Global Policy Forum

We Can't Spy … If We Can't Buy!: The Privatization of Intelligence and the Limits of Outsourcing Inherently Governmental Functions

In this report, Simon Chesterman sheds light on the increasing use of PMSCs for US intelligence services after 9/11. The proportion of the US intelligence budget spent on private contractors could actually reach up to 70 per cent. Activities outsourced to the private sector now encompass electronic surveillance, rendition, interrogation, and strategic analysis. This is problematic for ensuring effective accountability and oversight of these firms, considering the necessary secrecy of such activities. Ultimately, Chesterman concludes that “the engagement of private actors in the collection of intelligence (…) frequently encompasses a far wider range of conduct that would normally be unlawful, with express or implied immunity from legal process, in an environment designed to avoid scrutiny.”

By Simon Chesterman


To read the full report, click here


Though it lags behind the privatization of military services, the privatization of intelligence has expanded dramatically with the growth in intelligence activities following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. The recent confirmation by the Director of the CIA that contractors have probably participated in waterboarding of detainees at CIA interrogation facilities has sparked a renewed debate over what activities it is appropriate to delegate to contractors, and what activities should remain ‘inherently governmental’. The article surveys outsourcing in electronic surveillance, rendition, and interrogation, as well as the growing reliance on private actors for analysis. It then turns to three challenges to accountability: the necessary secrecy that limits oversight; the different incentives that exist for private rather than public employees; and the uncertainty as to what functions should be regarded as ‘inherently governmental’ and thus inappropriate for delegation to private actors.


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