Monday, August 27, 2007

Opinion (James Carroll): The danger of outsourcing U.S. intelligence

Above: The CIA Communications Station, left, and CIA/NSA Special Collections Service in Maryland, as seen by satellite.

The ways in which the Bush war has degraded the structures and culture of Iraq are obvious. Less so are its insidious effects on the United States, but President George W. Bush is similarly destroying something essential to our own democracy. A signal of that was sounded last week when The Washington Post reported that the Defense Intelligence Agency is transferring "core intelligence tasks of analysis and collection" to private contractors - up to a billion dollars worth. This raises the prospect that hired guns, instead of sworn officials, will be conducting covert operations, spying missions, interrogations, "renditions," surveillance - the whole dangerous complex of shadow activity that began as the government's most sensitive responsibility.

Given the often shocking record of what U.S. intelligence officials have done over the years, why does it matter if such activities are carried out by contractors? The answer patently goes to the question of accountability. Public servants who are bound by oaths to the Constitution and the law understand what the measure of behavior must be, even if they fall short of it. Activities involving the surreptitious, especially, have properly been reserved to public institutions subject to political oversight. Private parties, bound by contract, operate at remove from such limit and accountability, which may be why borderline activities like interrogation or rendition are increasingly farmed out to them.

But there is a deeper problem. I know the dark history well, yet I also know that the American intelligence services were founded, then staffed across two generations, by patriots - people who acted primarily out of loyalty to the United States. If at times they acted wrongly, they mainly did so with a sense of higher purpose. Among the most gifted and well educated people in government, intelligence officials could always have done better in the private sector, but personal gain was never the point. The ethos of service informed their commitment. That was broadly true of the military, which is why "service" is its synonym. But that word, as in "secret service," defined the essence of the government's most dangerous work - dangers both physical and moral.

But now intelligence activities, like security functions in Iraq, are increasingly carried out for the sake of large paychecks. True belief has its problems, but so does the no-belief of greed.

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune