National Press Club

Chertoff, Hayden Defend Use of Contractors for Intel Work

August 21, 2009 | By Mark Schoeff Jr. |

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Two recent top government officials defended the use of contractors in conducting intelligence work at an Aug. 20 joint Newsmaker and Book & Author event.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff explained that it is often necessary for agencies to bring in outside talent to fill a need for a particular skill.

They appeared at the Press Club on a day when the intelligence contractor issue topped the news. The New York Times and The Washington Post ran front-page stories about the CIA hiring the firm Blackwater USA in 2004 to help manage an effort to kill Al-Qaeda leaders.

Hayden wouldn’t comment specifically on the 2004 operation, which occurred prior to his 2006-09 stint at the CIA. But during his tenure, he reduced the number of contractors working at the CIA by 15 percent.

Contractors currently make up approximately 30 percent of the spy agency’s workforce.

Trimming the number of contractors was not a knock on them, Hayden said.

In fact, he argued that it is often necessary to reach into the private sector for required skills.

Hayden used a football analogy. “In most instances, we generally use the best talent available in the draft,” he said. “Who is the best individual available for this task at this moment? We view contractors as an integral part of our workforce.”

The event was moderated by author Joseph Finder, who often writes about the intersection between espionage and the private sector. His latest book, Vanished, was released earlier this week by St. Martin’s Press.

Finder pushed the panel to comment on whether intelligence agencies use contractors to distance themselves from backlash over controversial operations.

The CIA has the same legal obligations whether work is performed by government employees or contractors, Hayden stressed.

“We do not go outside in order to deflect responsibility for ourselves. Period,” he said.

If Congress is concerned about the prevalence of contractors in the federal workforce, it should be willing to appropriate money for hiring permanent staff, Chertoff said.

“If you don’t want to fund (government employees), then you can’t complain when we use contractors,” Chertoff said.