Snowden worked for the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm when he disclosed information about government surveillance programs — programs that he and many others feel are an abuse of power.
Valid questions about the surveillance operations and over-classification of information aside for the moment, the release of certain national security intelligence — no matter how noble the motivation, no matter how important the cause — is against the law. Snowden knows he will have a price to pay.
Beyond his actions is a debate that has long simmered within the federal government. At the center of this debate is the definition of an “inherently governmental function.”
Bureaucratic speak, but it gets to fundamental questions: Should contractors do sensitive government work? If government surveillance is not inherently governmental, then what is?
“I, sitting in my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president, if I had a personal e-mail,” Snowden told the Guardian in a video interview.
Should any one person have that much power, particularly one not employed by the federal government?
In an attempt to clarify what inherently governmental means, the Office of Management and Budget
issued guidance in 2011 that said: “The FAIR [Federal Activities Inventory Reform] Act defines an activity as inherently governmental when it is so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by Federal employees.”
Federal employee unions have long argued too many contractors are doing work meeting that definition.
Snowden’s case “is yet another example of why outsourcing our national security to mercenary rent-a-cops is a bad idea,” said Lee Stone, a vice president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. It represents many federal employees with security clearances, including some in the Defense Department.
“Contract personnel by definition are not employed by the federal government but rather by a company,” he added, “generally a for-profit corporation that answers primarily to its shareholders.”
Also, contractors don’t take the oath of office
to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as do federal employees, from the president to the lowest-paid civil servant.
“But it is wrong to state, or even assume, that all things ‘national security’ are, by definition, inherently governmental functions that must be performed exclusively by federal employees,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, an association of government contractors. “Most national security functions do not involve government decision-making and can properly and appropriately be performed by contractor employees.”