November 15, 2008 – The Obama administration should move away from using private contractors in active battle areas in Iraq and Afghanistan and dramatically step up oversight, a Washington think tank urged on Friday.
The U.S. military has long used private contractors in fighting its wars, but Washington’s reliance on non-uniformed civilians has sharply increased over the past five years, the New America Foundation said in a new report.
It said the ratio of military personnel to private contractors is now around one to one, and some experts believed there are more contractors than troops in Iraq, compared to 50 to one during the 1991 Gulf War, according to the report.
Experts say the number of contractors could rise further in coming years as the U.S. military reduces its presence in Iraq, and most agree that better oversight is long overdue.
After the Democrats took control of Congress two years ago, lawmakers worried by reports of corruption and other abuses began examining the use of private contractors in Iraq, including the Army’s use of a sole-source no-bid contract with KBR Inc, a former unit of Halliburton Co, which was once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.
The issue got even more attention in September 2007 after bodyguards from the U.S. security firm Blackwater Worldwide opened fire in a Baghdad traffic jam, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and wounding 24 more while escorting a convoy of U.S. diplomats under a contract with the State Department.
The guards from the North Carolina-based private security firm say they acted lawfully and fired in self-defense, but an Iraqi government investigation said there was no provocation. The U.S. government is still investigating.
Even critics of the Pentagon’s increased use of private contractors concede that the trend is unlikely to be reversed completely, but they are particularly concerned about the use of armed private contractors to protect military troops and equipment.
The New America Foundation cited what it called “a government-wide abdication of responsibility” in overseeing private contractors, holding them accountable, and integrating them into military planning and force structure discussions.
The group urged the new administration to expand current federal law to govern the actions of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, beef up training, and better vetting of non-U.S. employees hired by private contractors.
Congress should also identify “red-lined” activities, such as interrogation, that should not be outsourced, it said.
Blackwater founder and chief executive Erik Prince attended the group’s news conference, and briefly introduced himself, but declined to answer any questions on the issues.
Human Rights First, another nonprofit group, also blasted the U.S. government’s “broad failure” to oversee contractors and hold them accountable, saying it had hurt the United States’ reputation as a world leader.
Kevin Lanigan, director of the human rights group’s law and security program, said he was hopeful the new administration would address the issue quickly, given Barack Obama’s interest in contractor reforms during his time as a senator.
“We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but … a new administration provides us an opportunity” to quickly address some needed reforms, Lanigan said.
Tara Lee, an attorney and expert on national security law, also spoke at the news conference, defending the use of private contractors and noting that private companies often provided language skills and others services the military could not.
She warned that efforts to increase the liability of contractors in war zones could prompt companies to withdraw.
She said she was particularly troubled by a new agreement that would let Iraq prosecute not only defense contractors, but U.S. military personnel if they commit serious crimes in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month said the final draft agreement, which creates a legal basis for American troops to stay in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at the end of this year, would protect U.S. troops.