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Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. heads to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 2014, during consideration of the veterans benefits bill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The U.S. intelligence community has been outsourcing much of its sensitive work to private contractors, but it’s had a hard time figuring out just how much and explaining why. That’s made it particularly difficult for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to assess whether the contracting is excessive or wasteful, as some independent groups have alleged.

Although the Director of National Intelligence has tallied the number annually since 2006 and reported recently that the number of core contractor personnel is dropping, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report early this year that the data used to compile this tally was inconsistent or inaccurate.

Lawmakers’ frustration about the shortcomings boiled over at a hearing June 18 by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. Although members have complained for years about the outsourcing, Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., the committee chairman, complained that they still “don’t have the full picture of who is working for the intelligence community as contractors, or why.”

Congressional pique intensified last year after Edward Snowden, an employee for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked thousands of classified documents. Sen. Intelligence Committee chairman Diane Feinstein, D-Cal., asserted at the time that intelligence agencies had not complied with a promise to cut their use of contractors by 5 percent a year.

A report last year by Maplight, a nonprofit group, showed however that every member of the House and Senate intelligence committees had received campaign funds from intelligence contractors. And earlier this year, another report showed that more than two-thirds of cases of intelligence contractor misconduct examined involved fraudulent billing for work contractors hadn’t done, costing the government millions of dollars. Even if the contractor employees implicated in these charges lost their jobs, they often kept their security clearances and were able to be rehired.

Intelligence officials have claimed that asking each agency to tally its contractor workforce annually, even in an imprecise way, has helped managers manage problems and reduce risks. Stephanie O’Sullivan, principal deputy director of the DNI’s office, told the hearing that despite the shortcomings, the data still helped officials weigh how often to use contractors or federal employees.

But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the ranking Republican on the committee, challenged O’Sullivan, asking how officials can make good decisions with unreliable data. “GAO is testifying that the data has some big holes in it,” Coburn said. “And you’re testifying that you’ve dropped core contracting down a significant amount. If you have data that has big holes in it, how do you know that you did it right?”

“I think this is a pretty damning report,” Coburn said.

He noted that when agencies complete the survey, they are supposed to say why they have used contractors in particular roles, and offered the chance to say that the contractor had “unique expertise.” But when they did so, they typically provided no supporting information, according to the GAO, an independent watchdog group that reports to Congress.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, said “I think this is highlighting a problem we see throughout the federal government … The government hasn’t done a very good job collecting useful workforce data that allows it to make human capital planning decisions.”

The GAO report urged intelligence officials to delineate the limitations in their data more carefully and to develop a plan for taking a better inventory. O’Sullivan said her office was taking steps to increase the data’s accuracy. Timothy DiNapoli, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the GAO, said ODNI had responded favorably to his agency’s recommendations.

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