CIA = Contracting Intelligence Agency

by David Isenberg

Undoubtedly, there are many aspects of the just-released summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program that can and should be pondered.

But, having written on the national U.S. defense and national security sector’s use of private contractors for over twenty years, I naturally focus my attention on the CIA’s reliance on private contractors for the devising and implementation of an “enhanced interrogation” — i.e., torture – program.

It is worth emphasizing that the use of contractors described in the committee summary — including the roles played by what the Washington Post Friday called the “two questionably credentialed advisers, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen,” who were paid more than $80 million before the CIA cut its ties with them — focused only on the use of contractors in the interrogation program. It did not look at other contractor uses, such as their involvement in the rendition of suspected terrorists

The United States has used torture, both psychological and physical, going back decades, as historian Alfred McCoy richly detailed in his 2012 book Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogations. And it is not as if the military did not know how to do harsh interrogations as the Army’s 519th Military Intelligence Battalion demonstrated at Abu Ghraib. The government recognized long ago that some activities are so sensitive and consequential that they should be done only by the government, not the private sector.

In his 2008 book Spies For Hire, Tim Shorrock quotes Eugene Fidell, then president of the National Institute for Military Justice, who was troubled by the CIA’s and Pentagon’s use of private contractors to interrogate enemy prisoners. “That’s’ really playing with fire,” he said. “That kind of activity, which so closely entails the national interest and exposes the country to terrible opprobrium, is something that ought to be done only by people who are government employees.”

So, why would the government turn to the private sector for this, and what does that say about governmental control of and accountability, or lack thereof, for the use of private security and military contractors?

I don’t ask this rhetorically. There has been lots of debate over what constitute inherently governmental activities – things only the government should do. But almost nobody, outside of companies that are paid to do it, believes that the private sector should be involved in interrogation.

In 2010, for example, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy issued a proposed policy memo to agencies instructing them to use the definition of “inherently governmental” in the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act (FAIR). The FAIR Act classifies an activity as “inherently governmental” when it is so intimately related to the public interest that it must be performed by federal employees.

When my book, Shadow Force, on the use of private security contractors in Iraq was published in 2009, I noted that “An Army policy directive published in 2000,” and still in effect today, classifies any job that involves “the gathering and analysis” of tactical intelligence as “an inherently governmental function barred from private sector performance.”

Yet, that is a restriction that seems more honored in the breach. A Georgetown University law review article last year noted:

 Private companies are hired to train troops, collect and analyze intelligence, and carry out special operations. For instance, one company allegedly participated in an extraordinary rendition through a contract for air transport. Two Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractors helped design and oversee the interrogation of Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. Employees of CIA contractors CACI and Titan have allegedly been involved in the oversight and torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib facility. One source estimates that “more than 50 percent of the National Clandestine Service (NCS)–the heart, brains and soul of the CIA–has been outsourced to private firms.

In fact, the outsourcing to the private sector that the government used to reserve for itself has been gathering momentum for decades. With regard to national security functions, it started, at least conceptually, in the Reagan era, gathered steam in the Clinton Administration, and rocketed up into the stratosphere in the years after 9/11. Currently, contractors are so entwined with the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security and numerous other agencies that they are similar to the creature in the Alien movies; trying to remove them would kill the patient.

The reasons for this are many, but some stand out. First, government, whether Republican- or Democratic-led, has bought into the neo-liberal orthodoxy of the “magic of the marketplace,” as Reagan put it, with the presumption that the private sector just does things better. Like the Bionic Man, it is supposedly cheaper, more agile and more efficient.

This is debatable when it comes to municipal services. It becomes even dodgier when applied to the national security sector. For some twenty years now, I have been asking advocates of the private military and security contracting industry to show me empirically based, methodologically sound studies that prove this point. I have not yet been shown any.

Peter Singer, a former scholar at the Brookings Institution, once wrote an article in Foreign Affairs journal in which he noted:

Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s current, supposedly business-minded leadership seems to have forgotten Economics 101. All too often, it outsources first and never bothers to ask questions later. That something is done privately does not necessarily make it better, quicker, or cheaper. Rather, it is through leveraging free-market mechanisms that one potentially gets better private results. Success is likely only if a contract is competed for on the open market, if the winning firm can specialize on the job and build in redundancies, if the client is able to provide oversight and management to guard its own interests, and if the contractor is properly motivated by the fear of being fired. Forget these simple rules, as the U.S. government often does, and the result is not the best of privatization but the worst of monopolization.

