The missionary-bearing airplane that was shot down over Peru was first identified as suspicious by a crew of Central Intelligence Agency contract employees flying on an anti-drug surveillance mission. Why does the CIA have contract employees, and what do they do?
Hiring contract employees makes bureaucratic sense. It allows the CIA to expand its work force cheaply since contract employees don't get the health insurance or retirement benefits regular employees are entitled to. It also allows the agency the flexibility of hiring specialists in, say, aerial surveillance in the Amazon jungle without having to retain them after the mission ends. The CIA does not release a head count of its full-time or contract employees, but hiring contractors is a long-standing and widespread practice. Such temporary workers are often found in the field, particularly in programs to monitor drug trafficking abroad. But a contractor could be hired for more mundane work, such as providing foreign language translation at headquarters. Contractors can be detailed to work for the CIA from other organizations--for instance, employees of a company that has a contract with the agency to do surveillance work.
Contractors are supposed to go through security processing similar to that required of regular CIA employees. And like CIA employees, they are supposed to know only what they need to know about what they are working on. While the CIA has acknowledged the role of its contractors in the Peruvian missionary disaster, it usually does not comment on whether an individual--whether a contractor or a regular employee--is affiliated with the agency. Normally contractors are not supposed to reveal their connection, either. If someone is a CIA contract employee looking for drug traffickers in South America, it's not considered a good idea to announce that fact--particularly if the agency isn't providing health insurance.
Explainer thanks Melvin Goodman of the National War College and David Wise, author of Cassidy's Run: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas.