We might have to bar contractors from top secrets, says leading senator

Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein today told reporters she is considering drafting legislation that would limit the Intelligence Community’s virtual army of private contractors‘ access to "highly classified technical data." The California Democrat’s comments were made to reporters following a closed-door briefing on the leak of top secret documents revealing the NSA’s collection of ...

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Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein today told reporters she is considering drafting legislation that would limit the Intelligence Community's virtual army of private contractors' access to "highly classified technical data."

Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein today told reporters she is considering drafting legislation that would limit the Intelligence Community’s virtual army of private contractors‘ access to "highly classified technical data."

The California Democrat’s comments were made to reporters following a closed-door briefing on the leak of top secret documents revealing the NSA’s collection of telephone and Internet traffic metadata on U.S. soil. The leaker, as the world now knows, was Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee turned IT contractor to the NSA.

Feinstein and 46 other senators were briefed on Capitol Hill by NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Intelligence Community General Council Robert Litt and one other unnamed official.

The senator also said that specific information on the "dozens" of terrorist attacks that Alexander claimed have potentially been foiled by the NSA’s surveillance programs revealed by Snowden might be released on Monday.

Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, (a big fan of defense giant Lockheed Martin — a firm that does loads of work in the intelligence and cyber world) told reporters he’s not sure that legislation barring contractors from accessing highly-secret material is necessary.

"I think there are some changes that we’re gonna look at, but I don’t know that it needs to be done legislatively," he added.

Still, Chambliss admitted that the government needs to do a better job screening process people holding the highest security clearances.

"I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve got to do a better job of making sure that a top secret clearance would go to only those people that deserve it and that we monitor all of those people who have a top secret clearance from time to time and we review their cases to determine whether there’s any reason to suspect they may have compromised U.S. intelligence in some way," said Chambliss, largely describing procedures the government is already supposed to follow.

Earlier today, House intelligence chair Rep. Mike Rogers said Snowden was a "low-level individual, but because of his position in the IT system, had access to information that, candidly, he did not understand or have the full scope of what these programs were."

Much like the U.S. military has relied on hundreds of thousands of private security operators in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do everything from flying special operations teams on missions to guarding high-level diplomats (think the company formerly known as Blackwater) the U.S. Intelligence Community leans heavily on contractors to do everything from running IT security to high-end intelligence analysis and collection.

How heavily? Up to 70-percent of the Intelligence Community’s budget is believed to go to contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton (Snowden’s employer when he spilled NSA secrets to The Guardian and The Washington Post.)

Firms like Booz focus almost exclusively on grabbing federal government contracts.

"In my office, there were probably three Booz Allen [employees] to every one civil servant," a former private spy who worked for Booz at the NSA and also served several tours in Iraq and the Pentagon as a U.S. military intelligence officer told Killer Apps earlier this week.

"They can get clearances for everything," he added.

In fact, 22-percent of U.S. security clearance holders were contractors in 2012.

These clearances are vital to Booz Allen’s business with 76-percent of the company’s nearly 25,000 employees possessing security clearances, according to this May 2013 SEC filing by the firm.  "Persons with the highest security clearance, Top Secret, have access to information that would cause ‘exceptionally grave damage’ to national security if disclosed to the public" the company brags about the caliber of its people.

Still, Army Private Bradley Manning on trial for providing classified diplomatic cables to Wikileaks was a government employee, not a contractor.  "Fundamentally this is not a contractor problem," The Washington Post quoted Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA, as saying. "It’s a broader cultural problem, it’s a vetting problem and it’s how does somebody so junior" get access to top intelligence.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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