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'Digital Blackwater': NSA Leak Highlights Key Role of Private Contractors

'Because there’s no oversight, because there’s really no accountability or transparency, there is no check on this abuse'

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

Like the mercenaries for hire used by the U.S. in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and New Orleans—contractors like Blackwater that have come under scrutiny for their extreme lack of oversight—the U.S. government has been outsourcing intelligence services to private companies who have access to the general population's most sensitive information.

Booz Allen's cyber facility on September 25, 2012 in Annapolis Junction, Maryland. (Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post via Getty) This revelation, which has arisen out of the recent Edward Snowden NSA leaks among the trove of alarming civil rights violations, has rights advocates very concerned.

According to the offices of James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, of the 4.9 million people with clearance to access "confidential and secret" government information, 1.1 million, or 21 per cent, work for outside contractors—these intelligence corporations.

Of the 1.4 million who have the higher "top secret" access, 483,000, or 34 percent, work for contractors—meaning that, as Edward Snowden recently revealed in his interview with the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, contractors sitting anywhere, in a home office for example, have vast access to the personal communications of ordinary citizens.

Snowden, who worked for intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp, states:

Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at 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 email.

"It's very difficult to know what contractors are doing and what they are billing for the work – or even whether they should be performing the work at all," said Scott Amey, an expert in contractor oversight and government transparency at Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan government accountability organization based in Washington. "It has muddied the waters."

Speaking on Democracy Now! Glenn Greenwald explained on Monday, "the systems at NSA allow full and unfettered access at any time to any one of these analysts to go and listen to whatever it is they want, to read whatever emails they want, to monitor in real time whatever online chats are taking place."

"And because there’s no oversight, because there’s really no accountability or transparency, there is no check on this abuse."

He continues, "...when human beings are able to spy on other human beings in the dark, abuse, rampant abuse, is inevitable. That was supposed to be why we don’t have spying abilities without accountability any longer."

“The largest concentration of cyber power on the planet is the intersection of the Baltimore Parkway and Maryland Route 32,” former NSA director Michael V. Hayden, who oversaw the NSA's privatization efforts between 1999 to 2005, told Salon.

"He was referring not to the NSA itself but to the business park about a mile down the road from the giant black edifice that houses NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. There, all of NSA’s major contractors, from Booz to SAIC to Northrop Grumman, carry out their surveillance and intelligence work for the agency," Salon reports.

And it was Hayden who coined the term “Digital Blackwater.”

“I use that for the concept of the private sector in cyber,” he told a recent conference in Washington.

“I saw this in government and saw it a lot over the last four years. The private sector has really moved forward in terms of providing security,” said Hayden, who now works for one of those very corporations, Chertoff Group.

The Associated Press has more:

Booz Allen, based in McLean, Va., provides consulting services, technology support and analysis to U.S. government agencies and departments. Last year, 98 percent of the company's $5.9 billion in revenue came from U.S. government contracts. Three-fourths of its 25,000 employees hold government security clearances. Half the employees have top secret clearances.

The company has established deep ties with the government – the kinds of ties that contractors pursue and covet.

Contractors stand to gain an edge on competitors by hiring people with the most closely held knowledge of the thinking inside agencies they want to serve and the best access to officials inside. That typically means former government officials.

The relationship often runs both ways: Clapper himself is a former Booz Allen executive. The firm's vice chairman, John "Mike" McConnell, held Clapper's position under George W. Bush.

"That really illustrates the ingrown nature of the relationship of NSA and its contractors," said Steven Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. [...]

Booz Allen earned $240 million in profit on its $5.9 billion in revenue last year. That's up from $85 million in profit in 2011 and $25 million in 2010.

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