Washington's Reliance on Contractors for Surveillance

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: We're joined now by Robert O'Harrow. He's an investigative reporter with the Washington Post, and has written extensively about government surveillance. So this young man, Mr. Snowden, worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that's a government subcontractor. Just describe this world for us, of this young man who didn't work for the government, he worked for their contractor. He's a low-level guy who had access. How does it all work?

Robert O'Harrow: There's a little window here into a very, very large world and a big change in our government. Over the last 15 years or so, the government, for reasons of savings and principle has dramatically increased the outsourcing of everything from maintenance and technology to intelligence. He represents one of tens of thousands of intelligence workers hired since 9/11.

Werman: I mean, there are billions of dollars, it seems, of contracts that Booz Allen Hamilton has been retained for by the government. Is this the best way for the government to operate intelligence services in a post-9/11 world?

O'Harrow: It's very safe to say that the contractors provide incredibly valuable services across the board including in the intelligence world. Another thing that's safe to say is the government probably could not get by without them. I was looking up some data, that I think still holds, which shows that 70 percent of the intelligence community's budget goes towards contracting. But the downside is, as we wrote today in the Washington Post, that the contractor world has expanded so rapidly, while the oversight inside the government has remained largely stagnant, so that you have real problems with oversight not just from a contracting budget spending perspective, but quite obviously when it comes to keeping track of insiders who might leak information.

Werman: It seems one of the big questions that all of this raises is who actually owns personal information about you, about me. One of the notions expressed by Snowden in the Guardian interview with him that the government has massive amounts of data and they can use the system to go back in time. Can you explain that system to us and how it relates to the possession of our own data, personal information, and can the government sell it later?

O'Harrow: Well, you've just described another branch on the tree, so we have two things that we're talking about here. One of them of course is the security breach, and I think that's very, very important. The other is what was leaked, and that also is important. The program that is front and center that the Washington Post first wrote about was called Prism, and for the first time it confirmed things that we sort of assumed were true, which is the government works very closely with companies that collect almost an unimaginable amount of information about every American, and foreigners can use this.

Werman: Like Facebook and Google.

O'Harrow: Yeah, we're talking about Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google. And what they're doing is they're collecting information in an expedited, very direct way, and it's all under a cloak of top secrecy. The government has said that this is incredibly valuable source of intelligence for counter-terrorism purposes, but the problem is it's a proverbial tip of the iceberg of a huge change that our society is going through. I've called it the data revolution. I wrote a book several years ago called No Place to Hide that examined the relationship between the government and the private sector, and the reality is that the government relies heavily on the companies that we do business with every day to collect information about us and to do threat and security analysis.

Werman: Robert O'Harrow, how much will whistleblowers keep trying to reveal secrets, or truth, depending on your point of view, the word, and will the government or their contractors try and stop it even more aggressively?

O'Harrow: This is a very, very complicated question you've asked. Whistleblowers are absolutely essential and need to be protected, and yet, the title whistleblower should not automatically convey some elevated virtue, because in some cases there are whistleblowers who are revealing secrets and they think that they're being heroic, when in fact they're hurting things more than they're helping. At the same time, you have an Obama administration that has been highly aggressive going after whistleblowers in a way that seems a lot overdone, and it seems unnecessarily authoritarian to me. On the other hand, one has to accept that when there are national security breaches, there have to be consequences for the people that reveal national security secrets.

Werman: And the White House's rationale that we need these secrets for fighting extremism, for our own national security. How do you, what do you think of that argument?

O'Harrow: I go back to something that Viet Dinh, the author of the Patriot Act, told me some years ago. He said that, never trust the government, which is really interesting. He's conservative, federalist society, constitutional lawyer, but he was saying something that's at the core of our American values, which is you never trust the government. You always ask for evidence and you always seek checks and balances. In this case, there's a lot that is being probably properly cloaked in secrecy, but I think that the Bush and Obama administrations, they are putting much more behind the walls of secrecy than they ought to. And they need to be held accountable, and they need to have to answer for some of the choices they're making, and I think that things are out of balance right now.

Werman: What are your own thoughts, Robert O'Harrow, on what Edward Snowden says he did?

O'Harrow: There's no question that some of the revelations that he provided about the collection of information about telephone calls, millions of them, and the relationships between the government and these data giants, like Microsoft, Apple, and Google are stunning revelations and will give us much room for debate and help fuel debate about privacy in our society. At the same time, one can't ignore the reality that what appears to be a relatively low-level intelligence official somehow got access to top secret documents, and I'm left with the question, as an investigative reporter is, how did that happen and why did that happen, and what does that tell us about the security of this huge security-industrial complex that we've built since 9/11.

Werman: And have you in the past couple of weeks become more cautious about how you operate in the digital world? Have you been a little more resistant or reluctant to use your cell phone, for example?

O'Harrow: Well, I have a funny response to that, and I've been dealing with this for more than a decade as I've been writing about data collection and intelligence, domestic intelligence, and that is that I am probably the least paranoid person in Washington. When I don't participate in things like Facebook, it's just because I find it annoying. I can recommend that just as a good data hygiene practice, that your listeners take great care with anything they put into writing, and it's not because the government's going to get it, but it's, one ought to assume it will become public. So I take these steps as a matter of course, but I'm not taking any extra steps. I'm not particularly concerned. I know there's risks engaging with the cyberspace and the digital world, but one makes calculated risks every hour of every day.

Werman: Robert O'Harrow is Washington Post reporter and author of the book No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society. Thanks so much for your time.

O'Harrow: My pleasure.

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