GAO Finds Handling Of Intelligence Contractors Just As Screwed Up As Everything Else It's Investigated

from the a-regular-Snowden-breeding-ground dept

The NSA's problem with contractors surfaced in the most internationally spectacular way when one of them made his way to Hong Kong with a drive full of agency documents. Other failures were less spectacular, but didn't go completely unnoticed. A recent investigation uncovered years of fraudulent behavior by a government contractor charged with vetting potential hires for various agencies, including the NSA. The contractor was accused of (among many things) interviewing dead people and falsifying a massive number of background checks.

So, the release of a GAO report on intelligence contractors is perfectly timed. Like every GAO report, there's a dearth of good news. What's been uncovered by the GAO is another bureaucratic web that makes just tracking contractor information nearly impossible.

Limitations in the intelligence community’s (IC) inventory of contract personnel hinder the ability to determine the extent to which the eight civilian IC elements—the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and six components within the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, and the Treasury—use these personnel. The IC Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) conducts an annual inventory of core contract personnel that includes information on the number and costs of these personnel. However, GAO identified a number of limitations in the inventory that collectively limit the comparability, accuracy, and consistency of the information reported by the civilian IC elements as a whole. For example, changes to the definition of core contract personnel and data shortcomings limit the comparability of the information over time. In addition, the civilian IC elements used various methods to calculate the number of contract personnel and did not maintain documentation to validate the number of personnel reported for 37 percent of the 287 records GAO reviewed. Further, IC CHCO did not fully disclose the effects of such limitations when reporting contract personnel and cost information to Congress, which limits its transparency and usefulness.
Bad data brings bad results (not to mention the attendant detrimental effect on accountability) and there were plenty of bad results to report, including the fact that contractors might be abusing this broken system to push the government around.
Further, the elements’ ability to use the core contract personnel inventory as a strategic planning tool is hindered because the inventory does not provide insight into the functions performed by contractors, in particular those that could inappropriately influence the government’s control over its decisions.
The GAO attempted to audit IC records dating from 2007 to 2011, but immediately ran into problems.
[W]e could not conduct a reliability assessment of the data for fiscal years 2007 through 2009 due to a variety of factors. These factors include civilian IC element officials’ stating that they could not locate records of certain years’ submissions or that obtaining the relevant documentation would require an unreasonable amount of time.
Amazing. The government stonewalls the government. This isn't people waving FOIA requests. This is the Government Accountability Office carrying out an order from Congress and yet, the responding office claims it would take too long to find these documents, if they can actually be found at all.

As the report goes on, it becomes clear the GAO never had a chance to compile anything comprehensive. First, it was informed that some contractors not previously designated as such were arbitrarily given that designation at some point in 2010. Then the CHCO informed the GAO that it had made significant changes to its contract management system in 2011, making most of what had been gathered prior useless for year-to-year comparisons.

Then there were problems stemming from the civilian contractors themselves, who also altered their data reporting during the same time frame, further complicating any attempts to compare year-to-year data.

In the end, the GAO settled for sampling 287 records from 2010-2011 to generate this report. Even with this limited sample set, there were issues.
We found that the civilian IC elements either under- or over-reported the amount of obligations by more than 10 percent for approximately one-fifth of the records. In addition, the civilian IC elements could not provide complete documentation to validate the information reported for 17 percent of the records we reviewed. Overall, we were able to validate the amount of reported obligations for approximately 43 to 77 percent of the records we reviewed at any one element.
So, only 43-77% of the records were deemed "verifiable" by the GAO. But this same unreliable data was used by the CHCO to report costs and set budgets.
However, IC CHCO used the core contract personnel inventory information to report fiscal years 2010 and 2011 contract costs for the eight civilian IC elements in our review…

IC CHCO’s guidance for the fiscal years 2010 and 2011 inventories generally requires IC elements to report on the total amount of funds obligated to contracts during the fiscal year. However, the guidance also indicates that reporting on a snapshot of active contracts on September 30 is an acceptable method for the large elements. This practice may lead to elements not fully accounting for the amount of obligations within a fiscal year on contracts…
But that's OK, because there's apparently no way to hold the IC CHCO accountable.
Officials acknowledged that in some cases, obligations may not be reported as a result of the exclusion of inactive contracts or contract option periods. However, IC CHCO does not disclose this methodology or its effects on the information it reports to Congress.
Not surprisingly, given this lack of direct accountability, the IC CHCO's methodology and controls have not improved over the past half-decade despite the constant generation of faulty info and the misplacement of IC records. The GAO recommends several changes to the current system (of course), but the past tells us these will be ignored by both the head office and the agencies under its "control."

Filed Under: gao, intelligence community, nsa, privacy

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  1. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 18 Feb 2014 @ 2:31pm

    Re: So to fix all these problems

    Non-sarcastically, that might actually be a good idea. If "there's a dearth of good news" is what we've come to expect from GAO reports, that means that the Government Accountability Office is every bit as mis-named as the "intelligence" agencies it's reporting on that keep doing mind-numbingly stupid things.

    Any report like this should contain at least this minimal piece of good news: "and therefore, seeing as how things are a complete mess here, we, the Accountability Office, are holding the decision-makers accountable and [describe disciplinary action/firings/criminal charges being levied here]."

    In the absence of any such holding-accountable, they are no Accountability Office at all, and don't serve much of any purpose as far as I can tell.

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