Book 'Spies for Hire' exposes the underbelly of intelligence

U.S. government agencies that collect "intelligence" (the word carries an ironic ring because so much of the information is outdated or incorrect) about the nation's alleged enemies employ tens of thousands of people.

Those same agencies, with acronyms such as CIA, NSA (National Security Agency) and NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) spend billions on salaries, travel, buildings and equipment. Despite all those resources, the agencies spend far more on private contractors, who carry out large chunks of the spying without strict supervision.

Freelance investigative journalist Tim Shorrock has successfully tackled a topic carrying a high degree of difficulty: exposing how private corporations employ former high-ranking federal government and military officials to generate huge profits from secret contracts with the CIA, NSA and various baronies in the Defense Department.

In Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, Shorrock penetrates the covert world of corporations such as CACI International, ManTech International and Booz Allen Hamilton, while simultaneously penetrating the covert world of government agencies spending billions of taxpayer dollars unaccountably.

Dozens of previous books by other authors have examined the failures of information collection and analysis, especially leading up to and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Shorrock breaks new dirt by focusing on the business of intelligence, the bottom line in dollars at the private corporations that win government contracts, often without competitive bidding or even public disclosure after the ink is dry.

Gaining entry into conventions of defense contractors usually closed to journalists, sitting through hearings by congressional committees whose members are regularly stonewalled by the government agencies they are supposed to oversee, reading through partially declassified documents, Shorrock does a remarkable job of learning as much as he does.

At some junctures, the book is difficult to read because it is peppered with acronyms, descriptions of highly technical hardware and a huge number of unfamiliar corporate names. It helps that Shorrock's writing style is clear, and his passionate case for open government is inspiring. It also helps that from time to time Shorrock intersperses anecdotes involving real people to break up the arduous study of statistics and technospeak.

Some of those anecdotes involve individuals with familiar names, such as Dick Cheney, vice president of the United States and previously secretary of Defense. It turns out that private contractor Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) had close ties with Cheney through one of its officers named Duane Andrews (who's now at another defense company). Surprise, surprise: SAIC is the largest contractor for the National Security Agency, and the government agency is SAIC's largest customer, according to Shorrock's research.

SAIC has received millions of dollars (that arguably could be used instead to improve public schools or feed the hungry) that paid for failed systems. Shorrock relates the saga of Project Trailblazer, "designed to capture communications traveling on cellphones, fiber optics and across the Internet." Maybe conversations among terrorists would emerge, thus improving the security of the United States. Instead, Shorrock reports, Trailblazer busted its budget, did not work well, leaving perhaps 99% of the communications available to the NSA unanalyzed.

In addition to revealing details never before in print, Shorrock sheds new light on fiascoes already known to the public, such as the nasty interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib prison, in the process demonstrating the complicit role of private corporations performing highly profitable contracted duties once handled by government employees. Shorrock makes the case well that only members of Congress, ostensibly accountable to the citizens who elected them, can halt the inefficiencies and sometimes downright financial corruption emanating from the private contractor-intelligence agency nexus.

Spies for Hire is a sterling example of why investigative journalists are valuable during an era of deep, broad and unconscionable government secrecy.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo.