National Security

Published — May 5, 2004 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Early warning

The U.S. Army can hardly be surprised by its problems with contractors in Iraq

Introduction

One year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then-Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White informed a trio of top-level Department of Defense officials that the army lacked the basic information required to effectively manage its burgeoning force of private contractors.

In a memorandum dated March 8, 2002, White warned the under secretaries responsible for army contracting, personnel and finances that reductions in the service’s civilian and military work force, carried out over the previous 11 years, had been accompanied by an increased reliance on private contractors—a personnel shift, he noted, apparently done without adequate analysis. “Currently,” White admitted, “Army planners and programmers lack visibility at the Departmental level into the labor and costs associated with the contract work force and of the organizations and missions supported by them.”

The Defense Department’s increased reliance on civilian contractors in Iraq, tens of thousands of whom are now on the ground there, has been part of an unfolding scandal over inmate abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, 20 miles west of Baghdad. The role of private contractors in Iraq first earned widespread public attention over revelations about contracts awarded to Vice President Dick Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton. Last October, the Center for Public Integrity detailed for the first time the 70-plus companies and individuals awarded up to $8 billion in contracts for their work in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan. The Center report, Making a Killing: The Business of War, released in 2002, also documented the U.S. government’s increasing reliance on private military companies for much of its work.

“The emerging story of inadequate contractor oversight in Iraq was not merely predictable, but was effectively predicted,” says Dan Guttman, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Study of American Government. “As the secretary of the army’s memo illustrates, our highest-level officials are increasingly calling on contractors to perform sensitive national and homeland security missions, even as they admit that the government lacks the data and official resources needed to account for contractors who are increasingly performing even the most sensitive government work.”

The Defense Department has used private contractors in every major military action since the 1991 Gulf War—a policy that has earned mixed reviews from government auditors. In June 2003, for example, the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded in a report to Congress that while contractors may provide the military vital services, DoD could not “quantify the totality of support that contractors provide to deployed forces around the world…” Among GAO’s recommendations: that the Defense Department develop “comprehensive guidance and doctrine to help the services manage contractors’ supporting deployed forces.” A GAO report examining private contracting work now going on in Iraq is scheduled to be released later this month.

“Contractors have become a necessity in the performance of the most sensitive public work,” adds Guttman, an expert in government contracting and procurement processes, who also serves as a consultant to the Center for Public Integrity. “In reviewing the use of contractors in Iraq, the big picture is the current and admitted inadequacy of official resources to account for the contractor work force.”

White’s memorandum about the contractor work force was first disclosed in an April 2002 story on GovExec.com, in the context of the army’s decision to proceed ahead with a project to collect “information from its contractors, including how many hours their employees work and who their customers are within the army.”

The data system is currently under development. White, who resigned his post in April 2003, emphasized in his memo that a system which provides better visibility of the contractor work force “is essential to Army plans for expanded reliance on contractor support…”

“Contract support,” White’s memo concluded, “is not unlike all other processes—in order to manage it effectively, we must, first, have full visibility into it.”

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