The unprecedented leak of top-secret documents by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden raises far-reaching questions about the government's rush to outsource intelligence work to contractors since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Never before have so many U.S. intelligence workers been hired so quickly, or been given access to secret government information through networked computers. In recent years, about one in four intelligence workers has been a contractor, and 70 percent or more of the intelligence community's secret budget has gone to private firms.
Booz Allen Hamilton, which hired the 29-year-old Snowden three months ago to work at the NSA, has been a leader among more than 1,900 firms that have supplied tens of thousands of intelligence analysts in recent years, including technologists and field spies.
But in the rush to fill jobs, the government has relied on faulty procedures to vet intelligence workers, documents and interviews show. At the same time, intelligence agencies have failed to hire enough in-house government workers to manage and oversee the contractors, contracting specialists said.
On Monday, lawmakers said they would be examining Snowden's hiring and the growing use of private companies for intelligence work.
"We'll be going over every inch of this," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who expects confidential briefings on the leak in the next few days.
Schiff said the committee long has worried about the cost of outsourcing but now would be examining the security risks more closely. "Now I think we'll be looking that through an entirely different lens," he said.
The reliance on contractors reflects a massive shift toward outsourcing over the past 15 years, in part because of cutbacks in the government agencies and commitment to smaller government by the George W. Bush administration.
Most of the work went to the largest contractors, including Booz Allen Hamilton, which had $5.8 billion in revenue last year. Almost all of Booz Allen's work was for the government, and nearly a quarter of that was for intelligence agencies.
By 2010, the overall intelligence budget had grown by 250 percent since 2000. Nowhere was the growth larger than at the NSA. The budget there doubled, as did the physical infrastructure. The hidden Fort Meade, Md., complex includes as much square footage as the Pentagon and is surrounded by 112 acres of parking lots, according to military construction documents filed with Howard County, Md. Ten thousand employees are to be added in the next 15 years, according to the plans.
Among the most aggressive, connected and successful contractors is Snowden's most recent employer, Booz Allen Hamilton.
The McLean-based Booz Allen has almost 25,000 employees and recorded $5.8 billion in revenue for its 2013 fiscal year, earning $219 million in profit.
A Booz Allen spokesman declined requests for interviews. In a statement Sunday, the company said: "Booz Allen can confirm that Edward Snowden, 29, has been an employee of our firm for less than 3 months, assigned to a team in Hawaii. News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm."