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Thursday, February 23, 2017
- Edward Snowden, a low-level employee of Booz Allen Hamilton who blew the whistle on the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), unexpectedly exposed a powerful and seamless segment of the military-industrial complex – the world of contractors that consumes some 70 percent of this country’s 52-billion-dollar intelligence budget.
Some commentators have pounced on Snowden’s disclosures to denounce the role of private contractors in the world of government and national security, arguing such spheres are best left to public servants. But their criticism misses the point.
It is no longer possible to determine the difference between the two: employees of the NSA – along with agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – and the employees of companies such as Booz Allen have integrated to the extent that they slip from one role in industry to another in government, cross-promoting each other and self-dealing in ways that make the fabled revolving door redundant, if not completely disorienting.
Snowden, a systems administrator at the NSA’s Threat Operations Centre in Hawaii, had worked for the CIA and Dell before joining Booz Allen. But his rather obscure role pales in comparison to those of others.
To best understand this tale, one must first turn to R. James Woolsey, a former director of CIA, who appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives in the summer of 2004 to promote the idea of integrating U.S. domestic and foreign spying efforts to track “terrorists”.
One month later, he appeared on MSNBC television, where he spoke of the urgent need to create a new U.S. intelligence czar to help expand the post-9/11 national surveillance apparatus.
On neither occasion did Woolsey mention that he was employed as senior vice president for global strategic security at Booz Allen, a job he held from 2002 to 2008.
“The source of information about vulnerabilities of and potential attacks on the homeland will not be dominated by foreign intelligence, as was the case in the Cold War. The terrorists understood us well, and so they lived and planned where we did not spy (inside the U.S.),” said Woolsey in prepared remarks before the U.S. House Select Committee on Homeland Security on Jun. 24, 2004.
In a prescient suggestion of what Snowden would later reveal, Woolsey went on to discuss expanding surveillance to cover domestic, as well as foreign sources.
“One source will be our vulnerability assessments, based on our own judgments about weak links in our society’s networks that can be exploited by terrorists,” he said. “A second source will be domestic intelligence. How to deal with such information is an extraordinarily difficult issue in our free society.”
One month later, Woolsey appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball”, a news-talk show hosted by Chris Matthews, and told Matthews that the federal government needed a new high-level office – a DNI, if you will – to straddle domestic and foreign intelligence. Until then, the director of the CIA served as the head of the entire intelligence community (IC).
“The problem is that the intelligence community has grown so much since 1947, when the position of director of central intelligence was created, that it’s [become] impossible to do both jobs, running the CIA and managing the community,” he said.
Both these suggestions would lead to influential jobs and lucrative sources of income for his employer and colleagues.
The Director of National Intelligence
Fast forward to 2007. Vice Admiral Michael McConnell (ret.), Booz Allen’s then-senior vice president of policy, transformation, homeland security and intelligence analytics, was hired as the second czar of the new “Office of the Director of National Intelligence”, a post that oversees the work of Washington’s 17 intelligence agencies, which was coincidentally located just three kilometres from the company’s corporate headquarters.
Upon retiring as DNI, McConnell returned to Booz Allen in 2009, where he serves as vice chairman to this day. In August 2010, Lieutenant General James Clapper (ret), Booz Allen’s former vice president for military intelligence from 1997 to 1998, was hired as the fourth intelligence czar, a job he has held ever since. Indeed, one-time Booz Allen executives have filled the position five of the eight years of its existence.
When these two men were put in charge of the national-security state, they helped expand and privatise it as never before.
McConnell, for example, asked Congress to alter the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow the NSA to spy on foreigners without a warrant if they were using Internet technology that routed through the United States.
“The resulting changes in both law and legal interpretations (and the) new technologies created a flood of new work for the intelligence agencies – and huge opportunities for companies like Booz Allen,” wrote David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth in a profile of McConnell published in the New York Times Jun. 15.
Last week, Snowden revealed to the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald that the NSA had created a secret system called “Prism” that allowed the agency to spy on electronic data of ordinary citizens around the world, both within and outside the United States.
Snowden’s job at Booz Allen’s offices in Hawaii was to maintain the NSA’s information technology systems. While he did not specify his precise connection to Prism, he told the South China Morning Post newspaper that the NSA hacked “network backbones – like huge Internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one”.
Woolsey had argued in favour of such surveillance following the disclosure of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping by the New York Times in December 2005.
“Unlike the Cold War, our intelligence requirements are not just overseas,” he told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the NSA in February 2006. “Courts are not designed to deal with fast-moving battlefield electronic mapping in which an al Qaeda or a Hezbollah computer might be captured which contains a large number of email addresses and phone numbers which would have to be checked out very promptly.”
Exactly what Booz Allen does for the NSA’s electronic surveillance system revealed by Snowden is classified, but one can make an educated guess from similar contracts it has in this field – a quarter of the company’s 5.86 billion dollars in annual income comes from intelligence agencies.
The NSA, for example, hired Booz Allen in 2001 in an advisory role on the five-billion-dollar Project Groundbreaker to rebuild and operate the agency’s “nonmission-critical” internal telephone and computer networking systems.
Booz Allen also won a chunk of the Pentagon’s infamous Total Information Awareness contract in 2001 to collect information on potential terrorists in America from phone records, credit card receipts and other databases – a controversial programme defunded by Congress in 2003 but whose spirit survived in the Prism and other initiatives disclosed by Snowden.
The CIA pays a Booz Allen team led by William Wansley, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, for “strategic and business planning” for its National Clandestine Service, which conducts covert operations and recruits foreign spies.
The company also provides a 120-person team, headed by a former U.S. Navy cryptology lieutenant commander and Booz Allen senior executive adviser Pamela Lentz, to support the National Reconnaissance Organisation, the Pentagon agency that manages the nation’s military spy satellites.
In January, Booz Allen was one of 12 contractors to win a five-year contract with the Defence Intelligence Agency that could be worth up to 5.6 billion dollars to focus on “computer network operations, emerging and disruptive technologies, and exercise and training activity”.
Last month, the U.S. Navy picked Booz Allen as part of a consortium to work on yet another billion-dollar project for “a new generation of intelligence, surveillance and combat operations”.
Booz Allen wins these contracts in several ways. In addition to its connections with the DNI, it boasts that half of its 25,000 employees are cleared for top secret-sensitive compartmented intelligence, one of the highest possible security ratings. (One third of the 1.4 million people with such clearances work for the private sector.)
A key figure at Booz Allen is Ralph Shrader, current chairman, CEO and president, who came to the company in 1974 after working at two telecommunications companies – Western Union, where he was national director of advanced systems planning, and RCA, where he served in the company’s government communications system division.
In the 1970s, Western Union and RCA both took part in a secret surveillance programme known as Minaret, where they agreed to give the NSA all their clients’ incoming and outgoing U.S. telephone calls and telegrams.
Minaret and similar snooping programmes led to an explosive series of Congressional hearings in the 1970s by the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by Frank Church of Idaho in 1975.
*Jim Lobe contributed to this article.