In the last, fading days of February, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told cadets at West Point that America would be wise to avoid wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The secretary, who steps down this year, paraphrased Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who said that any president who sent an American land army into Asia or the Middle East "should have his head examined."
Gates was surprisingly blunt, and he may have hit a nerve with former President George W. Bush, but he went even further. Iraq and Afghanistan had been labeled the "captains' wars," he said, because "officers of lower and lower rank were put in the position of making decisions of higher and higher degrees of consequence and complexity."
While Gates' insight was significant, he missed an equally important phenomenon, what we might call the "colonels' conversations." These career officers were concerned over the privatization of the military, a boom industry that was having an enormous impact on war fighting, especially on the ground.
So quickly have logistics and security companies swept onto the battlefield that the government and the armed services have lost control over them. These private contractors, so necessary for the professional military to sustain combat, have also made it easier for America's leaders to pull the war trigger, the colonels say, and to do it without having to have their policies — or their heads — examined.
The privatization of warfare has grown by strides in Iraq and Afghanistan. The days of K.P. and "Sad Sack" have gone the way of the WWII generation. Without private contractors, the military could not gas up their Humvees, sit down to dinner or even stock up on the ammunition needed to fight.
Military contractors work for all the services, but they have had the greatest impact on the Army.
As the military marked the eighth anniversary of the Iraq war this March, there is a new reality in the Pentagon. "We literally could not go to war today without [these contractors]," says Col. Kevin Farrell, chief of the military history program at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At this moment, there are more contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than there are uniformed soldiers.
Contractors are nothing new to the military, however. They've been around since the days of the American Revolution. The combat services have always required them for their expertise, "bending metal," as the Pentagon describes it: manufacturing tanks, planes and ships. Until the Iraq war, however, there was no doubt as to who called the shots, or who fired them. Over the Iraq decade, that distinction has blurred.
Congressional attempts to rein in contractors have met with mixed and sometimes bitter results. At a hearing in late February, former Congressman Chris Shays voiced his frustration. "For the 200,000 people employed by contractors to provide support and capability in Iraq and Afghanistan, accountability is too often absent, diluted, delayed or avoided."
Shays is co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, created by Congress in 2008. On paper at least, the CWC appears to be the rare Washington congressional commission with teeth. Unfortunately, the facts do not back up that bite. According to a statement on its own webpage, "The Commission has the authority ... to refer to the Attorney General any violation or potential violation of law it identifies in carrying out its duties."
This is the second part in a three-part look at the evolution of the American military:
Part II — A Professional Military and the Privatization of Warfare
Clark Irwin, the commission's director of communications, said the CWC has made "several referrals" to prosecutors and/or inspectors general. The results of the commission's investigations are unclear, however, and Irwin declined to say who had been referred to prosecutors, or even how many referrals had been made. "Details are for referees to discuss, if they choose to," he wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, Shays told the subcommittee that the contracting system was out of control. He charged that 90 percent of the private contracts awarded by the Pentagon had gone ahead without scrutiny. At a minimum, the Pentagon had failed to inquire about the capabilities and performance of the contractors it was hiring.
And many contractors resemble war profiteers: From 2007 to 2009, more than 200 contractors had made settlements over fraud charges while still being awarded $280 billion in new DOD contracts. To put that sum into perspective: $280 billion is roughly equal to the national gross domestic product of Denmark, and just behind that of Saudi Arabia.
If the Pentagon is remiss, the Justice Department appears to be in collusion, says the CWC. According to the Courthouse News Service, a media outlet that focuses on civil litigation, "Last spring the Oversight Committee wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder accusing the Justice Department of helping large contractors avoid getting blocked from conducting activities in Iraq and Afghanistan by awarding them settlements in civil and criminal cases. The [CWC] fears settlements are being used as a 'shield to foreclose other appropriate remedies such as suspension and disbarment.'"
In 2009, 65 percent of the contingency contractors, as they are broadly known, performed "base support," jobs like running the mess hall, the laundry and the PX. About 20 percent of contractors did translation, logistics, construction, etc. Roughly 12 to 15 percent of the contractor force, the so-called private security contractors (sometimes called private military contractors), protected American installations, such as the embassy, and guarded VIPs, mostly from the State Department. These highly paid security contractors came from all over the world — South Africa, El Salvador, Poland, Chile, Afghanistan, as well as the U.S.
It is the armed contractors who have made the biggest public impression. In 2004, the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings appeared on CNN's Larry King Live and reported, "There is a sort of second army of Americans out there now in the form of security personnel. ... A lot of them look like they came out of a Sylvester Stallone movie."
While contractors make war-fighting possible, they have been known to seriously complicate the military's mission. As The New York Times wrote in its release of the WikiLeaks documents, in its "War Logs" series: "The military was often outright hostile to contractors for being amateurish, overpaid and, often, trigger-happy."
The Congressional Research Service came to the same conclusion on its own in a February report this year. Paraphrasing the Army's own field manual, the report said, "... one of the fundamental tenets of counterinsurgency operations-such as those undertaken in Afghanistan and Iraq-is to establish and maintain security while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Abuses by security forces ... can be a major escalating factor in insurgencies."
Farrell, the West Point historian, served in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he commanded about 1,000 men in dangerous East Baghdad. "While I was in Iraq, instances were reported where contractors shot at civilians. Then off they would go. Our soldiers did not know who they were, and the military was left to pick up the pieces." Invariably, it is the military that takes the blame from Iraqis for the actions of these private armies.
What most rankles the colonels is that contractors have only one obligation: to fulfill their contract. They answer to no chain of command; they are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice; they are not required to have U.S. military training; and they are not subject to the Law of Land Warfare or the Geneva Conventions. Contractors decide on their own rules of engagement. Those security contractors who work for "U.S. agencies" or the State Department, which will soon be taking over control of security in Iraq, are immunized from Iraqi laws, and potentially U.S. law as well. Put another way, they have license to kill.
The situation was described last spring in a Legislation and Policy Brief prepared for the Pentagon. "A U.S.-Iraq Withdrawal Agreement that went into effect in January 2009 ... gave Iraq primary jurisdiction over DOD contractors and their employees."
The withdrawal agreement was a remedy in name only. The reality is that not every armed individual in Iraq works for the Defense Department — most work for the State Department.
"It is unclear," the report continued, "how [these laws apply] to contractors employed by the [State Department] and other U.S. agencies." The Center for Public Integrity, a think tank for investigative journalists, maintains a database of 150 such organizations.
Two of the largest battles of the Iraq war, which took place in Fallujah, a city of nearly half a million, occurred in part because four well-armed security contractors — who had been warned not to drive through the heart of the big city — proceeded into a no-go conflict zone and were murdered. They were on their way to deliver catering supplies.
The security contractors who were from the now infamous Blackwater USA (renamed Xe Services LLC), a private military company, were ambushed as they slowed at an intersection. A frenzied crowd then pulled the dead and wounded contractors from their vehicles and tore their bodies apart, set them on fire and hung their remains from a bridge over the Tigris.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to the Blackwater murders by calling for a "specific and overwhelming attack." Four days later, American Marines launched a full-scale invasion of Fallujah. They were only partially successful. Five months later, the Marines re-entered the city for what became known as the second battle of Fallujah. The city once known for its Mosques was left in ruins.
"We've opened a Pandora's box" with security contractors, says T.X. Hammes, a retired Army colonel and a senior fellow in the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University in the Pentagon. "We have no way to control them. We don't even have any rules for them. You can't even ask about their resources, because they're private companies signing private contracts."
And it's not that the Pentagon didn't try. In the wake of Fallujah, the U.S. military opened "reconstruction operations centers" and later "contractor operations centers" to keep tabs on contractors in Iraq's war zones. And contractors themselves, through organizations like the British Association of Private Security Companies or the International Peace Operations Association, drafted high-minded codes of conduct.
"It is still important to ensure that the PMSCs do not interfere with the efforts of the military to conduct their operations, whether they are fighting a full-scale war, conducting counterinsurgency operations or executing a peacekeeping mission," intelligence consultant David Strachan-Morris wrote in a 2011 paper, "Controlling the Corporate Warrior in Iraq." He added, tellingly, "... but arguably it is too late to do this when the unit has arrived in country."
Three years after Fallujah, Blackwater operators opened fire on allegedly unarmed civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing 17. The case was dropped in U.S. District Court on a technicality, in January 2010, but the Justice Department has been working to have the case reinstated. Blackwater responded to the Nisour massacre by changing its name to Xe Services. Its founder Eric Prince resigned as CEO in 2009 and moved his family and residence from the U.S. to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has no extradition treaty with the U.S.
Prince recently sold the company when the Iraqi government refused to renew its operating license and the State Department stopped awarding it contracts. A lead investor in the $200 million Blackwater buyout was Jason DeYonker, who had helped Prince create Blackwater's original business plan, negotiated its first government contracts and managed Eric Prince's family fortune from 1998 to 2002.
The State Department awarded the lion's share of Blackwater's security contract, worth $977 million, to Triple Canopy, a private security firm. It shared an unspecified portion of the contract with another security company, DynCorp. The company has been charged with fraud over misappropriated funds and, as author David Isenberg notes, repeated instances of underage sexual shenanigans. The company would not comment on ongoing cases.
Triple Canopy's most visible and important job was guarding the U.S. embassy, a compound as large as Vatican City, from 2005 to 2009, earning $438 million. More than 90 percent of the company's 1,800 employees are from Uganda and Peru and are paid $100 to $250 a week.
Triple Canopy's public relations firm, The Washington Media Group, advertises that its "...award-winning ex-journalists spent years producing hard-nosed disruptive stories that changed history...." A spokesman from the firm declined to comment on the record about the security company's employee relations.
Both DynCorp and Triple Canopy will figure large in Iraq's history this December when the U.S. Army fulfills its security agreement between Baghdad and Washington and marches home. In effect they will exchange jobs with the Army, taking on the role of securing U.S. interests in Iraq for the State Department. Now, it is America's private armies who are becoming the tip of the spear.
Privatizing war has proven profitable for contractors. Though figures vary widely depending on who's calculating, contractors were paid $100 billion between 2003 to mid-2008, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. Meanwhile, there have been Pentagon estimates that as much as $10 billion has gone missing or has been misspent by contractors in Iraq, which represents one taxpayer dollar vanished for every $10 contracted, according to Peter Singer, who studies contingency contractors at the Brookings Institution.
It is important to understand that finding consistent and reliable figures for the actual number of contractors in the field, the sums spent on contractors, their profits or their frauds is nearly impossible. There are no reporting standards and no common measures. As a result, the Three Horsemen of Fraud, Waste and Abuse have run rampant.
"No one asks the tough questions about privatizing the war," says Dr. Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, and the author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. "There's a general understanding that the reliance on contractors has cost tons of money but that realization hasn't translated into any serious reconsideration in practice. It's just the easiest way to solve the problem."
Do contractors provide value for the dollar? Do they create the promised economies and savings to the government that made them attractive in the first place? Simply put, are contractors cheaper?
An early study by the Congressional Budget Office in 2005 found that over a 20-year period that it would cost 90 percent more to use U.S. military personnel in these security roles than private contractors.
In 2010, a different agency, the Government Accountability Office, tried to make a more apples-to-apples comparison. The agency studied security costs for protecting State Department employees in the "Baghdad area." Their projections compared the cost of hiring contractors against the cost of using the State Department personnel to do the same job. GAO found that, "Using contractors in Iraq is less costly than the estimated cost for using State Department employees [for security] for four of the five cases we reviewed."
Contractors are not only cheaper, but they can be hired and fired according to a federal agency's needs, and that makes them appealing. Unfortunately, along with the contractor's value comes the corruption.
Robert Bauman, a 24-year veteran in defense department criminal investigations, blames the military's revolving door for the flow of cash. "The system is so complex, I don't think that the Pentagon's contract administrators, auditors, even their investigators, understand the process. That's because there's a huge revolving door, and the most experienced people who once worked for the Defense Department now work for the contractors, so they're able to game the system and to literally take over the process."
The upshot? "Our commanders have lost control of military logistics."
There is, however, a logic to this abandonment of the military's logistical monopoly. "We have highly educated, highly trained troops that have specialized skill sets and operate sophisticated equipment," says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington. "It's simply not cost effective to have them do basic skills like cleaning and food services."
Harrison's view might lead one to believe that fielding contractors was the result of a logical and systematic decision-making process. It was not. Rather, it was an incremental process that ran out of control in Iraq, where the use of contractors became a necessity.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush administration's secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006, had final responsibility for planning the Iraq invasion. He called on the military to bring down Iraq with a lightning campaign of "shock and awe." That meant a small invading army of 135,000 U.S. soldiers.
As the thunder went out of Rumsfeld's lightning war, and a long and brutal insurgency set in, Rumsfeld avoided congressional deliberations and public scrutiny by turning to contractors in order to free troops for battlefield action. More than anything, it was this decision that gave birth to the privatization of the military. Eventually, more than 200,000 contractors would be used to support American combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This July, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan will issue its final report on the privatization of military services. Created under the defense appropriation bill in 2008, the commission has already issued six reports, including two interim reports, held 21 hearings, including 708 meetings and briefings since September 2008. Contractors have proven to be a difficult, moving target for the commission and the situation is about to get far worse.
