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Overseeing Contractors

It’s good news that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have agreed that the armed forces will supervise all security contractors operating in Iraq, including those like Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and DynCorp that guard State Department officials. This is a welcome step toward achieving greater unity of command and making contractors more useful in aiding the overall coalition effort to stabilize Iraq.

Unfortunately, as this New York Times article points out,

the Defense Department has had its own difficulties controlling its nearly 130,000 contractors, who handle a variety of jobs including interrogations of prisoners and transportation of fuel and ammunition. Auditors have uncovered numerous instances of cost overruns, sloppy work, theft, and corruption in the tens of billions of dollars in logistics and reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

The core problem was laid out in July in this Washington Post article:

The Defense Department’s civilian acquisition workforce has shrunk by about 40 percent since the early 1990s and now has about 270,000 employees, according to Pentagon statistics and Government Accountability Office reports. Yet defense spending on service contracts increased 78 percent, to $151 billion, from 1996 to 2006, the reports said.

There are 7.5 million federal contractors, 1.5 million more than in 2002, without a corresponding increase in government officials to oversee them, said Paul C. Light, a public service professor at New York University.

There is nothing wrong with contracting per se, but there needs to be appropriate oversight, which, as these statistics suggest, has been lacking. The problems are compounded in Iraq, where it’s much harder for federal employees to get around, and which therefore gives contractors much greater leeway.

If the Defense Department is serious about overseeing Blackwater and other contractors, it will have to devote serious resources to the effort. As suggested by veteran contractor Malcolm Nance, the military may even have to set up a new Force Protection Command. While the Gates-Rice agreement is a step forward, the real test will be in implementation.


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