09/05/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Privatization and Patriotism: Defining the Boundary

The most commonly presumed distinction between public servants and private military and security contractors is that the former are motivated by the interests of the public at large, whether you call it national security or patriotism, while the latter are just in it for the money, whether you call it looking out just for the shareholders, or even more starkly, simply looking out for number one.

The question, however, is this really true? There is reason to think not, according to Morten Hansen, whose article "Intelligence Contracting: On the Motivations, Interests, and Capabilities of Core Personnel Contractors in the US Intelligence Community" has just been published by Intelligence and National Security journal. Hansen is currently finalizing his doctoral research at Korea University's Graduate School of International Studies, which explores the use of private contractors in the US intelligence community. He has "worked as an intelligence analyst and crisis responder at Kroll Inc. in London," and as an independent security contractor for the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Danish Embassy in Seoul.

Why motivation matters in this area can be discerned by just a few numbers cited by Hansen. And this is not just confined to the CIA. According to Simon Chesterman of the European Journal of International Law:

More than 70 per cent of the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) unit is staffed by contractors, known as 'green badgers', who also represent the majority of personnel in the DIA, the CIA's National Clandestine Service, and the National Counterterrorism Center. At the CIA's station in Islamabad contractors reportedly outnumber government employees three to one.

Hansen questions whether contractor's financial motivations make them less patriotic than their public sector counterparts. For example:

In a conversation about the Washington Post investigation 'Top Secret America' with former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Dana Priest was confronted with the question of whether journalists were not after all working for private corporations with a responsibility not to the public interest, but rather to their shareholders. To this Dana Priest answered that she had never thought of what she did as that of an employee making money for her commercial shareholders. In her own words, Dana Priest noted that 'the dollar bottom-line is never in my mind'. That may very well be the case, but it then begs the question, why it would be any different for an intelligence contractor, something Priest questions throughout her book. If it is indeed possible for a journalist working for a private media corporation to be motivated by the public interest, then, surely, this also applies to the intelligence contractor.

Put another way, "Government employees may well have a fiduciary duty to the public good, but they, of course, also rely on their paychecks. In the same manner, contractors may indeed have a financial motivation, but that hardly excludes them from patriotism and a belief in the common good."

Hansen finds a couple of problems with the assumed primarily profit motivation of intelligence contractors:

In the matter of interests and loyalties, the critics of intelligence contracting are not only baselessly assuming certain psychological tendencies to be true, the claim that contractors are only loyal to shareholders and do not act in the interest of national security is somewhat illogical. This article argues that at least two characteristics suggest that intelligence contractors may not be all that different from their government counterparts when it comes to loyalty. First, more often than not intelligence contractors have a past career in government and have, hence, in the past been recruited on the basis of the same criteria as government employees. According to the ODNI, the experience, tradecraft and institutional knowledge needed to train a very young post-9/11 workforce, only existed among retired government employees, which came to serve as a 'de facto "intelligence reserve corps"'. Second, in order to acquire and maintain high-level security clearances, intelligence contractors, arguably, would find it difficult to conceal interests and loyalties that ran counter to the national security objective.

In regard to another main criticism of intelligence contracting, that it is more expensive than using regular employees, Hansen doesn't dispute it. Instead he suggests that cost is just not that important compared to the need to getting the job done:

First, contractors were employed due to the reduction in the size of the intelligence community in the post-Cold War era. To this day, personnel ceilings make it difficult to employ the necessary manpower to deal with the post-9/11 challenges. Secondly, and related to the first, contracting might be done in order to improve flexibility in addressing expected future changing external conditions. Indeed, this appears to be the position of the ODNI, whose former Associate Director for Human Capital, Ronald Sanders, noted that intelligence contractors are important, 'because they provide flexibility, responsiveness, and in many cases very unique expertise in support of the intelligence mission'. Since 9/11, the US intelligence budget has more than tripled, but as we commemorate the 10-year anniversary of this tragic event, the financial circumstances no longer permit such continued expansion, and cutting down on contracting expenses will no doubt be the preferred tool for addressing budgetary restraints. This mechanism of increasing and decreasing the use of contractors as per the security and budgetary demands is perhaps the trademark strength of intelligence contracting.