November 01, 2007

DOD to the Rescue!

Rough week. Not only has the State Department lost the talents of Karen Hughes, it also lost control over the security contracts to guard its diplomats and convoys. The New York Times says:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed to the measure at a lunch on Tuesday after weeks of tension between their departments over coordination of thousands of gun-carrying contractors operating in the chaos of Iraq.

Mr. Gates appears to have won the bureaucratic tug-of-war, which accelerated after a Sept. 16 shooting in central Baghdad involving guards in a Blackwater convoy who Iraqi investigators say killed 17 Iraqis. Military coordination of contractor convoys will include operations of not only Blackwater, formerly known as Blackwater USA, but also those of dozens of other private firms that guard American diplomats, aid workers and reconstruction crews.
What the article doesn't say is how control is being transferred and what, exactly, "military coordination" is going to actually mean. Prior to this announcement the (currently leader-less) State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security — which manages embassy security details all over the world, and which oversaw the Blackwater contract since control over the non-military aspects of the Iraq mission was transferred to State from Rumsfeld's CPA in 2004 — had already, in response to the Blackwater incident, proposed some fixes. They include the "establishment of a 'go team' of embassy security officials to 'proceed as soon as possible to the scene of any weapons discharge to gather information and material and provide an analysis of what happened and why, and prepare a report'", as well as "[a board to] review all incidents involving contractor use of deadly force, injury, death or serious property damage and recommend to the ambassador whether force was justified", among other ideas like cultural training and increased compensation for Iraqi families who suffer from contractors' mishaps. To what extent any of these measures will be implemented under the DOD's watch is not at all clear from the Times article. But R.J. Hillhouse at The Spy Who Billed Me reminds us that the Pentagon actually already has its own system for overseeing the activities of most of its contractors — which is, hire another contractor to do it for them:
Department of Defense security contractors are already coordinated through a single, DoD entity, the Regional Operations Centers which track movement of security convoys to make sure they and the military don't trip over one another. Most likely this existing mechanism will be expanded to monitor Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp convoys for the Department of State and this would raise some interesting questions since its known that BW and TC also provide security services to the CIA under this contract.

The US Regional Cooperation Offices are outsourced through a recently renewed $475 million contract to the British firm Aegis. Aegis is run by the infamous old-school mercenary, Tim Spicer.
I recommend reading the full Washington Post story linked in Hillhouse's post above, but essentially one of the responsibilities included in the Aegis contract is conducting regular threat briefings for and tracking the movement of DOD contractors. Why is the US military outsourcing the oversight of its outsourcing? Probably because the military's procurement and contracting officer corps is overstretched and under-prepared for the task at hand as it is:

An independent panel has sharply criticized the Army for failing to train enough experienced contracting officers, deploy them quickly to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan and ensure that they properly manage billions of dollars in contracts to supply American troops in the field, according to officials briefed on its findings.

In a wide-ranging report to be made public on Thursday, the panel said these and other shortcomings had contributed to an environment in Iraq and Kuwait that allowed waste, fraud and other corruption to take hold and flourish. ...

[T]he six-member panel, appointed in August by Army Secretary Pete Geren, levels a stinging indictment of how the Army oversees $4 billion a year in contracts for food, water, shelter and other supplies to sustain United States forces in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. The panel also blames senior Army leaders for not responding more swiftly to the problems, despite warning signs like severe shortages of contracting officers in the field. “The Iraq-Kuwait-Afghanistan contracting problems have created a crisis,” the report states.

Congress and investigating agencies like the Government Accountability Office have in recent months assailed the Army for what they have described as a war-zone procurement system in disarray. ...

The panel’s report, which runs about 100 pages including supporting documents, recommends increasing the number of Army contracting officers by about 25 percent, or 1,400, in coming years. It urges the department to improve training and to start young officers in the procurement corps soon after they join the Army, not after seven or eight years of other duties, as is common now.

The panel argues that the procurement corps, now dominated by civilians who balk at being sent to a war zone, must be trained to be an expeditionary force, just as Army combat forces train to deploy quickly for yearlong tours to Iraq,

I do think unity of effort is a key aspect of a counterinsurgency campaign (John Nagl makes points along these lines in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, as I recall), so to that extent having all the guns rolling under one command makes sense; and it's one of the realities of our day that the United States seems to increasingly hand these kinds of responsibilities to its military rather than its diplomatic services (on this subject see, among others, a recent WhirledView post, Andrew Bacevich's New American Militarism, and Dana Priest's The Mission). I agree with the Mountainrunner article I linked above that problems with Blackwater in Iraq really reflect more the failings of its contracting customer, which is to say the US State Department and more broadly the US government as a whole. If State doesn't recognize the damage being done to US-Iraqi relations by hard-rolling contractor convoys, it's really not Blackwater's business to hold back just for the sake of the broader national mission, which is not what they are being paid for, unless its client demand that of it. State and other US government agencies are presumably being paid to execute a coherent campaign to fight off the Iraqi insurgency and rebuild the country, and their failure to rein in contractors (potentially even when that means greater risk to US diplomats and others serving there) has been detrimental to our mission in Iraq. But it's pretty evident that the Pentagon has not exactly covered itself in glory in the area of contractor oversight either.

If Secretary Gates and General Petraeus are going to take their new power over State's security details and the recommendations of this contracting panel and try to forge some kind of coherent program of oversight for the many private firms to whom the US government has devolved portions of its responsibilities in Iraq, then maybe we will see a more coherent strategic effort. But switching one Department for another on Blackwater's billing invoices is not going to be enough.*

* Ok, possibly Blackwater still sends its bills to State under this new arrangement, I don't really know. Maybe they have direct deposit. It's mostly beside the point.


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