Afghan intelligence contracts apply some limits

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

After more than eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, the United States and its NATO coalition partners continue to hire private contractors to support their intelligence and counterintelligence analyses and operations in that country.

Earlier this month, NATO's International Security Assistance Force issued two solicitations for intelligence help, one to supply individuals with 14 specialties as part of a "multi-faceted intelligence operations support program" and the other to supply a 28-person team to work in Kabul inside the intelligence and operations division of the Afghan combined forces command.

The Washington Post series Top Secret America highlighted the enormous increase in contracting for intelligence assistance since Sept. 11, 2001. Last week, James Clapper, President Obama's nominee to be director of national intelligence, told senators during his confirmation hearing, "Intelligence . . . now drives everything, so it's not surprising in my view that we have so many contractors."

Clapper, however, said that standards are lacking and raised the question: "Should there be limits on the number of full-time-equivalent contractors who are embedded in the intelligence community?"

The Afghan intelligence contracts come as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is seeking to cut Pentagon spending and reduce contracting by 13 percent, according to the Post series. In addition, Gates has investigations underway into past intelligence contracting.

Reflecting congressional concerns that contractors are taking over inherently governmental functions, both of the solicitations issued last week say the contracted employees cannot be used "in direct support of combat operations [or] used to conduct source operations." In addition, contractors will "not direct or supervise government personnel . . . [or] conduct or directly participate in interrogations under any circumstances." These limitations reflect language attached recently to defense authorization legislation by Congress.

A senior officer at Central Command said he could not comment on specific contracts but emphasized the importance of having contractors when "we need a certain high level of knowledge and familiarity with a culture in which most service intel types don't have a strong enough background."

Anthony H. Cordesman, an intelligence and national security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the need for contractors arises because retention of military and civilians employed within the intelligence community is bad, in part because government pay runs "60 percent to 100 percent lower than the contract base." He said coupling that with normal turbulence caused by military reassignments leaves the Pentagon "heavily dependent on contractors, particularly for specialized skills."

What types of work will contractors do under the newly issued solicitations?

Employees working under the broader contract -- to support Afghan intelligence -- will "support and augment, not replace government military and civilian personnel." Its counterintelligence support specialists will "interview walk-in sources, conduct screenings" and assist force protection programs, working out of secure bases and installations. Senior counterintelligence support specialists will ensure flow of information between brigades and higher echelons, as the solicitation notes.

A "screener project lead" will assist in the screening of Afghan and third-country nationals for access to coalition military bases and recommend "access or denial of access." A "reachback intelligence analyst" is to support analysis and dissemination "of Afghanistan measures of stability" and will work at Central Command headquarters. Staying in touch with analytic teams in Afghanistan, this person is to meld assessments done in provinces and districts using daily human intelligence, signals and other forms of intelligence, including products from "high value individual targeting."

Others working under this contract will handle strategic debriefing of senior officials and design and develop multimedia exploitation of intelligence imagery and electronic intercepts at operational and strategic levels for senior officials. In addition, there are to be signal intelligence ground and aerial specialists, as well as managers to support collection by human spies as well as satellites and manned and unmanned aircraft.

The solicitation for the 28-person team specifies that 15 individuals are to work in human intelligence, helping prepare packages to support spy operations and review plans for recruitment of new agents.

Ten of the group will be counterintelligence support specialists, including a senior person who will brief senior government officials. Together they will work on "areas critical to detecting, deterring, neutralizing and exploiting" intelligence and insurgent activities against coalition forces. Rounding out the group are counterintelligence/human intelligence special advisers who serve as program managers.

"We never built up the structure we needed in intel and really did not start creating an effective structure until the summer of 2009," Cordesman says, adding, "We now have a far more sophisticated effort looking at the civil side of Afghanistan, threat networks, interface with Pakistan . . . and only now are creating the capabilities for a population-centric fight."

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