Armed contractors in firing line
By Pratap Chatterjee
WASHINGTON - A US Congress commission is to consider whether private
contractors such as Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, should be
allowed to continue to provide armed security for convoys, diplomatic and other
personnel, and military bases and other facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The
bi-partisan commission will over two days cross-examine 14 witnesses from
academia, government and the companies themselves.
"Some security tasks are so closely tied to government responsibilities, so
mission-critical, or so risky that they shouldn't be contracted out at all,"
says Christopher Shays, a former Republican member of congress from
Shays is the co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting (CWC), a body
created in early 2008 to investigate waste, fraud
and abuse in military contracting services in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The commission is expected to reveal results from a seven-day fact-finding trip
to Iraq last month in which spot checks on four military bases turned up a
contracting company hired to protect a military base that had not been vetted
even though they had dispatched hundreds of employees. At another base,
individual security guards were identified who had not undergone proper
The thorny question of what is "inherently governmental" and what can be turned
over to contractors was singled out for attention by President Barack Obama in
March 2009, when he ordered the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), a
department within the White House's Office of Management and Budget, to come up
with an answer.
By some estimates, as many as half the staff members at US government civilian
agencies are temporary and even long-term specialists from the private sector,
a trend that accelerated in the past decade. For example, a controversial
program known as A-76, begun by the administration of former president George W
Bush, forced selected government agencies to prove that they were more
efficient than the private sector or "outsource" the work.
The Pentagon caught the outsourcing bug when former defense secretary Donald
Rumsfeld ordered that the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 be conducted with no
more than 150,000 troops. Almost by default, the military turned over as much
as it possibly could to private contractors, with little guidance on how to do
Today, every US soldier deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is matched by at least
one civilian working for a private company. All told, about 239,451 contractors
work for the Pentagon in battle zones around the world - of which roughly one
in five is a US citizen, two out of five are from the country at war and the
remaining workers are from third countries, according to a census taken by the
Pentagon's Central Command in the first quarter of 2010.
While this workforce is mostly made up of legions of low paid workers from
South and Southeast Asia who do menial tasks such as cooking and cleaning up
after the troops, the protection of senior diplomats and supply convoys as well
as military bases and reconstruction projects is also handled by men (and a few
women) with guns who work for private companies with exotic names like Four
Horseman and Blue Hackle.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting estimates that 18,800 "private security
contractors" work in Iraq and some 23,700 in Afghanistan.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting public hearings on June 18 and 21 will
attempt to take a step back and ask some very basic questions about whether
using private armed security is a good idea at all or how it should be done
Some technical guidance has been forthcoming from the Obama administration. In
late March 2010, Daniel Gordon, the head of OFPP, issued a draft memo on
"inherently governmental activities" that suggested applying a "nature of the
function'' test to ask agencies to consider whether the direct exercise of
sovereign power is involved, that is, committing the government to a course of
Michael Thibault, the other co-chair of the commission and a former deputy
director of the Defense Contract Audit Agency, told Federal News Radio recently
that part of the problem is that the government has been hiring the "lowest
price technically acceptable" contracting.
Eventually, Thibault said, contractors will "get up to speed but it's going to
take a lot of time and it's silly. Why would you do that? And should they be
Others say that the problem is lack of proper regulation. "Armed private
security contractors always pose some risk to civilians but factors that
increase risk such as a more dangerous environment, jobs that require movement,
and poor oversight make the use of private security more suspect," said Deborah
Avant, a professor of political science at the University of California
(Irvine), and author of Private Security: The Market for Force, told
Inter Press Service.
Avant will be one of the six witnesses who will testify before the commission
on Friday together with Allison Stanger, professor of international politics
and economics at Middlebury College, Vermont, and author of One Nation Under
In a recent publication for the Washington, DC-based Center for a New American
Security, Stanger wrote: "We do not need in-sourcing; we need smart-sourcing
that can restore proper government oversight while harnessing the energy and
initiative of the private sector for the public good."
Also testifying will be John Nagl, a retired US Army officer who is best known
for his book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counter-insurgency Lessons from
Malaya and Vietnam.
Non-governmental expert Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on
Government Oversight, and two former government officials who now work in
private industry have also been invited to testify: Allan Burman, the former
administrator of OFPP who is now president of the Jefferson Solutions
consulting firm, and Stan Soloway, former US deputy under secretary of defense
for acquisition reform, who is now president of the Professional Services
Council, an industry lobby group.
On June 21, the Commission on Wartime Contracting will hear from government
officials on the same subject as well as representatives of four companies:
DynCorp International, Aegis Defense Services, Triple Canopy; and Torres
Advanced Enterprise Solutions.
(This article was produced in partnership with CorpWatch - www.corpwatch.org.