One of the loudest alarms set off by the National Security Agency leaks, at the hands of whistleblower Edward Snowden, was well articulated by Danielle Brian, executive director of a nonprofit group called the Project on Government Oversight. She told the New York Times:
The national security apparatus has been more and more privatized and turned over to contractors. This is something the public is largely unaware of, how more than a million private contractors are cleared to handle highly sensitive matters.
Ms. Brian added that even the nation’s security clearances are often taken care of by private contractors. Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is just one of many that provide services to the national security apparatus, but they have 25,000 employees, nearly half of whom have top secret security clearances. The company received 98% of its income in the last fiscal year from the government.
Booz Allen’s top officials have close connections with both this administration and that of George W. Bush. One of their former executives, James R. Clapper Jr., is the Obama administration’s chief intelligence official. Bush’s chief intelligence official, John M. McConnell, currently holds a position with Booz Allen.
As of October 1, 2012, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that the number of people with security clearances was over 4.9 million, with about 1.4 million of them being ‘top security’ clearances. That’s a staggering number. As the number of clearances rise, so do the risks. One of Snowden’s main points was that there are too many people like him–a low-level systems technician–who have access to extremely sensitive information with the potential for abuse. James Fallows of The Atlantic put it well when, in defending Snowden’s actions, he wrote:
Among the strongest arguments against a surveillance state is that it depends on the subjective judgment of its millions of employees (a) to be applied without over-reach or abuse, or (b) to exist at all. One 29-year-old has just demonstrated the second point. Edward Snowden didn’t like the way the system worked, and so he has effectively blown it up. The bigger problem may be with the first point, option (a) — people who think there should be more intrusiveness or prying. The Founders’ fundamental concern, often distilled as ‘If men were angels…,’ was to avoid giving anyone powers that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. The surveillance state is giving too many people too much power — either to destroy its workings, as Snowden has tried to do, or to abuse and extend them.
Many current and past intelligence officials are questioning the system of farming out national security to private companies, a dialog that Snowden hoped for. Stewart Baker, formerly with both the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, said:
We do need to take another, closer look at how we control information and how good we are at identifying what people are doing with that information.
According to the news site Quartz, the director of the Federation of America Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, Steven Aftergood, wants to know how Snowden had access to the most sensitive of documents, “a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order and a presidential directive ordering up an overseas target list for cyber-attacks.” He told Quartz:
We’re really waiting to learn more of the facts of this case. How was he vetted? Was his access typical or was it the Hawaii [where Snowden lived] version of standard security procedures?
If someone in Snowden’s position could access that kind of information, what do the other 1.4 million people with top secret security clearances have access to? How many people out of that 1.4 million might be unscrupulous enough to take advantage of the information they come across–whether at the highest levels or the lowest?
In his brilliant article “Why Privacy Matters Even If You have ‘Nothing To Hide’ “, author Daniel J. Solove quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find what it is.
What we don’t want others to know is all in our records somewhere–our phone calls, our bank accounts, our emails, our health records. Don’t we all need to be worried about the alarm bells Edward Snowden has rung?