Contractors and Government: Till Death Do Them Part

by David Isenberg | March 30th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Increasingly one can’t go a day without reading more news about private military and security contractors. Actually, private military and security contractors (PMSC), a catch all phrase encompassing, broadly speaking, two categories – logistics workers and armed guards – is a bit of a misnomer, as in the United States context it generally refers to just those working under State or Defense Department contracts. But that excludes contractors working for the intelligence community, or Department of Homeland Security or numerous other departments and agencies. But for the sake of convenience, as it is such a widely sued and recognized phrase, I’ll continue to use it.

Whether one likes the idea of using PMSC or not the inescapable fact is that U.S. reliance on them has grown so much in the past few decades that trying to stop using them is literally impossible. They are now far too intertwined with the clients they work for to be removed. To attempt to do so would like the scene in the first Alien movie, where the crew of the Nostradamus attempt to remove the Alien creature from Executive Officer Kane after it attaches itself to its face.  And no, I’m not saying that PMCS are parasites.

But until that magical day comes when the country actually has a serious soul-searching discussion on whether it is in the U.S. interest to maintain a global military presence contractors are here to stay.  Put another way, to paraphrase the classic Spencer Tracy movie, it’s a mad, mad, contracting world now.

After years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan it is clear that use of PMSC only works well when the client, i.e., the U.S. government for the most part, is clear about its goals, knowledgeable about its contractors capabilities, and has the both the staff and resources to provide proper oversight and accountability of the contract.

To their credit both the U.S. government and even PMSC have taken steps in recent years to improve the status quo of oversight, including new Congressional subcommittees focusing on the issues to Special Inspector Generals for Iraq and Afghanistan Reconstruction.  Of course, given the fairly abysmal state of affairs back in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq almost anything would be an improvement.

As an Aviation Week blog post noted, “After eight years of war, the U.S. government is finally “starting to grapple with the issue of contractors in ways that they haven’t before. . . It’s a hell of a lot better than it was two years ago,” says Moshe Schwartz of the CRS [Congressional Research Service], who adds that the “Defense Dept. [is] improving, but they’ve still got issues.”

The question is whether it is enough. Progress is still spotty. Consider a the Commission on Wartime Contracting hearing held yesterday on rightsizing and managing contractors during the Iraq drawdown.

The government has requested the contracts withdraw at the same rate as troops pull out, but that has not been happening with contractors working for KBR, which has the largest contract with the Pentagon, including maintaining equipment and feeding troops, for $38 billion.

As Christopher Shays, Co-Chair of the Commission said in his opening statement, “The Department of Defense expects that contractor employees in Iraq will exceed 70,000 in August 2010. That would be about half the contractor count of January 2009 – but still nearly one and a half times the U.S. troop-strength target for August.” There are about 98,000 troops in Iraq, but that figure is expected to drop to 50,000 by August.

An audit found that most contractors working for Houston based KBR were sitting in Iraq with nothing to do and they were not coming home at the pace troops were.

“This DCAA audit stated that if this KBR contracting reduced their staffing levels to adequate that the government could save 193 million dollars,” said Commissioner Robert Henke, Wartime Contracting Commission.

The Army never formally responded to the audit. KBR responded that the government needs to speak with one voice and give them direction. It said it constantly warned the military about the lack of use of its services and has since come up with more cost saving methods.

Last Thursday a Mother Jones article noted:

It was just a single contract for a single job on a single base in Iraq. The Department of Defense agreed to pay the megacontractor KBR $5 million a year to repair tactical vehicles, from Humvees to big rigs, at Joint Base Balad, a large airfield and supply center north of Baghdad. Yet according to a new Pentagon report [PDF], what the military got was as many as 144 civilian mechanics, each doing as little as 43 minutes of work a month, with virtually no oversight. The report, issued March 3 by the DOD’s inspector general, found that between late 2008 and mid-2009, KBR performed less than 7 percent of the work it was expected to do, but still got paid in full.

This is not to pick on KBR because it could be right. Shays said:

KBR expects to have about 30,000 employees in Iraq by late summer of this year, compared to more than 60,000 in March 2009. But the planning to synchronize contractors’ drawdown with military needs does not appear to be as advanced as the military’s planning for removing its own personnel and property.

Part of the reason for that may be that the U.S. military has yet to make key decisions that will affect contractors’ drawdown plans. It appears the government is not giving contractors adequate guidance on events, dates, and requirements for them to trim or redeploy workforces appropriately.

Yesterday the Washington Post had an article on a Pentagon contract with Afghan contractors worth up to $360 million to transport U.S. military goods through some of the most insecure territory in Afghanistan. U.S. military officials say they are satisfied with the results, but they concede that they have little knowledge or control over where the money ends up.

According to senior Obama administration officials, some of it may be going to the Taliban, as part of a protection racket in which insurgents and local warlords are paid to allow the trucks unimpeded passage, often sending their own vehicles to accompany the convoys through their areas of control.

Last week it was reported that a DynCorp International executive says he was fired for complaining that the company charged the State Department millions of dollars for a database that did not exist. The 2004 contract awarded DynCorp $1 million to build a database of Americans trained in law enforcement who were willing to go to Afghanistan or Iraq at a moment’s notice, and $1 million a year to maintain it, Michael Riddle claims in Federal Court.

So,  like Felix and Oscar, the famed Odd Couple, government and contractors are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future but let’s hope that they can improve the quality of their relationship so they don’t have to start seeing a counselor; at least any more than they already are.


  1. J.William Mason wrote,

    Mr. Isenberg once again poses some cogent and critical questions about the efficacy of the U.S. government allowing private military and security contractors to develop extremely expensive, intricate, and perhaps, in some cases, unavoidable roles in combat (Iraq, Af-Pak, possibly Yemen and other places) and noncombat (Hurricane Katrina aftermath) zones. Too bad Democrats and Republican administrations have embraced this flawed “best practices” mantra to the extent that now world public opinion sees most of these contractors (unjustifiably in many cases, as I personally worked as a “contract” researcher for the U.S. Department of State a few years ago) as human rights abusers, and in some cases cold blooded murderers. Obviously the Nisoor Square September 16, 2007 incident in which dozens of innocent Iraqi civilians were indiscriminatley killed or wounded feeds into this. But David Isenberg, Jeremy Scahill and other scholars/researchers have found many more examples of similar contractor problems/abuses. And while 90 some percent of contractors are no doubt disciplined, well-intentioned employees, it is that small minority of “bad eggs” that justifies nevertheless much more government (including GAO) and even independent watchdog NGO-focused accountability and supervision of these contracts. A very challenging task indeed. Over the next few years, it would be prudent to increase legal and administrative accountability and focus on these firms while working hard to reduce the number and costs of such contracts. Waste, fraud, and abuse has always existed in a bureaucracy as big as the U.S. government, but overreliance on these firms only leads to more problems, public outcry, and legitimate concerns about the Big Picture (U.S. foreign and military policy as mandated, directed, and crafted by Congress and the Executive Branch without the addition of unconstitutional, extralegal “spin” by some unscrupulous representatives and leaders of private military and security companies). If we don’t rein in this problem now, we will probably regret it, sooner than later.

    Comment on March 30, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  2. Tommy Shook wrote,

    I read a lot about Private Military companies and most of the information is furnished by people who clearly have opinions but little facts of reality. Private Military companies afford the national leadership to say we only have 150,000 soldiers in country. They do not have to tell the world they have 150,000 civilians also. They don’t have the soldiers to put 300,000 in the country. When a civilian is killed or wounded the government has to say little about it. The cost of a soldier is many times that of a civilian. The number I see lately is a million dollars per year per soldier. A civilian performs the job much more efficiently at a fraction of the cost. Be honest, if you had a loved one in a war zone and he required a PSD team to protect him, who would you choose if given the choice; eight 18 to 22 year old soldiers or eight 40 year old former Green Berets, Rangers or SEALs with many years of experience in hostile areas to their credit. This is a no brainer folks. The government likes contractors because they get far more bang for their buck. Human rights issues, well there are thousands of missions carried out with no human rights issues. The reason the human rights issues get so much press is because that is what the press does.

    Comment on April 1, 2010 @ 12:28 am

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