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Edward Snowden: Exemplar of the Beltway's Economic Boom

Washington is full of high-earning contractors just like him


Edward Snowden is ready for his Rorschach test. Is he Benedict Arnold or Tom Paine, Daniel Ellsberg or Bradley Manning (or Aaron Swartz)? For the moment, I’ll leave that to others to debate, and instead consider Snowden through another lens: as an exemplar of the conspicuous, decade-long economic boom of Washington, D.C.

We’ve been hearing more and more about this boom, as the disconnect grows between the ever-more-prosperous Beltway and a Rest of America only now recovering from the recession. You’ve seen the stats: Seven of the 10 highest-income counties are in the Washington area; of the counties with the highest levels of college graduates, the top three are in greater D.C., and five of the top 10. There have been plenty of theories proffered to explain the Beltway boom—typically, conservatives like to talk about the growing scope of the federal government, while liberals like to talk about the rise in the influence industry that has accompanied it. But Snowden offers a reminder of another driver of the boom, one that I’ve long suspected was the biggest factor of all: the construction of the post-9/11 security leviathan, which has tentacles all around the country but is concentrated above all in greater Washington—not only at the headquarters of the FBI, CIA, and NSA, but in the sprawl of the contractors that have attached themselves to the region like barnacles, in hundreds of glass boxes along the Dulles Toll Road and Interstate 66 and Route 32, with naught but a cryptic acronym (SAIC, CACI, ITT) affixed on their upper walls to hint at their identity (and sometimes not even that).

This landscape was captured brilliantly by the big 2010 Washington Post series by Dana Priest and William Arkin, “Top Secret America,” which described just how vast the Beltway-based apparatus had become: “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. … An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. … In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space.”

The people working in these buildings and contractors are, by definition, a low-visibility lot, with job descriptions so inscrutable to the average American taxpayer footing the bill that they might as well be written in Sanskrit. But they make up a goodly share of the people who are crowding the Beltway’s ever-more-crowded highways in late-model cars and buying up condos and homes at rates that have made Washington the strongest real estate market in the country since 2000. But now we get to see one of their type close-up in a way that we are normally not able to. Edward Snowden is only 29 and lacks a four-year college degree, yet he has been pulling down $200,000 working for one of the biggest Beltway bandit contractors of all, Booz Allen Hamilton. He was most recently based not in Washington, but at an NSA facility in Hawaii (tough gig!), but he is otherwise highly typical of the new class of highly-paid security-state worker bees that litter the Beltway at firms like Booz Allen, which is headquartered in Northern Virginia. As the New York Times reports:

Edward J. Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, has become one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the United States almost exclusively by serving a single client: the government of the United States. … Booz Allen earned $1.3 billion, 23 percent of the company’s total revenue, from intelligence work during its most recent fiscal year.

The government has sharply increased spending on high-tech intelligence gathering since 2001, and both the Bush and Obama administrations have chosen to rely on private contractors like Booz Allen for much of the resulting work. Thousands of people formerly employed by the government, and still approved to deal with classified information, now do essentially the same work for private companies. … As evidence of the company’s close relationship with government, the Obama administration’s chief intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., is a former Booz Allen executive. The official who held that post in the Bush administration, John M. McConnell, now works for Booz Allen…

The company employs about 25,000 people, almost half of whom hold top secret security clearances, providing “access to information that would cause ‘exceptionally grave damage’ to national security if disclosed to the public,” according to a company securities filing. In January, Booz Allen announced that it was starting work on a new contract worth perhaps as much as $5.6 billion over five years to provide intelligence analysis services to the Defense Department…

There are two separate questions raised by all this. First, how it has come to be that so much of this sensitive work is being performed by private contractors who are earning far, far more than equivalent people in the government (Booz Allen’s CEO made between $3 million and $4 million the past few years). The answer to this question actually traces back to before 9/11 and the “Reinventing Government” efforts of the Clinton Administration, which, in the name of shrinking bureaucracy, drove a boom in outsourcing to private contractors.

The other question, though, is whether we need all these people doing all this work in any capacity, whether wearing a government or private-contractor cap. The post-9/11 security leviathan has all the markings of a self-justifying racket, which by the sheer relentlessness of its growth manages to conjure reminders of the threat that rationalizes said growth. Aside from occasional scrutiny like the Post series, this sprawl has been allowed to proceed untrammeled. So it is left to Snowden himself to call into question the purpose of his own well-remunerated, taxpayer-funded livelihood. As he told the Post:

“We managed to survive greater threats in our history … than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs. … Analysts (and government in general) aren’t bad guys, and they don’t want to think of themselves as such. …” But he said they labored under a false premise that “if a surveillance program produces information of value, it legitimizes it … In one step, we’ve managed to justify the operation of the Panopticon”—an 18th-century design by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham for comprehensive surveillance of a prison population.

But hey, it’s been great for Washington. If we’re in a Panopticon, the Beltway branch is a gilded one with granite countertops and an excellent restaurant or two just down the street.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlecMacGillis