Booz Allen Hamilton, federal contractor

How do you keep secrets when Booz Allen, just one of many intelligence contractors, has more than 12,000 employees with top secret access?

Rick Bowmer/AP
Honey, did you remember to give the contractors their top secret clearance?

Edward Snowden, the man who leaked details of the National Security Agency's secret PRISM data-mining program and the use of broad warrants to monitor vast amounts of data passing through US telecommunications companies like Verizon, was working as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton at the time of the leaks.

His revelations - and the prospect of more to come - have sent the US intelligence establishment into a tizzy, with warnings of grave danger done to the US as a result of his leaks and efforts to get out ahead of whatever future scoops he might feed to The Guardian or other newspapers.

But to the casual observer of intelligence affairs (that is, me), it was surprising that private contractors, including 29-year-old employees, had so much access to the US government's most jealously guarded secrets. I always imagined the NSA - jokingly called for years "No Such Agency" - was the "men in black-est" of them all, with layers of protection limiting the scope of their work to a handful of insiders.

The reality is something else again, as we're all learning. In the years since 9/11, tens of billions of dollars have flowed to private contractors in the intelligence and digital security businesses, and Booz Allen it turns out is just one of them. And the sheer number of people working either inside the government or on outside contracts is staggering.

On Page 3 of Booz Allen Hamilton's 2012 annual report, the company says it has approximately 25,000 employees, 76 percent of whom have a US government security clearance and 49 percent of whom have security clearances at the level of "top secret or higher." That's 12,250 employees at Booz Allen alone who have "top secret" clearance. How much of the company's work is for the US government? Almost all of it. In each of the past three years, 98 percent or more of its income came from government contracts.

All this brings to mind the cliche about how two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. How on earth can you keep secrets if just one American company has enough people with top secret access to fill a mid-sized American town?

On top of that has been the trend over the past dozen years or so to make intelligence information more shareable. The old days of heavy compartmentalization are long over, all in the hopes of identifying patterns in intelligence collected by disparate agencies. That's one reason that Bradley Manning, a young soldier in Iraq, had access to almost the entirety of the State Department's database of classified cables, and was able to pull off his massive data dump to WikiLeaks.

Though Mr. Snowden has been far more judicious in his leaks than Mr. Manning, it seems likely that his broad access to the NSA's secret was also thanks to the dismantling of internal firewalls.

There's no small irony that much of Booz Allen's work for the government is about securing government data from hackers and spies. The first subsection of the annual report is titled "Keeping Information Secure: An integrated approach enables effective cybersecurity."

How much of their work is with the NSA and other intelligence agencies is hard to say. Understandably, that's not played up in the annual report, and the company has contracts focusing on everything from veterans affairs to air traffic control.

But plenty of intelligence work is disclosed, most of it with military, like the work it does with the Army's Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate to build a database that "delivers massive and elastic data storage and processing capacity, with the power to query, sort, and analyze hundreds of millions of textual intelligence products in less than one second."

Recent years have been very good to the company. In 2012, sales rose 5 percent to $5.8 billion and profits more than doubled to $240 million from $85 million. In 2008, the company had $2.6 billion in sales and in 2001 it had $1.2 billion.

The Guardian has a good piece out today explaining the very good reasons why US intelligence increasingly relies on contractors - mostly because they're better at creating, and adapting to, new technology.

But with more and more people - and young people at that - getting access to top secret data, the surprise isn't the recent NSA leaks. It's that they're not more common.

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