One of the great staples of the modern Washington movie is the dark and ruthless corporation whose power extends into every cranny around the globe, whose technological expertise is without peer, whose secrets are unfathomable, whose riches defy calculation, and whose network of allies, in and out of government, is held together by webs of money, ambition, and fear. You've seen this movie a dozen times. Men in black coats step from limousines on wintry days and refer guardedly to unspeakable things. Surveillance cameras and eavesdropping devices are everywhere. Data scrolls across the movie screen in digital fonts. Computer keyboards clack softly. Seemingly honorable people at the summit of power—Cabinet secretaries, war heroes, presidents—turn out to be pathetic pawns of forces greater than anyone can imagine. And at the pinnacle of this dark and ruthless corporation is a relentless and well-tailored titan—omniscient, ironic, merciless—played by someone like Christopher Walken or Jon Voight.
To be sure, there isn't really such a corporation: the Omnivore Group, as it might be called. But if there were such a company—and, mind you, there isn't—it might look a lot like the largest government contractor you've never heard of: a company known simply by the nondescript initials SAIC (for Science Applications International Corporation), initials that are always spoken letter by letter rather than formed into a pronounceable acronym. SAIC maintains its headquarters in San Diego, but its center of gravity is in Washington, D.C. With a workforce of 44,000, it is the size of a full-fledged government agency—in fact, it is larger than the departments of Labor, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development combined. Its anonymous glass-and-steel Washington office—a gleaming corporate box like any other—lies in northern Virginia, not far from the headquarters of the C.I.A., whose byways it knows quite well. (More than half of SAIC's employees have security clearances.) SAIC has been awarded more individual government contracts than any other private company in America. The contracts number not in the dozens or scores or hundreds but in the thousands: SAIC currently holds some 9,000 active federal contracts in all. More than a hundred of them are worth upwards of $10 million apiece. Two of them are worth more than $1 billion. The company's annual revenues, almost all of which come from the federal government, approached $8 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, and they are continuing to climb. SAIC's goal is to reach as much as $12 billion in revenues by 2008. As for the financial yardstick that really gets Wall Street's attention—profitability—SAIC beats the S&P 500 average. Last year ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, posted a return on revenue of 11 percent. For SAIC the figure was 11.9 percent. If "contract backlog" is any measure—that is, contracts negotiated and pending—the future seems assured. The backlog stands at $13.6 billion. That's one and a half times more than the backlog at KBR Inc., a subsidiary of the far better known government contractor once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, the Halliburton Company.
It is a simple fact of life these days that, owing to a deliberate decision to downsize government, Washington can operate only by paying private companies to perform a wide range of functions. To get some idea of the scale: contractors absorb the taxes paid by everyone in America with incomes under $100,000. In other words, more than 90 percent of all taxpayers might as well remit everything they owe directly to SAIC or some other contractor rather than to the IRS. In Washington these companies go by the generic name "body shops"—they supply flesh-and-blood human beings to do the specialized work that government agencies no longer can. Often they do this work outside the public eye, and with little official oversight—even if it involves the most sensitive matters of national security. The Founding Fathers may have argued eloquently for a government of laws, not of men, but what we've got instead is a government of body shops.
The unhappy business practices of the past few years in Iraq—cost overruns, incompetence, and corruption on a pharaonic scale—have made the American public keenly aware of the activities of mega-contractors such as Halliburton and Bechtel. Although SAIC takes on government projects such as those pursued by contractors like these, it does not belong in exactly the same category. Halliburton and Bechtel supply the government's brawn. They pour concrete, roll out concertina wire, build infrastructure. They call on bullnecked men to provide protection.
In contrast, SAIC is a body shop in the brain business. It sells human beings who have a particular expertise—expertise about weapons, about homeland security, about surveillance, about computer systems, about "information dominance" and "information warfare." If the C.I.A. needs an outside expert to quietly check whether its employees are using their computers for personal business, it calls on SAIC. If the Immigration and Naturalization Service needs new record-keeping software, it calls on SAIC. Indeed, SAIC is willing to provide expertise about almost anything at all, if there happens to be a government contract out there to pay for it—as there almost always is. Whether SAIC actually possesses all the expertise that it sells is another story.
What everyone agrees on is this: No Washington contractor pursues government money with more ingenuity and perseverance than SAIC. No contractor seems to exploit conflicts of interest in Washington with more zeal. And no contractor cloaks its operations in greater secrecy. SAIC almost never touts its activities in public, preferring to stay well below the radar. An SAIC executive once gave a press interview and referred to the enterprise as a "stealth company," a characterization that is accurate and that has stuck. "Nobody knows who they are," says Glenn Grossenbacher, a Texas lawyer who has battled SAIC in court on a whistle-blowing case. "Everybody knows Northrop Grumman and G.E., but if you went out on the street and asked who the top 10 [defense] contractors are, I can guarantee you that SAIC would not be one of them."
Which is all the more remarkable in light of two developments. The first is a mounting collection of government audits and lawsuits brought by former employees for a variety of reasons, some of them personal and some coming under federal whistle-blower statutes. In a response to written queries, SAIC characterized itself as a "highly ethical company and responsible government contractor, committed to doing the right thing." But a review by Vanity Fair of thousands of pages of documents, including corporate e-mail messages, offers disturbing revelations about the company's inner workings, its culture, and its leadership.
The second development is that several of SAIC's biggest projects have turned out to be colossal failures, failures that have occurred very much in public.
One involves the National Security Agency, America's intelligence-gathering "electronic ear" and for many years SAIC's biggest customer. The volume of telephone, e-mail, and other electronic communications that the N.S.A. intercepts worldwide is so massive that the agency urgently needs a new computer system to store it, sort it, and give it meaning—otherwise it will keep missing clues like the Arabic message "Tomorrow is zero hour," intercepted the day before 9/11 but not translated until the day after. SAIC won the initial $280 million, 26-month contract to design and create this system, called Trailblazer. Four years and more than a billion dollars later, the effort has been abandoned. General Michael V. Hayden, the former head of the N.S.A. and now the director of the C.I.A., blamed the failure on "the fact we were trying to overachieve, we were throwing deep and we should have been throwing short passes." Happily for SAIC, it will get the chance for a comeback in the second half. The company has been awarded the contract for a revised Trailblazer program called ExecuteLocus. The contract is worth $361 million.
Another failed effort involves the F.B.I., which paid SAIC $124 million to bring the bureau, whose computer systems are among the most primitive in American law enforcement, into at least the late 20th century. The lack of information-sharing is one reason why the F.B.I. failed to realize that in the year leading up to 9/11 two of the future hijackers—including one with known "jihadist connections"—were actually living in the San Diego home of an F.B.I. informant. SAIC set to work on a system called the Virtual Case File. V.C.F. was supposed to become a central repository of data (wiretap transcripts, criminal records, financial transactions) from which all F.B.I. agents could draw. Three years and a million lines of garbled computer code later, V.C.F. has been written off by a global publication for technology professionals as "the most highly publicized software failure in history." The failure was due in part to the bureau's ever shifting directives, which points up the perverse nature of government-by-contract. When the government makes unrealistic demands, the contractors go along anyway: they are being paid not to resist but to comply. If it turns out they can't deliver, new contracts will simply be drawn up. Responding to questions about the F.B.I. project, the company conceded that "there were areas in which SAIC made mistakes, particularly where we failed to adequately communicate our concerns about the way the contract was being managed."
These and other SAIC activities would seem to be ripe targets for scrutiny by the new Democratic Congress. But don't be surprised if you hear nothing at all: SAIC's friends in Washington are everywhere, and play on all sides; the connections are tightly interlocked. To cite just one example: Robert M. Gates, the new secretary of defense, whose confirmation hearings lasted all of a day, is a former member of SAIC's board of directors. In recent years the company has obviously made many missteps, and yet SAIC's influence in Washington seems only to grow, impervious to business setbacks or even to a stunning breach of security.
Much to the embarrassment of a company entrusted with some of the nation's most precious secrets, its San Diego offices were mysteriously burgled in January of 2005. A censored San Diego police-department report reveals the basic outline. The report notes that the building "is patrolled by DOD certified security" and that "the interior lights are on motion sensors and would have been activated by the suspects." Nevertheless, burglars managed to break into SAIC's headquarters, pry open 13 private offices, and walk out with one desktop-computer hard drive and four laptops. By SAIC's account, the computers contained personal data on thousands of present and past employees, presumably including the company's many former C.I.A. operatives, N.S.A. executives, and Pentagon officials. To date, the burglary remains unsolved.
SAIC has displayed an uncanny ability to thrive in every conceivable political climate. It is the invisible hand behind a huge portion of the national-security state—the one sector of the government whose funds are limitless and whose continued growth is assured every time a politician utters the word "terrorism."
SAIC represents, in other words, a private business that has become a form of permanent government.
On the evening of January 17, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower came down from the White House living quarters to the Oval Office and delivered his last address to the American people as president. This was the famous speech in which he warned against the "disastrous rise of misplaced power" in the hands of what he called "the military-industrial complex"—the sturdy hybrid formed by crossbreeding American corporate interests with those of the Pentagon and the intelligence community.
As Eisenhower spoke, a quietly ambitious man on the other side of the country, John Robert Beyster, was going about his business as head of the accelerator-physics department at the General Atomic corporation, in La Jolla, California, one of many secretive companies that sprouted early in the atomic era. Beyster had grown up outside of Detroit, served in the navy during World War II, and earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Michigan before migrating to Southern California in the 1950s. He was a lanky and nerdy-looking technocrat, but the tortoiseshell glasses concealed a driven personality. Beyster believed that General Atomic didn't appreciate his ideas, and he began to lay plans. Within a decade of Eisenhower's farewell speech, Beyster would create an enterprise epitomizing the military-industrial complex that caused Eisenhower such dismay. Now, four decades later, that company epitomizes something beyond Eisenhower's worst nightmare—the "military-industrial-counterterrorism complex."
Science Applications International Corporation was born in February of 1969 in a stucco office building in La Jolla next to a ballet studio overlooking the Pacific. "I was not the brilliant, flash-of-inspiration type of entrepreneur," Beyster would later recall; rather, he was more a "persistent builder type." The name he decided on for his company, though brilliantly opaque, reflected an assumption that the real future of national defense—or, at any rate, the real future profits to be had from national defense—lay in science and technology, not in boots on the ground. And a lot of that scientific work would necessarily be analytical; it would be about thinking as much as about making. Beyster's very first government contract came from the Defense Atomic Support Agency: he was given the task of calculating "the output of nuclear devices."
Beyster understood that this particular moment of the American Century was the perfect time for shrewd consultants to get into the war business. The conflict in Vietnam was still raging, and the Cold War seemed to have become a permanent fixture of the geopolitical landscape. The Nixon administration was promoting a missile-defense system to protect its ICBM installations. Scientists were hard at work on a host of nuclear projects, including the fabled neutron bomb. Although computers had yet to revolutionize government and business, visionaries like Beyster could see that eventually they would, and so, for SAIC, computer systems represented another target of opportunity.
Joined by research scientists from General Atomic and elsewhere, Beyster developed a straightforward business plan. As he later explained it, "People who came into the company went out and got contracts." Everyone who worked for SAIC had to carry his own weight. You might have a Ph.D. in physics or applied mathematics, but at SAIC your job fundamentally was to sell your high-tech ideas and blue-chip expertise to the army, navy, air force, C.I.A., N.S.A., Atomic Energy Commission, and any other government agency with money to spend and an impulse to buy. Contracts were everything. There is much to be said for SAIC's approach: in its four decades of existence, the company has turned a profit every single year.
Beyster aggressively packed his company with former generals, admirals, diplomats, spies, and Cabinet officers of every kind to fill the company's board of directors and the upper echelons of its staff. These were the kinds of people who would always have easy access to the agencies they had left behind—and who someday might even go back into government. To be sure, every Beltway defense contractor tries to bring retired generals and admirals into the fold, but Beyster offered an incentive that others couldn't match: an internal stock-ownership program, which promised to make government officials rich after they left public service. The stock-ownership program would eventually be expanded to include everyone on the company's payroll, but it began as Beyster's way of rewarding favored executives and board members, whose identities were kept secret. A lucky recipient would learn of his good fortune when a messenger appeared in his office carrying a plain brown envelope containing a newly minted stock certificate.
SAIC had its own brokerage subsidiary, licensed by the S.E.C., a kind of in-house Merrill Lynch called Bull, Inc. The name accurately predicted the stock's vitality. Beyster and his board managed every aspect of the stock—the number of shares, who received them, and, most important, the price. Unlike on Wall Street, where individual stock prices go up and down, the SAIC stock price, controlled by Beyster and his board, usually moved in one direction only: up. The more contracts you landed, the more stock you received. Even if you stayed at SAIC for only a short time, you could in the long run earn a lot of money. And if you left SAIC to go back into government service, you had considerable incentive to keep SAIC's continuing good fortunes in mind.
SAIC's internal stock market was instrumental in the company's early success. Peter Friesen, a San Diego attorney who has represented former SAIC employees in civil complaints against the company, says, "If you find somebody [in government] who wants a job with SAIC later, and he sees the steady rise in the stock price over the years and knows he can get a job with stock options and stock bonuses, then he's going to be sending business over to SAIC. And it worked."
SAIC opened its Washington office in 1970. Although San Diego would remain SAIC's home base, the workforce in the Washington area soon eclipsed the workforce everywhere else. To ensure support on Capitol Hill, corporate outposts were prominently set up in key congressional districts. Meanwhile, scores of influential members of the national-security establishment clambered onto SAIC's payroll, among them John M. Deutch, undersecretary of energy under President Jimmy Carter and C.I.A. director under President Bill Clinton; Rear Admiral William F. Raborn, who headed development of the Polaris submarine; and Rear Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who served variously as director of the National Security Agency, deputy director of the C.I.A., and vice director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
SAIC's relative anonymity has allowed large numbers of its executives to circulate freely between the company and the dozen or so government agencies it cares about. William B. Black Jr., who retired from the N.S.A. in 1997 after a 38-year career to become a vice president at SAIC, returned to the N.S.A. in 2000. Two years later the agency awarded the Trailblazer contract to SAIC. Black managed the program. Donald Foley, a current SAIC director, came out of a top position at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon group responsible for developing new military technology. SAIC might as well operate an executive shuttle service between its McLean, Virginia, offices and the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the Pentagon, and the Department of Energy. Technically, federal ethics rules stipulate that former government officials must wait one year before contacting anyone in their former agencies. Sometimes they can't wait: Mark A. Boster left his job as a deputy assistant attorney general in 1999 to join SAIC, and was already calling Justice three months later on behalf of his new employers—a violation of federal law. Boster paid $30,000 in a civil settlement.