Report Reveals Scope of Government Contracting

Thursday, 17 December 2009 12:11 By Yana Kunichoff, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Report Reveals Scope of Government Contracting
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: The Adventures of Kristin & Adam, The U.S. Army)

According to a new government report, more than 50 percent of the Department of Defense workforces are military contractors and the Obama administration's troop surge in Afghanistan is set to only increase these numbers.

The report, prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the investigative arm of Congress, and released Monday, highlights the internal dealings of the Defense Department with that of the 218,000 contractors, compared to 190,000 uniformed personnel, it employs, and the logistical and administrative issues inherent in dealing with a military campaign through outsourcing.

According to the CRS report, the 30,000 troop increase in Afghanistan is expected to require anywhere from 26,000 to 56,000 contractors as supporting staff.

The use of military contractors, individuals hired on a contractual basis to perform specified tasks, has been part of American military practice since the Revolutionary War, through the cold war and now into the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Since then, advances in warfare and technology have expanded the functions and responsibilities of contractors in military operations," and in December 2008, according to the CRS, Afghanistan reached a record high of contracted employees employed by the Department of Defense in "any conflict in the history of the United States."

The tasks of contractual employees are to "supply base support, construction, security and transportation," as long as none of these fall under the umbrella of "inherently governmental functions," according to the report.

However, the scope of contracting in the United States military has led many to question whether an expanded range of operations is avoidable in the military's current climate.

"It wouldn't surprise me," said Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, in an interview with the Nation  about the role of Blackwater, a contracting company, in Pakistan. "Because we've outsourced nearly everything,"

According to the report, military contractors currently make up 47 percent of the workforce in Iraq and 62 percent in Afghanistan. Though absolute levels of contracted employees have declined as troop levels in Iraq declined, the use of security contractors has increased by 38 percent.

Along with accountability for weapons and adequately training military outsource workers, the CRS report says additional pitfalls are possible because "local nationals may not draw a distinction between government contractors and the US military, and the abuses committed by contractors may strengthen anti-American insurgents."

The CRS report cited a comment made by Obama, a strong proponent of the troop surge which will bring the number of contracts up to at least 130,000 in Afghanistan, prior to his appointment as commander in chief: "We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds," he said, "when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors."

Contracting has come under heavy fire following a number of recent incidents. The shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater security guards, the role of contractors in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the confession by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, of his company's collaboration with the CIA in covert assassination operations, have all shown the dangers of contracting out. Halliburton, where Dick Cheney was chief executive, won many Defense Department contracts in Iraq.

According to Opensecrets.org, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have received $885,835 from foreign and defense policy contractors between 2005 and 2010, with Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) leading the group at $514, 034 and Bill Nelson following close behind with $107,427 received. McCain and Nelson did not respond to requests for comment.

For FY2007 and the first half of FY2008, the Department of Defense spent $30 billion on contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan - $25 billion to the former nation. Between 2003 and 2007, however, the CRS estimated that $76 billion was spent on contracts in the "Iraq theater," a geographical area comprising Iraq, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Also cited in the report is the frequent misapplication of contracting funds. "The Commission on Wartime Contracting ... reported that managerial shortages and limited oversight of contractors led to potentially unnecessary construction, such as the new $30 million dining facility to be completed a year before U.S. troops were required to leave Iraq, even though a then-recently upgraded dining facility was located nearby."

The issue of contractors has not escaped legislative scrutiny. The Senate Committees on Armed Services, Homeland Security and Government Affairs and the House Committees on Armed Services, Government Oversight and Government Reform and the Judiciary have all held hearings related to security contractors, which make up only 5-10 percent of the contractual workforce.

The report also said that an October 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office said that the Department of Defense's contractor reports were not routinely checked for accuracy or completeness.

In a press release about the Senate Armed Services Committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Bill for FY2009, the committee  set aside $21.6 million "for the Army Contracting Agency to improve acquisition planning, solicitation and negotiations."

The committee also said it now "prohibits contractor employees from conducting interrogation of detainees during or in the aftermath of hostilities. The provision has an effective date one year after the date of enforcement, to give the Department of Defense time to comply."

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Ad Hoc Committee on Contracting Oversight will hold a public hearing Thursday at 2:00 PM to examine the oversight of contracting in Afghanistan.

Yana Kunichoff

Yana Kunichoff is an assistant editor at Truthout.

Last modified on Thursday, 17 December 2009 14:52