Aram Roston at Buzzfeed has seemingly uncovered a very cozy link between an NSA official and a government contracting firm.
The NSA official, Teresa H. Shea, is director of the Signals Intelligence Directorate, which means she oversees electronic eavesdropping for intelligence purposes. She's held that crucial position since 2010. SIGINT, as it is called, is the bread and butter of NSA espionage operations, and it includes intercepting and decoding phone calls, whether cellular or landline; radio communications; and internet traffic. Shea's directorate was involved in the controversial domestic surveillance program, much of which was revealed by Edward Snowden.
As for Shea’s husband, James, he is currently a vice president at DRS Signal Solutions, part of DRS Technologies, a major American defense contracting company owned by the Italian defense giant Finmeccanica. On his LinkedIn page, he boasts of his “core focus” in “SIGINT systems,” and cites his employer, DRS, for its work in “signals intelligence, cyber, and commercial test and measurement applications.”
Shea's husband is also a resident agent for Telic Networks (Roston calls the company's website
"rudimentary," which is a compliment) -- another SIGINT-focused business located in the Sheas' hometown of Ellicott City, Maryland. James Shea declined to comment on this story, somewhat inadvertently.
Telic Networks has a telephone number listed on its website, and on Monday, James Shea answered the phone. "Jim Shea!" he said. But after he was told what the call was about, he said, "I'm in the middle of a meeting right now. I'll try giving you a call later." He didn't answer subsequent calls.
Teresa Shea and her agency have declined to comment beyond some emailed boilerplate about the agency's "robust financial disclosure program" and the NSA's (unproven) track record of heading off conflicts of interest before they become a problem.
Meanwhile, James Shea's DRS Signal Solutions is hiring for a SIGINT-related contract located in Fort Meade, Maryland. The NSA's "robust financial disclosure program" is internal only, so there's no way to tell how this was awarded or the total cost of the contract.
This may seem like a small issue, but there are larger ramifications. The NSA is charged with protecting a nation against threats, but any sort of favoritism that intrudes on bidding processes undermines the quality of the contractor appointed. Handing a contract out to an official's husband doesn't ensure the agency is getting the best company for the job. And if this is commonplace enough, certain bidders will just stop submitting estimates.
Even if what appears to be happening is actually
happening, it's only part of much larger incestuous relationship between the government and its contractors. Pure nepotism may be rare, but there's lots of similarly shady tactics being deployed that never trigger ethics probes or recusals.
First off, there's the vested interest in keeping the whole scheme -- national security -- running. This depends
on legislators, administration representatives and official spokespeople constantly maintaining a climate of fear
. Government agencies -- the NSA included -- put a lot of effort into staying viable year after year with little discernible dropoff in budget. Being truly essential flies under the government radar. Appearing
to be completely essential seems to be more important.
Even as research appears that suggests Snowden's leaks didn't have much impact
on terrorist behavior, the ODNI's (James Clapper's) office is complaining
that ~$53 billion a year
money to keep the counterterroism apparatus afloat.
The nation's capitol is surrounded by government contractors, most of them setting up shop in Maryland and Virginia. It makes sense to move closer to the money and those who control it. From there, money flows to contractors and some the money flows back -- financial contributions
to legislators -- offered in hope of receiving advantageous legislation or budget increases for the agencies they work with. Not only does the money flow back and forth, but so does the personnel. Legislators exit
to become board members, lobbyists or figureheads of heavily government-invested companies... and vice versa.
Nothing illegal. Nothing immoral. Nothing but the same gamesmanship and cliqueishness that make the government a closed circuit where money races circles around itself ensuring the longevity of those who manage to make their way inside.
The Sheas' potential ethics conflict is only a marriage certificate away from complete legitimacy. Government agencies will run open bidding and still hand off the project to an inside favorite. Or they'll find loopholes to avoid opening bids at all. There's no way to tell how common this is in the NSA or other agencies covered by the classified "Black Budget," but the cloak of secrecy does a whole lot more than just protect means and methods. It also prevents the American public from uncovering conflicts of interest or questionable bidding processes.
Scott Amey, the general counsel of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, objected to such blanket secrecy: “We don’t know how many contracts DRS has, whether they have contracts, what they are for. We’re kind of in the dark, and that’s not how we want our government to operate.”
But yet it does, and it appears to be unlikely to change at any point in the near future. Everyone on the "inside" would like to keep it that way. It keeps companies from having to explain their domestic surveillance offerings and it keeps the ODNI from having to explain why the current secret budget just isn't enough to keep America safe.