This coming December, the most dramatic change in U.S.-Iraqi relations since the invasion must be completed, according to a security agreement signed by Washington and Baghdad. U.S. military forces must haul down the flag. They will leave Iraq behind and hand over responsibility to the State Department to train and secure the emerging Iraqi government.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki thinks his government is ready for the transition. In talks with Republican Majority Leader John Boehner, he praised his nation's U.S.-trained security forces, and said they were loyal and ready.
The Iraqis might be ready, but the U.S. is not. In an early March press release, the commission made it clear that the State Department just wasn't ready for the big change. "Very little time remains for State to develop requirements, conduct negotiations and award competitive contracts for work that must begin at once."
On March 2, a still and cloudy day in the nation's capital, the suits and ties representing the Congress and the State Department gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Testifying before the Committee on Oversight & Reform subcommittee on National Security, Bush administration appointee, Grant S. Green, a former undersecretary of state for management and one of eight commissioners overseeing the CWC, did not sound like a man tangled in a bureaucracy. In fact, he was unexpectedly direct.
Green told the subcommittee chairman, Darrell Issa, that the key question was readiness.
He then responded. "The short answer is 'no,'" Green said, "and the short reason for that answer is that establishing and sustaining an expanded U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq will require State to take on thousands of additional contractor employees that it has neither funds to pay nor resources to manage." The double-barreled question was whether Triple Canopy, DynCorp and the Iraqi armed services were ready to maintain order, and how safe will Americans be among the Iraqi people in January 2012, and the years after.
But what really worried Green were the reports coming out of the State Department last Christmas. In its First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, State acknowledged that contractors had become America's "default option," meaning that the nation's dependence on the privatization of the military in support of State Department operations had become standard operating procedure. This was good news for Triple Canopy, but cause for concern in Congress.
The review then admitted, "While the use of contracting has grown, the number of people trained in and responsible for contract management and oversight has languished."
But, later, in testimony before the subcommittee, the State Department seemed to be in denial about its own Quadrennial Review. It portrayed itself as prepared and confident in its role. Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, the man in charge of the transition, and the undersecretary for management at State, assured Issa the situation was under control. "...[W]e did not arrive at our decision to use contractors by default — it is a deliberately chosen strategy to address the transitory nature of our needs," he said. "Using contract support ... makes sense, as opposed to building up a more permanent, U.S. direct-hire staff."
But it was the highly regarded Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen Jr. who emerged as the arbitrator of opinion. Bowen oversees some $58 billion in contracts (an amount larger than New Zealand's total budget expenditures in 2008). He, too, wondered whether the State Department was ready to take on programs that had been run (more or less functionally) by the DOD.
Bowen was especially worried about what would happen to the State Department's position in Iraq when the people who had the agency's back, namely the U.S. Army, waved farewell. Then, too, there was the costly problem of contracts, including about $1 billion in the pipeline to continue building an Iraqi police force. Training costs had already swallowed $7 billion over the last seven years.
In essence, Bowen was talking about lives and treasure. The bill would come due in December of this year, as the occupation ended. By then, the Commission on Wartime Contracting will be shuttered, the last lights turned out. There was the chance that Iraq could become a political football in the spring's presidential primaries. Much will depend on Triple Canopy and DynCorp.
In the first weeks of April, Defense Secretary Gates traveled to Iraq to test the political climate on his own. He traveled mostly in the Kurdish, oil-rich north of the country, where demonstrations had been taking place since February. Arabs and Kurds are vying for power and threatening civil war. Gates was worried by what he saw. Though at a press conference he tried to finesse the problem: There was the possibility that the U.S. Army might slip the December deadline, he said. The secretary talked about maintaining U.S.troops in an "advise and assist role." He did not say for how long.
Gates' visit coincided with an annual April protest in Baghdad over the occupation. His comments were quickly answered by Muslim cleric Moktada al-Sadr. A spokesman for the cleric said that peaceful sit-ins will be organized to protest the continued American presence. Then, more ominously, he raised the threat that al-Sadr's militias would be called to action. The militias have fought American forces twice already. Al-Sadr's promise incited the cleric's followers, and even more protesters filled the streets.
The U.S. is finding it more complicated to leave Iraq than it was to invade it. The message coming from northern Iraq says that only U.S. troops can avoid a civil war. Two hundred miles to the south in Baghdad, an American presence threatens a renewed insurgency.
What does this dilemma for U.S. forces mean to the privatization of the military? The message seems clear. The private security companies make the process of diplomacy more difficult. Hired guns may provide security on the battlefield, but it still takes an army to keep the peace.