Contractors fret about freeze-out after Snowden leak

By Leigh Munsil, POLITICO
6/10/13 4:47 PM EDT

Washington’s national security contractors braced for criticism Monday after learning one of their own was responsible for last week’s explosive national security leaks.

But they also defended their critical role in the nation’s intelligence-gathering, saying they should not be scapegoated or frozen out because of one leaker.

Their argument: Intelligence leaks are just as likely to come from the government as from contractors, and one individual’s decision to break the law and disclose sensitive information shouldn’t reflect on the community as a whole. Given the co-dependence between the private sector and government, the industry players said, Washington has no choice but to make its existing relationships work.

Edward Snowden, a 29 year-old computer technician working for the consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton, asked The Guardian and The Washington Post to identify him as their source for documents that detailed National Security Agency surveillance and U.S. cyber-strategy.

But one leading advocate for Washington-area contractors said that just because Snowden happened to work in the private sector, it doesn’t mean there needs to be a shakeup in the close relationships in the national security apparatus.

“I certainly hope it wouldn’t have any effect, because it really doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that there was a contract employee involved,” said Stan Soloway, CEO of the Professional Services Council, a trade association that represents more than 330 government contractors.

“Clearances are clearances. And the process, whether it’s polygraphs or lifestyle assessments or interviews or whatever else goes into it is the same regardless of who you work for,” Soloway said. “Whether he was a government employee or a contractor employee or Private Manning, he would have been through the same process.”

Besides, when someone is determined to leak secret information, it doesn’t matter whether he’s a contractor like Snowden or an active-duty soldier like Manning — there’s only so much prevention anyone can do, the industry says.

“It’s hard to see how this really could be blamed on contractors,” said defense consultant Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute. “Bradley Manning was still in the government while he was leaking, and Mr. Snowden got most of what he knew from the government. So the fact that he was working for a contractor seems incidental.”

But Thompson added that the government’s appetite for tech-savvy workers may have made leaks of this type more likely.

“There is such high demand for cyber talent in the government right now, that normal hiring rules are being loosened,” he said. “People in the government will tell you that they are going out and hiring hackers, which is not a great way to keep secrets.”

So no matter who was paying Snowden’s salary, the blame may more closely rest with the process that allowed him to gain high-level clearances, despite washing out of Army training and never finishing high school.

“What we have here is a person who was a hired grunt who managed to get clearances that are quite rare, which made him a valuable commodity to contractors,” Thompson said. “If there’s a problem here, it’s in the government process for awarding clearances … This is really a repetition of the Manning episode, in that a junior person appeared to have very extensive access to sensitive information.”

That doesn’t mean that Booz Allen Hamilton, which hired Snowden, will come away unscathed.

“Booz Allen is becoming the Benedict Arnold of 2013,” said corporate communications strategist Michael Robinson, executive vice president of the PR firm Levick. “But they’re in a straightjacket. … For Booz Allen, it’s probably been a very bad couple of days. What can they do to get out of it? Not much.”

Booz Allen confirmed in a statement that Snowden had worked for one of its teams in Hawaii and it condemned last week’s leaks.

“News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” it said. “We will work closely with our clients and authorities in their investigation of this matter.”

The company told POLITICO on Monday it had nothing else to add. It can’t really defend itself beyond that, since the nature of the NSA programs are so secretive. The best it can do is just cooperate with the government, Robinson said.

“If the government wants Booz Allen to talk, they talk. If the government wants Booz Allen to clam up, they clam up,” he said. “They really don’t have any running room here at all, because quite frankly there’s just no precedent for this … They really are in uncharted territory here.”

Booz Allen has had leak problems before — only on the receiving end. Last year the Air Force considered blacklisting the company’s office in San Antonio over a leak. The incident involved a former Air Force officer hired by Booz Allen who on his first day of work brought with him “sensitive,” non-public information regarding an upcoming Air Force contract. The company later fired the man and did not bid on the contract in question.

As for Snowden, despite a sympathetic Internet-based push to turn into a whistle-blowing hero and spare him prosecution, defense experts said they don’t expect him to get any special treatment in the courts.

“You’re going to have people who leak, or break the law. Not only at contractors but in the executive branch, people who work directly for the government, and also the same in the legislative branch,” said Michael Herson, a defense lobbyist and president and CEO of American Defense International, Inc.

To read the full article, visit:

Leave a Comment