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Outsourcing Intelligence

The ways in which the Bush war has degraded the structures and culture of Iraq are obvious. Less so are its insidious effects on the United States, but President Bush is similarly destroying something essential to our own democracy. A signal of that was sounded last week when The Washington Post reported that the Defense Intelligence Agency is transferring "core intelligence tasks of analysis and collection" to private contractors -- up to a billion dollars worth. This raises the prospect that hired guns, instead of sworn officials, will be conducting covert operations, spying missions, interrogations, "renditions," surveillance -- the whole dangerous complex of shadow activity that began as the government's most sensitive responsibility.

Given the often shocking record of what US intelligence officials have done over the years, why does it matter if such activities are carried out by contractors? The answer patently goes to the question of accountability. Public servants who are bound by oaths to the Constitution and the law understand what the measure of behavior must be, even if they fall short of it. Activities involving the surreptitious, especially, have properly been reserved to public institutions subject to political oversight. Private parties, bound by contract, operate at remove from such limit and accountability, which may be why borderline activities like interrogation or rendition are increasingly farmed out to them.

But there is a deeper problem. I know the dark history well, yet I also know that the American intelligence services were founded, then staffed across two generations, by patriots -- people who acted primarily out of loyalty to this country. If at times they acted wrongly, they mainly did so with a sense of higher purpose. Among the most gifted and well educated people in government, intelligence officials could always have done better in the private sector, but personal gain was never the point. The ethos of service informed their commitment. That was broadly true of the military, which is why "service" is its synonym. But that word, as in "secret service," defined the essence of the government's most dangerous work -- dangers both physical and moral.

But now intelligence activities, like security functions in Iraq, are increasingly carried out for the sake of large paychecks. True belief has its problems, but so does the no-belief of greed. The Post reported that "outsourced" intelligence operatives cost, on average, twice what comparable government employees are paid. This has resulted in something new -- the resignations of trained and trusted officials who take jobs with contractors to perform the same operations, but with far higher pay. Whether their activities are different or not, they themselves are. Such ex-officials are dismantling politically accountable structures, and undercutting an ideal of selflessness that formerly made the custodians of state power its most important check.

Readers of this column may know that the Defense Intelligence Agency was founded by my father in 1961. Not long before, he had declined an offer from the Ford Motor Company to take a big job in Detroit, a chance at true affluence. My parents were typical products of immigrant culture, people who so loved America for its welcome that the highest privilege they could imagine was to spend their lives in its service. In this, newcomers were like the "best and brightest" of the establishment -- the patriots who first stamped the culture of American intelligence. I know for certain that, in setting out the ethos of the DIA, my father assumed love of country, and sacrifice for it, as foundational. He would not have entrusted the difficult and, perhaps, dirty work for which he found himself responsible to people who thought differently. Profit-driven contractors for core functions of the agency? My father would not have understood what you were talking about.

As the Post suggests, the Bush administration has replaced officials with contractors throughout government, outsourcing run amok. But Bush did not begin this. Since Ronald Reagan, conservatives have preached the doctrine that the nation's basic needs can best be met by private enterprise. The profit motive trumps any public ideal. Consequently, government has been in slow motion collapse, with the ineptitudes of Iraq as final proof of its untrustworthiness.

But what the antigovernment movement missed is that attacks on the public sector equal assaults on the public. When the high calling of public service yields to the highest bid, the corruption is total: the heart of government -- the military -- becomes mercenary; the mind of the military -- intelligence -- becomes privatized. Citizenship itself is universally gutted, yet another source of our malaise.

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