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News Link • Military Industrial Complex

Shadow Elite: Selling Out Uncle Sam - The Collision of State & Private Power

• Janine R. Wedel and Linda Keenan
This is the fourth installment of a Shadow Elite series, investigating the game-changing effects of government contracting on the most vital government functions.

Forget the "United States of Tara". If you want to witness multiple personality disorder in action, look no further than the United States of America - the federal government workforce to be precise, which has become so thoroughly embedded with contractors that sometimes the workers themselves aren't sure who's a civil servant and who's a private hire. This intertwining of state and private power is happening at the lowest level government procurement office all the way up to Cabinet and Cabinet-level positions, creating not just operational ambiguity, and potential security lapses, but also conflicts of interest that may be near impossible to ferret out with current oversight tools.

A systemic transformation has taken place over the past decade and a half resulting in a "blended" workforce. Janine studied this development as part of her research for her book Shadow Elite and in a follow-on study (supported by the Ford Foundation), Selling Out Uncle Sam: How the Myth of Small Government Undermines National Security, which was just released. New forms of governing join together the state and the private, often most visibly in intelligence, military, and homeland security enterprises, where so much has taken place since 9/11. These forms are the body and soul of federal governing today--the system as it works in practice and the ground upon which any future changes will occur.

Contractor officials and employees are involved in all aspects of governing and negotiating "over policy making, implementation, and enforcement," as one legal scholar has noted. Yet contractors' imperatives are not necessarily the same as the government's imperatives. Contractor companies are responsible for making a profit for their shareholders; government is supposedly answerable to the public and the nation in a democracy.

Amid this environment complicated by mixed motives, new institutional forms of governing have gathered force as government and contractor officials interact (or don't) in the course of projects; as chains of command among contractors and the agencies they supposedly work for have become ever-more convoluted; as contractors perform inherently governmental functions beyond the capacity of government to manage them; and, as contractors standing in for government are not subject to the same rules that apply to government officials.

Contractors not only "work side by side and perform the same functions as their government counterparts," as the Government Accountability Office put it in a study of defense contracting, but "the line separating contractor from government employee is blurry." And contractors did not always identify themselves as such in the documents they prepared or when dealing with the public, the GAO learned. In some cases contractors were even specified on contract documents as the government's point of contact. "In situations such as these," the GAO concluded, "contractor employees may appear to be speaking for the government, a situation that could create the impression in the general public that they are government employees."

 

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