About 500,000 private contractors have access to top-secret info

One of the big questions raised after Edward Snowden exposed the NSA's secret surveillance programs is how a private contractor working at Booz Allen Hamilton had access to such sensitive information in the first place.

We still don't know the precise answer, though here's a bit of broader context: As our Washington Post colleagues report Tuesday, top-secret clearances for outside contractors aren't necessarily unusual. In fact, roughly 500,000 private contractors had security clearance to handle top-secret material in 2012:

top secret
Sources: Report on security clearance determinations, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, staff reports. The Washington Post.

But there's an important caveat here: Clearance doesn't mean all these workers get to see every classified document out there. And, as various analysts have pointed out, Snowden likely would have needed even higher clearance than "top secret" to gain access to PRISM and other surveillance programs. (One former NSA official told the Post that "maybe 30 or maybe 40" people would have access to the secret court orders that Snowden leaked.) So this chart still isn't the full story.

Meanwhile, Booz Allen Hamilton, where Snowden worked, is only one private contractor of many here:

booz
Sources: Report on security clearance determinations, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, staff reports. The Washington Post.

There's a lot more detail in this Post story about the outsourcing of intelligence work, which notes that one in four intelligence workers has been a contractor, and 70 percent of the intelligence budget goes to private firms. "But," the caveat goes, "in the rush to fill jobs, the government has relied on faulty procedures to vet intelligence workers, documents and interviews show."

In a related vein, The Atlantic's Jordan Weissman compiles some of the evidence that outsourcing key functions doesn't always save the government money. For instance: "The Senate Intelligence Committee has stated that while the average civilian federal employee costs $125,000 per year (with overhead included), an equivalent contractor comes out to about $250,000."

This phenomenon isn't confined to military and intelligence. Since 1999, the number of civilian workers directly employed by the entire federal government has stayed roughly constant at about 2.7 million. But the number of private contractors across the board has ballooned, from 4.4 million to an estimated 7.6 million in 2005 — that's everything from defense contractors and auditors to food inspectors and groundskeepers. And there’s no ready way to tell whether this outsourcing boom has actually saved taxpayers money.

Further reading: 

--The Los Angeles Times has some more info/analysis/speculation on what kind of access a contractor like Edward Snowden might have had.

--The Post's in-depth report on "Top Secret America"

--Study: Privatizing government doesn’t actually save money.

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Timothy B. Lee · June 11, 2013