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Data slim on security workers Print
GAO study sought of contractors

Barbara Barrett, Washington Correspondent - 28.4.2007

WASHINGTON - Four years after the invasion of Iraq, Congress still has been unable to grasp the scope of armed security contractors working in that country.
This week, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri and Rep. David Price of North Carolina, both Democrats, asked the Government Accountability Office to provide details on the use of private security contractors in Iraq.
Skelton and Price want to know how many such contractors are working there, for what purpose and under what legal authority. There has been little oversight over cost and operations so far.

According to earlier GAO reports, contractors often move into battle zones without the military's knowledge, and the military in turn has done little training for troops on how to deal with private contractors. There are an estimated tens of thousands of security contractors working in the country but no one has a true count.

"We've said all along that even a good description in this area has been very hard to come by," said Price, of Chapel Hill.

"The military and the other departments doing this contracting have, to say the least, not been transparent or accountable in their practice," Price said in an interview Friday. "It's high time Congress assert itself on this."

The request is part of an ongoing push by Price into the workings of security contractors. He has introduced a bill that would include private contractors in military law overseas, provide more transparency to Congress and improve coordination between contractors and the military.

Private security contractors perform a host of duties in Iraq. They guard dignitaries. They patrol the gates and perimeters of military bases. And they guard the other private contractors working on everything from food convoys to reconstruction crews.

Private contractors' work became known most vividly after an ambush in Fallujah of security contractors working for Blackwater USA of Moyock, N.C., in 2004. Blackwater is among the most well-known companies feeding armed security workers into Iraq, but there are many others.

"The real problem is the U.S. military is not large enough to perform all the tasks the military wants performed," said Steven Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University.

"Members of Congress have no idea whatsoever what's going on over there," Schooner said. "I think oversight is a huge issue."

Doug Brooks, director of the International Peace Operations Association, the trade group for security contractors, said coordination has improved in recent years. A command center in Baghdad has a map of private convoys moving through the country, for example.

He testified to Congress this week that companies' main problems were a revolving door of government contracting officers who make contract changes difficult.

Still, Brooks also welcomed a new GAO report and said that for the most part his group supports Price's bill.

Skelton was unavailable Friday for comment, but in a prepared statement he said a GAO review would "boost Congress' ability to provide thorough oversight to the billions being spent there."

Price, who has met in recent weeks with GAO officials about how the agency could best look at the problem, said a new study is just the beginning of more work that could lead to change.

"It lays the basis for a more full reform effort," Price said.
 
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