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Contractors and 'Rent an Army' Print
February 14, 2007

Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, is now a billionaire, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot has reported. Prince is the founder and chairman of Blackwater USA, a private company that provides "security" in Iraq for the U.S. government.

This month, Blackwater, a little-known company with a sprawling headquarters and training facility in rural Moyock, N.C., was the focus of a hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Also on the agenda was an official of KBR, the largest company contracted by the U.S. government for construction work in Iraq. KBR, which is 80 percent owned by energy-services giant Halliburton, failed to account for $22.3 million that it was paid in 2004, an inspector general reported.

Private contractors constitute the second-largest force in Iraq. At last count, there were about 100,000 contractors in Iraq, nearly half of them working as private soldiers, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. Many are paid better than active-duty soldiers and are not counted in the official death count of U.S. troop totals.

It's encouraging that Congress is finally looking into Blackwater, KBR and the entire field of private contractors, which, collectively, have been paid billions of dollars since the Iraq war began.

The session is part of the hearings that the oversight committee will hold on the federal government's hiring of contractors, a process that investigators say is increasingly costly and lacks accountability.

The Bush administration has pushed to downsize government and, instead, contract with companies to provide services.

"This a 'rent an army' out there," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., during a confirmation hearing for Gen. George Casey, who was nominated for Army chief of staff after leaving Iraq.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, asked Casey if the jobs being farmed out to private contractors, "particularly the quasimilitary gunfighting tasks, were being performed by active-duty military soldiers in terms of cost and accountability?" Casey replied that is was "important that they are used for logistics-type skills and not necessarily the combat skills."

Proponents claim that contracting improves efficiency and saves money. That may be true in some cases, but the government investigators cite highly questionable expenditures and accounting practices.

The expenditures are not only questionable, but very expensive as well. Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, issued a report this month saying millions of tax dollars were misspent by DynCorp International, a Virginia-based war contractor.

Bowen said the State Department had paid $43.8 million for a residential camp for police training personnel outside of Baghdad's Adnan Palace grounds. It has been empty for months. More than $4 million of the money was used to buy 20 VIP trailers and an Olympic-size pool. The pool was never authorized by the United States and was ordered by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior.

Let the questioning begin. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the oversight committee, and others in Congress say they will insist on accountability from the federal government. It's about time.

Besides asking where the money went in Iraq, the committees should question the role security companies play. Also, the performance of U.S. officials in Iraq deserves scrutiny.

This month, former ambassador Paul Bremer, who ham-handedly led the reconstruction effort in Iraq during the first year of U.S. involvement, was asked what happened to up to $12 billion in Iraqi funds that he handed out in the days after the U.S. invasion.

There was little accounting, Bremer told Waxman's committee, because Iraq was "a cash economy."

That's ludicrous. Just because Iraqis had a rudimentary, war-torn economic system doesn't mean that U.S. officials should not have kept detailed spending records. That the government failed to do so should concern Congress and the American people.
 
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