Thursday, August 14, 2008

CBO: $100 Billion to contractors and no end in sight

War as waged by the bu$h administration is a for-profit affair, with one dollar in five going to "contractors" and the number of "contractors" in the war zones outnumber the number of American service personnel deployed to the conflict zone by tens of thousands
This reliance on outside contractors proportionally far outstrips their use in previous conflicts, and this reliance on private businesses to conduct warfare has led to overbilling, fraud, waste, abuse of the procurement process, shoddy work that has electrocuted soldiers in their showers, and uninhabitable buildings, including parts of the new US embassy in the green zone.

In addition, the reliance on armed security contractors has raised legal, ethical and political questions about the use of mercenaries and private armies - which by their very definition have an interest in continuing hostilities rather than working to bring them to an end - on the 21st century battlefield.

The report by the Congressional Budget Office found that between 2003 and 2007, the government awarded contracts in the Iraqi theater of operations totaling $85 billion dollars, or 20% of expenditures. By years end that total is on pace to exceed $100 Billion.

The CBO report released earlier this week provides rock-solid data for critics of the privatization of warfare, and for the first time it affixes a pricetag to mercenary expenditures.

The number of contractors operating in Iraq - over 180,000 - exceeds the number of American service personnel by tens of thousands and essentially amounts to a second, private, profit-driven army that outnumbers the real Army and faces little or no accountability. Instead, the actions of those mercenary forces are largely hidden from public view. Their roles and missions are unknown and even their casualties are concealed and glossed over. Through the use of private mercenary armies to supply meals and materiel, work as translators and drivers, construction workers, etc the DoD has been able to run a shell game and keep the numbers of military personnel artificially deflated and keeps discussion of conscription out of the public discourse.

The reliance on mercenaries to conduct the war has also raised the specter of political favoritism in the awarding of no-bid contracts. From the earliest days of the war, the administration was determined to keep actual troop levels down and one way to do that was by outsourcing operations to private companies - companies like Kellogg, Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton - the company that was run by Dick Cheney before he was vice president – and which almost immediately became the largest defense contractor operating in Iraq, currently employing at least 40,000 people in the conflict zone.

This is the first war that the United States has fought where so many of the people and resources involved aren’t part of the military, but from contractors,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting at the University of Baltimore Law School and a member of an independent commission created by Congress to study contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is unprecedented,” he added. “It was considered an all-out imperative by the administration to keep troop levels low, particularly in the beginning of the war, and one way that was done was to shift money and manpower to contractors. But that has exposed the military to greater risks from contractor waste and abuse.”

Dina L. Rasor, an author and independent expert on contracting fraud, said she believed that the $100 billion cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office might be low, since there were virtually no reliable audits of or controls on spending during the first years of the war. “It is a shocking number, but I still don’t think it is the full cost,” Ms. Rasor said. “I don’t think there have been any credible cost numbers for the Iraq war. There was so much money spent at the beginning of the war, and nobody knows where it went.”

One of the biggest problems with the Iraq misadventure was not only that so much work was outsourced, but in addition, no thought went into the execution or into strategic planning. There was no rhyme nor reason, no protocols to divide the tasks at hand into military and mercenary functions, nor to determine what tasks could be privatized without harming the military effort.

“These new numbers point to the overall question — when do you cross the line in terms of turning over too much of the public mission of defense to private firms,” said Peter Singer, a contracting specialist at the Brookings Institute. “There are some things that are appropriate for private companies to do, but others things that are not. But we don’t seem to have had a strategy for determining which was appropriate and which wasn’t. We have just handed over functions to contractors in a very haphazard way.”

For several years now I have been screaming that we need a reprise of the Truman Committee, empowered to prosecute and imprison, but I have, for the most part been that weird, wonky chick who reads the white papers and thinks too much. Well, finally I have some distinguished company - Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, said recently that outsourcing the war had raised so many unanswered questions that he is pushing for the creation of an oversight committee to review and audit contracts awarded to private companies operating in the war zone.

“The Truman Committee held 60 hearings on waste, fraud and abuse,” Mr. Dorgan said. “It’s unfathomable to me that we don’t have a bipartisan investigative committee on contracting in Iraq.”

Amen. It is unfathomable to me too, Senator.