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Common Cents

Shadow intelligence

Ralph Murphy

(6/2013) Most who have access to social media have become aware of the recent leaks by Edward Snowden to the British periodical "The Guardian", and "The "Washington Post".

Snowden, who had been cleared for Top Secret work by the government, had reportedly worked for the Army, CIA and NSA. He had recently joined the Washington-based firm of Booz Allen and Hamilton to work on a highly classified NSA contract. According to Booz Allen he had been on the job about three months in a project office in Hawaii before going public with his admission that he had surrendered large amounts of top secret data after he became angry that he could "snoop on virtually anyone in the world" with his NSA access.

Private contractors receive approximately 70% of the United States' intelligence community's budget. Their role has increased dramatically following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the government lacked the manpower to directly perform certain, important projects, and "outsourced" them to approved companies that could provide "cleared" employees with the necessary security clearances to handle sensitive, government secrets.

A Senate hearing in 2011 labeled "The Intelligence Community Contractors: Are We Striking the Right Balance?" brought revelations that Senators were concerned about government over-dependence on contractors. Still the "outsourcing" continued.

According to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper's office, 4.9 million people have access to "confidential or secret" government information. Included in this number are 1.1 million are non-government contract employees. 1.4 million individuals hold "top secret" clearances that includes 483,000 private sector workers. Most contractors were former government employees who proved valuable to various intelligence-related companies because they already had approved access to classified information. They could earn greater salaries in the private sector if the access level was progressively more difficult to obtain.

There are three primary levels of security recognized by the United States government. "Classified" being the lowest and most common access allows that leaks "could be harmful to national security". The next stage is "Secret" information that "would seriously harm national security" if in the wrong hands and is therefore more difficult to obtain. "Secret" clearances are reviewed every ten years. The highest level of access is "Top Secret" – where the information being handled is described as that which could "gravely harm U.S. safety" if compromised". It can take years to obtain a Top Secret clearance and is one which is updated every five years.

Snowden was cleared for "Top Secret" and the information he boasts of compromising was at this level. Private sector jobs are appealing to "Green Badgers" (contractors) as the environment is generally more permissive and relaxed, and the pay is much better, than that of regular, government employees or "Blue Badgers". The clearance is provided by the government agency that does the hiring, e.g., if you're a "Green Badger" working on a CIA contract you would have to meet the same standards set for all regular, agency employees.

Most Federal government organizations that do classified work, whether military or civilian, have their own security procedures. They are reluctant to give up control to a multi-agency clearance process. They do, however, agree on basic principles, that require a candidate have a clean, legal record and demonstrate loyalty to the nation and its citizens. Higher level clearance investigations take time (one to two years) and are expensive. Once a person is cleared they are routinely given access to the nation’s secrets … on a strict "need to know" basis.

The security procedures for obtaining a clearance at the largest government agencies are comprehensive and exhaustive. However, it is generally conceded that CIA's process is the most exacting in that it goes deeply into issues that relate to moral fiber and personality. Everyone who works at CIA these days is polygraphed. The FBI does background and credit checks along with a polygraph, and can reportedly be very difficult as well. I never dealt much with NSA, but was told once in an interview that everyone there is polygraphed. Military Intelligence relies on "lie detectors" as well. At least, I know the Army does, and surely the other branches of the military do as well.

The intelligence world is dealing with the survival and associated well being of our nation. Decisions made by intelligence professionals are routinely "life and death" in nature. A "Blue Badger's" primary reward is the satisfaction of knowing that what you are doing really makes a direct contribution to the nation’s security … even if few will ever know it … outside of your immediate work circle.

Private contractors will likely be hard hit by the government and the media for permissiveness and ineptitude following the Snowden leaks. Scott Amey of the "Project on Government Oversight" is an early critic as he asserts "It is very difficult to know what contractors are doing and what they are billing for the work, or even whether they should be performing the work at all!"

Snowden somehow managed to obtain a top clearance, was by his own admission making about $200,000 dollars a year and living in Hawaii while working at an NSA office for Booz Allen. By most standards the man "had it made". Any fully cleared (i.e. top secret access) person (government or contractor) that is inclined to "snap" in the period following initial clearance and their first "recertification" will show subtle signs of abnormal behavior or thinking which should be noted by co-workers or superiors. It not then …. then certainly at the next, regular polygraph exam at a regular recertification. Snowden’s thinking was not detected until he went public with his striking revelations.

There are procedures for expressing concerns or effecting change within the classified, government world short of breaking the law. Whether you agree with Snowden’s basic premise of government intrusion or not, he broke the one rule the United States government does not permit- he revealed "Top Secret" data. And this will likely not be forgiven.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff and holds a bachelors degree in Economics from the University of Maryland.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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