Common sense, if nothing else, should tell people that economic rationales for using contractors for interrogations are nonsense. Free markets require competitive environments and numerous customers, yet the government is often the only customer. And even private contractors have their limits on what they are willing to do. In September 2005, CACI announced that it would cease providing interrogation services when its contract expired at the end of that month.

Another, far more likely reason that the intelligence community would use contractors is that it is easier to keep things secret. A government agency carrying out torture could be subject to congressional oversight, weak and ineffective as it often is. But a private company generally doesn’t have to worry about that.

Despite a decade’s worth of strong reporting on the subject, the deep involvement of private contractors in our national-security apparatus is only dimly acknowledged — and even less appreciated — by the general public. One has only to ask how many casualties the U.S. has suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq. The body count almost never includes contractors — nearly 1500 in Afghanistan as of the end of 2013, according to the Department of Labor. In Iraq, the toll was higher. If people don’t care about contractors when they are actually dying on behalf of the government, the probability that anyone cares when they violate law on behalf of the government is practically zero.

Torture has been illegal in the United States since the Senate ratified the UN’s Convention Against Torture in 1994. So, the temptation for the CIA to employ contractors to further hide U.S. government use of torture must have been almost irresistible.

Furthermore, the use of private contractors may well have served as a way to satisfy U.S. government officials’ bloodlust — torture for torture’s sake — even though, according to the Senate committee’s report, it did not help to gain enough useful intelligence to justify its use. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote this week:

And why the private contractors? Maybe because the actual government interrogators didn’t believe torture worked either. Some complained that, after Mitchell and Jessen arrived, reasonably cooperative prisoners were suddenly brutalized under the theory that the original approach had been too “sissified.”

Nor is the use of contractors in intelligence for troubling purposes limited to torture. In fact, as I write this, the Associated Press is running a story that about how the U.S. Agency for International Development used contractors for more than two years to secretly infiltrate Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the Castro government.

The idea was to use Cuban musicians “to break the information blockade” and build a network of young people seeking “social change,” documents show. But the operation was amateurish and profoundly unsuccessful.

On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the program; they also confiscated computer hardware, and in some cases it contained information that jeopardized Cubans who likely had no idea they were caught up in a clandestine U.S. operation. Still, contractors working for the U.S. Agency for International Development kept putting themselves and their targets at risk, the AP investigation found.

The program is laid out in documents involving Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C., contractor paid millions of dollars to undermine Cuba’s communist government.

The worst truth, however, is this: as the National Security Agency surveillance scandal confirms, private companies are so comfortably and deeply embedded with the national security state — and happily making billions in the process — that separation, let alone divorce, seems almost entirely out of the question.

Every day, private contractors are breaking scores, if not hundreds, of domestic and foreign laws. And why wouldn’t they, considering that the government is willing to grant them immunity or indemnify them against any charges that might be brought against them?

Of course, not all contractors are bad or doing bad things. Most, in fact, are doing their best to implement whatever contact they are working on. But as long as a government is allowed by its own public to do things in the name of ensuring public safety, we can expect similar atrocities in the future. To paraphrase what Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar:

The fault, dear American public, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Image Credit: Mike Licht

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.



  1. Money drives most people. I don’t know about CIA, but I have followed up on a number of military services contracts, and many or most of them were “sweetheart” contracts for millions of dollars to ex-employees. The US governments, at all levels, is corrupt and money is the basis for many decisions, especially services and “consulting” contracts.

  2. Interesting post. If it’s not possible to eliminate the private contracting, then they should be absorbed into the various branches of the military, put on uniforms, put into combat situations. That’s one way to keep from throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  3. There is a big problem here with motivation. I see a parallel with the use of private prisons in the UK. The government’s stated objective is reform, re-education and early release, but the subcontractors make bigger profits out of more recidivists and delays in granting parole.
    Giving the task of finding and interrogating suspects, CIA subcontractors have a financial interest in capturing people on the flimsiest evidence and subjecting them to extended interrogation.
    Law enforcement and defense” should never be for profit. When it is, it will continue to grow out of control and will fail to achieve its intended purpose.

  4. Just a followup from my previous comment here on this subject, corruption, from one end to the other, and there’s no overnight cure. Until the population stands up, this will only get worse. When the government sells out the people, what recourse do the people have? What we are witnessing in the U.S. today, is only going to get worse, because the people who can stop it, won’t. Does anyone remember the battle cry of the Repuglicons about the Court[s] making laws instead of Congress? You sure don’t hear anything today do you? In fact, both parties are silent. Give those 5 men on the Supreme Court their do, for they make more legislation allowing the corrupt government we have today.

  5. Interesting. So far the only person to spend any time in jail over the CIA’s house of torture is the whistleblower who leaked the report, John Kiriakou. Interesting.

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