Edward Snowden and Washington’s revolving-door culture

The recent NSA leak reveals the disturbing extent to which the US’ government and corporate sectors have merged.

Booz Allen Hamilton headquarters in McLean, Virginia
Employees of private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton routinely pass in and out of government [EPA]

In the wake of the Edward Snowden controversy – the National Security Agency whistleblower who revealed secret US government surveillance programmes – the Obama administration has been forced on the defensive and obliged to answer uncomfortable questions about the extent and power of government eavesdropping.

The scandal, however, has also placed a spotlight on Washington’s revolving-door culture between private contractors and official government agencies. As further details emerge, it seems increasingly clear that Snowden’s company Booz Allen Hamilton has been able to amass unprecedented power over the nation’s affairs. In a perversion of democracy, Booz Allen now handles everything from consulting services to technology support and analysis for the Obama administration.

Americans might be surprised to learn of the extent and scope of government outsourcing. Booz Allen holds a contract to provide IT modernisation and support to key Justice Department agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

Snowden’s company, which receives nearly all of its funding from the federal government, is in turn owned by private equity firm Carlyle Group. According to Forbes magazine, the Booz Allen sale has proven very lucrative for Carlyle, netting a whopping $2bn for the firm so far. A corporation known for its ties to insider politicians, Carlyle once employed none other than George Herbert Walker Bush as an adviser. His son George W, meanwhile, served on the board of directors of Carterair, an airline food company which was later acquired by Carlyle.

 Private firms find big role in US spy programmes

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the public and corporate sector in Washington, with Booz Allen employees routinely passing in and out of government. Take, for example, US National Intelligence Director James Clapper, a former executive at Booz Allen. Then there’s George Little, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs at the Pentagon, who previously served as an intelligence and business consultant at Booz Allen.

Not surprisingly, such incestuous ties have raised concerns about excessive corporate influence. As early as 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union sounded the alarm bell about the company’s growing surveillance profile, noting that Booz Allen had “been at the forefront of a push to increase information collection from the private sector by the government. Several Booz Allen vice presidents, for example, have publicly called for sweeping efforts in that direction, even if it means sacrifice by and regulation of private industry.”

Who’s running the drug war?

In the coming days, many will undoubtedly call for a scaling back of government contractors and a more thorough accounting on intelligence matters. It may not be so easy, however, to disentangle the thorny web of corporate influence. Indeed, Booz Allen’s involvement in intelligence gathering may be just the tip of the iceberg. Not only does the company hold contracts with the FBI, but it also provides IT support to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). What is more, the US Air Force awarded Booz Allen a contract in 2011 to research and design joint operations between the US Northern Command and the Mexican military.

The Booz Allen agenda stands at odds with those of many Latin American nations, which have been calling for a different approach to the drug war. Exhausted by drug-related violence, some countries are arguing that it is time to adopt a less militaristic policy with a possible path to marijuana legalisation. The national security state and Booz Allen, however, have a lot to lose if the drug war abruptly comes to an end. Sounding the alarm bell, Booz Allen officials argue that terrorists and extremists might exploit the lawless Mexican border area and come into the US to launch attacks. Sceptical of such claims, the liberal Nation magazine remarks that Booz Allen is merely “questing much-sought-after but spurious links between al-Qaeda and South American narcotraffickers”.

To really reform the intelligence apparatus, the public must first unravel and sort out the nation’s Byzantine web of public and private spying interests.

Hardly deterred by such criticisms, Booz Allen continues to push for a draconian approach to the drug war. Speaking at a forum at the US Army War College, Booz Allen Director and former DEA Chief of Intelligence Anthony Placido boasted that he had helped to develop and implement the so-called “Merida initiative”. Under the plan, the US has provided billions of dollars to the Mexican armed forces and police. However, critics say the initiative has failed to address drug treatment and prevention. They also charge that most Merida resources stay in the US and are spent on military contracts and intelligence equipment. Furthermore, the US State Department said in a 2010 report that the initiative’s requirements that human rights be respected have been disregarded.

Speaking on C-SPAN in 2010, Placido faced withering criticism from callers who were highly critical of the DEA and its heavy-handed approach to the war on drugs. When one viewer remarked that Washington’s crackdown on narcotics had been an incredible waste of money and DEA agents had acted like a bunch of “yahoos” breaking down doors, Placido responded: “You do not represent mainstream thinking on this issue.” At other times during the on-air discussion, the drug enforcement official defended the militaristic policies of the Colombian and Mexican governments.

From Booz Allen to Stratfor

Perhaps, in light of Booz Allen’s enormous power and reach, the public will demand that the government move to reduce the company’s influence. Nevertheless, even if Booz Allen loses valuable contracts, there are yet other companies that could fill the vacuum. Take, for example, the Stratfor corporation, which has provided confidential intelligence services to key US agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Marines and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Last year, whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks disclosed millions of Stratfor e-mails which revealed the inner workings of the corporation. Like Booz Allen, Stratfor helps to shore up the US defence agenda in Latin America, and correspondence suggests that Stratfor personnel have been actively seeking out intelligence in such countries as Venezuela.

In light of the underhanded dealings of both Booz Allen and Stratfor, how can the public ever hope to restrain the runaway national security state and its aggressive posture towards Latin America? While it might have made sense to simply rein in rogue defence agencies in the past, Washington has become much more intricate and tangled since the 9-11 attacks. To really reform the intelligence apparatus, the public must first unravel and sort out the nation’s Byzantine web of public and private spying interests. While that’s surely no small task, perhaps the Snowden affair will spur further investigations that may get at the truth.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left and frequently writes about WikiLeaks and political transparency. Follow him on Twitter here.