WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A casual tally of the blue and green badges worn at CIA headquarters speaks volumes about the U.S. dependence on private security contractors, even in the most secretive circles.
Full-time staff sporting badges with a blue background are in the majority at the CIA’s “campus” in Langley, Virginia, just outside Washington. But many other workers have green badges — the kind used by contractors like Raymond Davis, now under arrest in Pakistan facing trial for murder.
The U.S. disclosure that Davis was secretly working for the CIA when he shot dead two Pakistanis — he says he acted in self defence — threatens to damage U.S.-Pakistan intelligence ties and possibly the larger war against Islamist militancy.
It also shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the expanded use of contractors by the U.S. intelligence community, and by U.S. government security forces generally, in the years following the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
“This will revive concern,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA official now at Georgetown University.
A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2009 said a 2008 study reported that contractors made up 29 percent of personnel employed by all U.S. intelligence agencies.
They also accounted for 49 percent of the intelligence community’s “total personnel budget” — which officials familiar with contracting say is partly because hard-to-find skills outsourced to the private sector cost more.
“The numbers are basically in the same ballpark. They may have changed a percent or two, that’s about it,” a U.S. official said, speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress last year that the intelligence community had been shrinking in the 1990s.
“Then 9/11 occurred ... We had to rejuvenate and re-expand the intelligence community,” he said. “And of course, the obvious way to do that, to do it quickly, was through contractors.”
An investigative report by the Washington Post published last July counted 1,931 private firms working at the top-secret level for the U.S. government. Roughly a quarter of them came into being after 2001.
U.S. intelligence chiefs say they have already made some progress in scaling back the use of contractors but critics in Congress say they are moving too slowly.
Critics say contractors do not have the same level of accountability as official employees and point to events that tarnished the reputation of the United States, including a 2007 shooting in Baghdad involving guards from Blackwater Worldwide, later renamed Xe Services.
Davis had worked previously on contract as a security officer for Xe Services, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Twenty-two stars have been chiselled into the CIA’s “Memorial Wall” at its headquarters since the 2001 attacks, honouring employees who died in the line of service.
But eight of the stars belong to contractors, not staff.
One former CIA director, retired General Michael Hayden, told Reuters he had been committed to minimizing the difference between the way the agency treated contractors and staff.
In the case of Davis, U.S. officials insist he be treated like anyone else with the U.S. embassy, saying he has diplomatic immunity.
Even critics of the U.S. dependence on contractors say privately they see no problem with Davis’ role as a CIA bodyguard, saying his background as a former special forces soldier made the job entirely appropriate for him.
But Islamabad is under pressure from its own people to let the case go to court.
To be sure, U.S. officials have taken steps to limit the use of contractors in recent years. CIA Director Leon Panetta in 2009 stopped allowing contractors to interrogate suspected militants, a practice that had set off alarms in Congress.
But lawmakers continue to express concern about paying private firms to do inherently government work.
“It is much more expensive to do it that way and it means that the government does not develop and obtain its own expertise,” Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said earlier this month.
She estimated private contractors cost 70 percent more than in-house staff, on average, and said past U.S. intelligence chiefs “have all generally agreed that there’s an over-reliance on contractors.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Eric Beech