WASHINGTON - Should private contractors like Blackwater be allowed to continue to provide armed security for convoys, diplomatic and other personnel, and military bases and other facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq? A bipartisan U.S. Congressional commission will spend two days cross-examining 14 witnesses from academia, government and the companies themselves to come up with an answer.
"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 Connecticut.
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 background checks.
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 U.S. government civilian agencies are temporary and even long- term specialists from the private sector, a trend that accelerated in the last decade. For example, a controversial programme 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 defence 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 so.
Today, every U.S soldier deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is matched by at least one civilian working for a private company. All told some 239,451 contractors work for the Pentagon in battle zones around the world - of which roughly one in five is a U.S. 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 like 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.
All told the Commission on Wartime Contracting estimates that 18,800 "private security contractors" work in Iraq and some 23,700 in Afghanistan.
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The Commission on Wartime Contracting public hearings on Jun. 18 and 21 will attempt to take a step back and ask some very basic questions about whether or not using private armed security is a good idea at all or how it should be done better.
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, i.e., committing the government to a course of action.
Michael Thibault, the other co-chair of the commission and a former deputy director of the Defence 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 doing that?"
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," Dr. Deborah Avant, a professor of political science at the University of California (Irvine), and author of "Private Security: The Market for Force", told IPS.
Avant will be one of the six witnesses who will testify before the commission on Friday together with Dr. Allison Stanger, professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College, Vermont, and author of "One Nation Under Contract".
In a recent publication for the Washington, DC-based Centre 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 U.S. Army officer who is best known for his book "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency 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 U.S. deputy under-secretary of defence for acquisition reform, who is now president of the Professional Services Council, an industry lobby group.
On Jun. 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 Defence Services, Triple Canopy; and Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions.