The Senate Intelligence Committee will consider legislation to limit government contractors’ access to sensitive data after a worker leaked details about classified spy programs, panel Chairman Dianne Feinstein said.
Feinstein, a California Democrat, also said she has asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to propose revisions in management of intelligence programs if he thinks they are needed.
“We will consider changes,” Feinstein said after a closed briefing with Clapper yesterday. “We will certainly have legislation which will limit or prevent contractors from handling highly classified technical data.”
Former contractor Edward Snowden admitted leaking details about the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone and Internet data to the U.K. Guardian and Washington Post newspapers. Snowden worked for NSA contractors including McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH:US), his most recent employer.
Intelligence agencies are conducting “a very serious review” of contractor operations, said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Snowden was “a fairly low-level” worker who had access to classified information because of his position, Rogers told reporters in Washington following a separate classified briefing on the NSA leaks.
“Those kinds of people obviously raise concerns and I think there’s a thorough scrub today to make sure all the protections that are in place are continuing to happen,” Rogers said. “We’re also looking at internal controls to make sure that if something was missed here, something doesn’t get missed in the future.”
Rogers didn’t say whether his panel would consider crafting legislation to limit contractors’ access to data.
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. must improve controls on contractors although he’s not convinced legislation is needed.
“We’ve got to do a better job of making sure that our Top Secret clearances go to only those individuals that deserve it,” Chambliss said. People with such clearance should be reviewed periodically “to determine whether or not there’s any reason to suspect that they may have compromised U.S intelligence.”
Contractors shouldn’t do the type of work and have access to the information Snowden had, Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Peter Cook for “Capitol Gains” airing June 16. Harman is a former House member from California and was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
“I think they should all be federal employees,” she said. “I don’t think there should be an opportunity to move out of government and go to a private contractor.”
The U.S. government needs “a seamless way to track people who have jobs like this and clearances like this,” Harman said.
About 1.4 million Americans held Top Secret clearances as of October, including about 483,000 who worked for contractors, according to the Director of National Intelligence’s office. Snowden held a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance, a classification above Top Secret.
Government agencies must use contractors who have Top Secret clearances because federal agencies can’t “compete well for sophisticated technology skills” in their own employees, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council. The Arlington, Virginia-based group represents contractors such as SAIC Inc. (SAI:US) and CACI International Inc. (CACI:US)
“The conduit to those skills is the private sector,” he said.
Legislation barring contractors from accessing secret data would be “overkill in the extreme,” Soloway said in an interview. “This case has zero to do with the fact that Snowden was a contractor.”
Such legislation would be “misplaced,” said Robert Burton, acting administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy under President George W. Bush and now a partner at the law firm Venable LLP in Washington.
“There is an equal risk that a contractor or government employee may illegally release highly classified data,” Burton said in an e-mail. By banning contractors’ access to classified data, “the government will jeopardize agency programs and missions by prohibiting access to the expertise and skills offered by contractor employees.”
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