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Frank Naif

Frank Naif

Posted: October 13, 2008 03:05 PM

Abuse Likely to Continue Under McCain Intelligence Reforms

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Obama's Blueprint for Change calls for reform of the Bush Administration culture of secrecy and an end to sole-source government contracting. McCain, meanwhile, does not recognize these issues as problems in need of urgent resolution, and has proposed an even more adventuristic approach to intelligence. Here's a news story from two weeks ago that takes place at the crossroads of these two issues, and underscores how badly reform is needed -- both in the intelligence community and in government outsourcing.

Dusty Foggo, former third in command at the CIA during the tenure of DCIA Porter Goss, entered a guilty plea last Monday on a Federal wire fraud charge. In a sordid tale involving hookers and trendy Washington restaurants, Foggo was caught misusing his authority as CIA's chief procurement officer to award lucrative sole source contracts to his political friends.

By all accounts, he got off easy. According to news reports, he "graymailed" a light sentence out of Federal prosecutors -- that is, he threatened to use his court proceedings to reveal secrets about CIA operations and his former colleagues' cover identities.

One of the secrets, or collection of secrets, that Foggo likely had in his trickbag was his knowledge of how the CIA buys things. The CIA, like any large organization, buys conventional stuff, like pencils, and conventional services, like advertising, as evidenced by the fancy recruiting posters that are ubiquitous in any major U.S. airport. And of course, the CIA buys exotic, specialized stuff, like killer robot airplanes and ultra secure computer gear, and exotic services, with anodyne names like "field security support" (gun-toting ex-commandos) and "collections operations support" (multi-lingual, globe-trotting secret agents).

The "how" of CIA procurement of goods and services is supposed to be a secret, ostensibly for the protection of CIA sources, methods, and personnel. The Foggo case shows, though, that procurement secrecy is destined to be abused for personal gain and to conceal incompetence. Foggo's case also shows that internal CIA checks on contracting abuses are inadequate. Indeed, it took outside pressure from the press and investigators from the FBI to expose the slime trail to Foggo. (That trail started in the bribery scandal that landed California congressman Duke Cunningham in jail.) If conscientious, diligent officials at CIA had any role in stopping Foggo's industrial-scale corruption, it was because they were acting as sources for journalists who broke the Foggo story.

And what would the taxpayer and CIA have gotten if Foggo hadn't been caught? Foggo was preparing to give his friend, Brent Wilkes, a sole source CIA contract for aviation services worth $300 million. It is doubtful that Wilkes -- with no experience in aviation business -- would have been able to deliver the demanding kind of low-visibility aviation services needed to support CIA activity worldwide. CIA's aviation operations are already troubled enough, as described in Stephen Grey's Ghost Plane, which exposed CIA flights and aircraft via open source research. Would a crooked aviation know-nothing like Wilkes, cashing in on a childhood friendship and political connections, actually been able to help solve the CIA's air transportation problems?

The structural problems that gave rise to Foggo's crookery are still in place. Because of national security restrictions on information on even the most mundane intelligence community contracting, journalists and watchdog groups -- let alone congressional investigators -- find it extremely difficult to scrutinize how intelligence agencies award contracts. Conflicts of interest, such as close and continuing relationships between government officials and contractor executives, should derail a multimillion dollar Federal contract -- but not a multimillion dollar intelligence contract. In my own experience with contracting at intelligence agencies and in Special Access Programs in other parts of Federal government, I have seen these kinds of details -- likely indicators of corruption -- swept under the rug. It's all but an actuarial certainty that a major misappropriation of intelligence-related contracting authority is actually happening right now -- can 100% of intelligence contracting officials really be expected to do the right thing when they know that nobody is looking?

It's hard to imagine McCain's proposed new and improved intelligence bureaucracy doing super-secret contracting any better, or at least with more safeguards against Foggo-style abuses. Even more difficult to imagine is that a McCain administration would throw open the blinds on secret contracting in the intelligence community or in any other part of government. Obama's team promises greater transparency, but an entrenched culture of absolutist thinking about security classification and the likelihood of more skeletons in all those secret vaults -- will pose mighty barriers to real reform.

 

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