Downsizing and Outsourcing, We've Sprung Pandora's Box

Commentary By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Sunday, June 27, 2004

orin Nelson has made a career of interrogating for Army intelligence. Nelson, 35, of Salt Lake City, questioned everyone from Warsaw Pact defectors during his eight years with the regular Army, to al-Qaida terrorists during his four years with the Utah National Guard.
    But he was neither Army nor National Guard at Abu Ghraib. He performed the same function, but he was there as an employee of CACI International Inc., an Arlington, Va.-based intelligence company that falls under the broad category of "private military firm," or PMF.
    Nelson's path to Iraq wasn't the exception. It's the norm. Today PMFs deploy an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 civilian contractors in Iraq. The Pentagon doesn't know the number. They perform all manner of mission-critical functions, from escorting convoys through war zones, to securing military installations, to body-guarding coalition leader Paul Bremer.
    When you hear on the nightly news that "we" are training a new Iraqi army, the "we" includes three private companies, at least one of which is staffed by retired Army officers.
    Which goes to show that these civilian contractors aren't mercenaries in the typical sense of the word. They may be "hired soldiers," but they aren't "soldiers for hire" with salable loyalties.
    "Private military employees often see their jobs as an extension of their public service in the military," writes Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution national security fellow.
    "They usually have a great deal of pride and patriotism in what they do," Singer writes, "(particularly in) Iraq, where many see themselves as playing a greater part in the war on terrorism."
    Which is not to say the money isn't sufficient to make a dangerous job attractive.
    The Pentagon fairly well kept its reliance on PMFs and their paramilitary forces off the radar until April, when four civilian contractors were murdered and dragged through the streets of Fallujah. Three of the four were ex-Army. The other was ex-Navy. They were working for Blackwater USA, a PMF that provides force protection in Iraq and weapons training for the U.S. military at its compound in North Carolina.
    No one argues the value of the contractors. They are critical to our success in Iraq. But the lines of command and control are still being drafted. Whether civilian employees must take orders from military commanders is an open-ended question. And when they decide they've had enough, as some have done, we've got a problem.
    Critics could find easy scapegoats in George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, whose administrations downsized the military by one-third since the 1991 Gulf War. But blame won't get the job done. There's a war on.
    And rather than rebuild the military to levels where it can execute the war itself, the George W. Bush administration has outsourced jobs that once were the exclusive domain of the U.S. armed forces. In Iraq, the Army has let 2,800 contracts valued at more than $11.7 billion to companies like Halliburton, which further outsources the jobs through subcontracts to the point where the Pentagon doesn't know exactly who is doing what.
    Evidently "we" have hired some onetime apartheid sympathizers from South Africa and some ex-Pinochet loyalists from Chile to help secure Iraqi oil fields. They've done a good job, but it makes one pause to wonder which "American values" we're hoping to export.
    Freakish as they are, the pictures aren't the most worrisome part of the story to come out of Abu Ghraib. Truly troubling is Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's finding that we incorporated "third country nationals" in the process of collecting intelligence information — information that could spell the difference between success and death on the battlefield.
    Not only is it a violation of Army regulations to put foreigners anywhere near the intelligence gathering operation; it's also patently insane.
    As Congress has turned on the light bulb in recent weeks, the Pentagon has argued that civilian contractors have been part of our military tradition since the birth of our nation.
    "Contractors ... have supported the military in every contingency since the Revolutionary War," acting Defense Undersecretary Michael W. Wynne told a House panel Thursday. "Gen. George Washington used contract civilian wagon drivers to haul supplies. Vendors followed Union troops and sold needed supplies to them during the Civil War.
    "By World War II," Wynne testified, "civilian workers ... provided support services in all theaters of war. In the Korean War, contractors provided services ranging from stevedoring, road and rail maintenance to transportation. By Vietnam, contractors (provided) construction, base operations, water and ground transportation, petroleum supply and maintenance/techincal support for high-technology systems. During the Gulf War, there were contractor employees deployed in support of U.S. forces providing maintenance for high-tech equipment in addition to water, food, construction and other services."
    Evidently the thinking is, the PMFs that have been helping to thwart attacks by Shiite insurgents on coalition headquarters in Najaf are the logical extension of George Washington's civilian wagon drivers.
    "Iraq is the first time (PMF employees) have played tactical roles alongside large numbers of U.S. troops in the field," Singer writes.
    In the 20th Century, when Boeing would deliver a bomber, it would "deliver" it. It would hand over the keys and kiss it good-bye. In the military of the 21st Century, when Lockheed delivers an Apache helicopter, it packages it with Lockheed employees like Paul Johnson to keep it in good working order.
    Appalling as it may be to Americans, the enemy doesn't — and in most cases probably can't — distinguish between our sworn military personnel and our civilian contract workers when it launches an assault or takes a hostage.
    Yet even as the Pentagon touts their importance, it refuses to treat the civilian workers as equals in one key area. The U.S. military death toll in Iraq stood at 847 on Friday, but we don't know how many civilian contractors have died in the performance of their official U.S. government duties. The Pentagon doesn't keep track.
    The Pentagon's guesstimate of civilian contractor deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan is 50 or 60, Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, a ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told me Thursday. Singer believes it's higher — "90 to 105, we think, plus 300 or 400 wounded," he told me, based on an assemblage of local news reports from the civilians' home towns.
    Ortiz said he and his colleagues will push for full casualty reporting, military and civilian, by the Pentagon. It's the right thing to do. Only then will we have a clearer picture of just who is fighting and dying for our country.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor.