Policy & Strategy

Defense contractors fear blowback in wake of leak about NSA snooping

Defense contractors with top-secret clearances braced Monday for blowback from the explosive NSA leaks scandal. [WATCH VIDEO]

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about two National Security Agency programs has shaken the military-industrial complex, raising questions about whether the government has lost control over who is cleared to see sensitive information.

{mosads}Experts said the new leaks, which follow massive disclosures to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning, a military intel analyst now on trial, could intensify pressure on Washington to restrict access more tightly, as well as tighten the vetting of those given clearances.

But it will be difficult — if not impossible — to impose control on a system in which 1.4 million people now have some kind of clearance to see classified information.

“There are going to be people, for whatever reason, [that] do the unpredictable,” Professional Services Council President and former Pentagon official Stan Soloway told The Hill.

Even if the system is overhauled, little can be done to thwart whistle-blowers like Manning and Snowden, Soloway and others argued.

“Any system cannot be 100 percent foolproof to predict a change of heart,” Soloway said. “You cannot expect perfection.”

Snowden, who has said he was a former undercover CIA analyst, had been working for three months as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton when he leaked details of the programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post. 

In an interview with The Guardian, he said he knew of the programs for years and was disappointed that President Obama had not stopped them.

The case sparked questions about how a 29-year-old with a GED who left the Army Reserves after less than five months could have had access to such sensitive material.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Monday said it would be “absolutely shocking” if Snowden had access to the information he claims to have leaked.

“The idea that a 29-year-old individual with so little experience had access to this kind of information reminds me very much of the WikiLeaks case,” Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence panel, told reporters.

“And at the very least, it shows that we need to be much more careful in granting apparently unfettered access to highly classified information that individuals who have little experience and who have not demonstrated that they have the trust and the integrity and capacity to keep that information classified,” she said.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that she was open to examining whether changes should be made to the classified programs.

“There may be some changes to it. I think we ought to look at that,” she told reporters. “I’m certainly not averse to doing that.”

Soloway said it was unsurprising that Snowden had access to the programs he leaked to the press. 

He said he brought a series of “specialized [skills] to the table,” including the high-level analytical and programming abilities needed to sift through the reams of electronic information collected in the NSA programs and break them down into actual intelligence.

Along with his security clearance, those skills made Snowden part of a “very competitive pool” of individuals actively recruited by the intelligence community, as well as private companies in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, he said.  

Former Marine Corps intelligence officer John Ullyot warned that cutting civilian access to classified intelligence could damage national security.

If a contractor does not have the intelligence, he will have less of a chance to “connect the dots,” he said.

Missed connections were blamed by some for the FBI’s and intelligence community’s failure to realize the dangers posed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects behind the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

Civilians working intelligence programs “cannot do their jobs” if they are prevented from seeing some intelligence, Ullyot said.

Government workers have leaked more than the staff of contractors, others noted.

“Manning and Snowden both worked in government agencies,” said defense analyst Loren Thompson. “Therefore it is not so clear there is a connection between being a contractor connection and leaking information. 

He argued the biggest leakers “have been government employees.”

“Contractors vet their employees … as rigorously as the government does,” he added. “If you launch a witch hunt [against contractors], then a lot of talented people will not be able to work in the system.” 

Administration officials and lawmakers in both parties have called for Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong and prosecution, but so far there have not been calls to tighten the system for handling clearances. 

“It surely will be harder to get clearances, but you’d think after Bradley Manning that may be true already,” Robert Chesney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Monday. 

The sheer numbers it takes to run an intelligence operation like the NSA programs leaked by Snowden is staggering, Ullyot said. 

A 2013 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said half of the 1.4 million people who hold top-secret clearance are contractors or non-government employees. 

Another 147,000 civilians have been cleared for top-secret clearance by the ODNI, according to the report. 

That information-gathering and analysis workload is simply too much for the intelligence community to bear without the support from the civilian contracting corps, Ullyot said.  

“There is just so much data to process that the [government] cannot do it [alone],” he said. 

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