite the millions spent, not a single terrorist, insurgent or Jihadist was killed as a result of the program.

Panetta’s revelation has caused an uproar. Some in Congress want heads to roll in an all-out investigation. Panetta does not, saying the program has ended, Congress was informed and it’s time to move forward.

Chertoff and Hayden agree, arguing recriminations will only cause more problems. Hayden says focusing on what did or didn’t happen will make current CIA agents more timid and less willing to "work on the edge."

But the controversy has raised questions that have yet to be answered.

When the government hires private contractors for intelligence gathering and analysis, is the government legally responsible if they run amok, exceeding their authority, committing crimes, providing false evidence or violating international laws?

Aren’t we risking alienating allies by paying private contractors under secret contracts to kill foreigners?

Isn’t it the job of the U.S., not guns for hire, to protect Americans? Devine warns the CIA should be wary about what it contracts out, partly because it must develop in-house capabilities.

It is true that after the Cold War, intelligence was ramped down and that after 9/11, the CIA did not have necessary personnel. Yes, it takes forever to get full-time employees cleared and processed. And foreign surrogates have been hired; reward programs launched.

But the CIA gets more than 130,000 annual applications. Why is it still hiring so many contractors, some of whom have gone off the reservation on renditions, detentions and interrogations? (The Iraqi government now bans Xe Services from working in Iraq.)

Chertoff says hiring and firing contractors when their skills, such as obscure dialects, are no longer needed makes more economic sense than hiring permanent employees.

Isn’t that the attitude that caused so many CIA failures? The CIA was wrong about the intelligence it needed and didn’t have such as language skills. Thus it missed the 9/11 plot, the Indian underground nuclear testing, the 1983 attack in Lebanon that killed 250 Marines, the Soviet breakup, North Korea’s first missile tests, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The list is depressingly long.

We have been bemoaning the failures of U.S. intelligence for eight years. The disclosure that for seven of those years the CIA had a program involving unsuccessful assassination squads which members of Congress were not briefed about is alarming.

It is more alarming that CIA officials routinely go to work as private contractors after they leave the agency. The potential for abuse is staggering.

Panetta — and others — may rue the cockroaches that scuttled out after he lifted the rock, but he’s right that transparency is the best policy.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)