Private contractors play a huge role in the government, particularly in civilian intelligence services like the CIA. Contracting critics say it's an addiction whose overhead costs drive up the federal budget and leads to data breaches like the kind perpetrated by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In the wake of last year's NSA revelations, many agencies have been reviewing their contracting policies. But few people have a good grasp on just how many contractors the government employs. What's worse, the country's eight civilian intelligence agencies often can't sufficiently explain what they use those contractors for, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Every year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is supposed to count how many contractors serve the intelligence community (IC). Due to differences in the way intelligence agencies define and assess their workers, however, the data are inconsistent and in some places incomplete. Out of hundreds of agency records, for example, GAO found that almost a fifth lacked enough paperwork to prove how much a contractor was paid. Another fifth of the records were found to have either over-reported or under-reported the actual cost of the contract work.
But the GAO reserves its harshest judgment for the agencies that couldn't fully explain why they resorted to contractors in the first place.
"In preparing their inventory submissions, IC elements can select one of eight options for why they needed to use contract personnel, including the need to provide surge support for a particular IC mission area, insufficient staffing resources, or to provide unique technical, professional, managerial, or intellectual expertise to the IC element that is not otherwise available," the report says.
Out of 102 records that were filed under "unique expertise," 81 failed to convince investigators that an ordinary civil servant couldn't have handled the job.
"Overall," the report went on, "the civilian IC elements could not provide documentation for 40 percent of the 287 records we reviewed."
Federal contracting is notoriously opaque, in part because of its complexity. That can be especially so in the intelligence world, where even the people inside it have no clue how large it really is. If the GAO's findings are to be believed, many agencies exhibit almost a reflexive tendency to turn to contractors when a government employee will do. But their inability to say no contributes to what is now a half-trillion dollar industry every year.