WASHINGTON — At the National Counterterrorism Center -- the agency created two years ago to prevent another attack like Sept. 11 -- more than half of the employees are not U.S. government analysts or terrorism experts. Instead, they are outside contractors.
At CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., senior officials say it is routine for career officers to look around the table during meetings on secret operations and be surrounded by so-called green-badgers -- nonagency employees who carry special-colored IDs.
Some of the work being outsourced is extremely sensitive. Abraxas Corp., a private company in McLean, Va., founded by a group of CIA veterans, devises "covers," or false identities, for an elite group of overseas case officers, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the arrangement.
Contractors also are turning up in increasing numbers in clandestine facilities around the world. At the CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistan, as many as three-quarters of those on hand since the Sept. 11 attacks have been contractors. In Baghdad, site of the agency's largest overseas presence, contractors have at times outnumbered full-time CIA employees, according to officials who have held senior positions in the station.
The post-9/11 period has brought sweeping changes to the U.S. intelligence community. Spy budgets have swelled by more than $10 billion a year, and agencies have seen their roles and authorities altered by legislation.
Largely because of the demands of the war on terrorism and the drawn-out conflict in Iraq, U.S. spy agencies have turned to unprecedented numbers of outside contractors to perform jobs once the domain of government-employed analysts and secret agents.
The proliferation of contractors has outstripped the intelligence community's ability to keep track of them.
Former intelligence officials said most U.S. spy agencies did not have even approximate counts of the numbers of contractors they were employing -- although several officials said the number at the CIA had nearly doubled in the last five years and now surpassed the full-time workforce of about 17,500. Often, the contract employees had previous ties to the agencies.
Concerned by the lack of data and direction, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte this year ordered a comprehensive study of the use of contractors.
Ronald Sanders, a senior intelligence official in charge of the examination, said that all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies had been instructed to turn over records on contractors, and that one focus of the study would be whether outsourcing highly sensitive jobs was appropriate.
"We have to come to some conclusion about what our core intelligence mission is and how many [full-time employees] it's going to take to accomplish that mission," Sanders said, adding that the growth in contracting over the last five years had been driven by necessity and was extremely haphazard.
"I wish I could tell you it's by design," he said. "But I think it's been by default."
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said that the reliance on contractors was so deep that agencies couldn't function without them.
"If you took away the contractor support, they'd have to put yellow tape around the building and close it down," said a former senior CIA official who was responsible for overseeing contracts before leaving the agency earlier this year.
This former official and more than a dozen other current and former U.S. intelligence officials interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of intelligence contracting work.
The use of outside firms has enabled spy agencies to tap a deep reservoir of talent during a period of unprecedented demand. Many of those hired have been retired case officers and analysts who were eager to contribute to the response to the Sept. 11 attacks and who have more expertise and operational experience than agency insiders. In fact, the CIA has created its own roster of retired case officers -- known as the "cadre" -- who are eligible to be hired as independent contractors for temporary assignments.
Even so, the trend has alarmed some intelligence professionals, who are concerned that using contractors to do spying work carries security risks and higher costs. They point to soaring profits being made by contracting firms, and a parade of veteran officers who have left intelligence agencies only to return with green badges and higher salaries.
Even those quick to praise the contributions of contractors express discomfort with the mercenary aspect of modern intelligence work.
"There's a commercial side to it that I frankly don't like," said James L. Pavitt, who retired in 2004 as head of the CIA's clandestine service. "I would much prefer to see staff case officers who are in the chain of command and making a day-in and day-out conscious decision as civil servants in the intelligence business."