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The Murky World Of Contracting In Iraq

A U.S. civilian contractor working in Iraq.
by Laura Heaton
UPI Correspondent
Washington (UPI) Feb 08, 2007
The business of private contracting in the Iraq war came under scrutiny this week. And U.S. government officials responsible for oversight have been largely in the dark. The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, under the new chairmanship of Henry Waxman, D-Calif., held a series of hearings to examine "waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars."

"It's remarkable that the world of contractors and subcontractors is so murky that we can't even get to the bottom of this, let alone calculate how many millions of dollars taxpayers lose in each step of the subcontracting process. But the impacts of contracting waste go beyond just dollars and cents," Waxman said in his opening statement.

On Wednesday, the committee heard testimony from family members of four private contractors who were murdered in Fallujah in March 2004. Photos of their charred bodies hanging from a bridge shocked the U.S. public.

What were these men, so-called 'private contractors,' doing in an area of the country that the U.S. military would not venture? And what role do private contractors play in supporting the coalition forces in Iraq? How many private contractors are currently working in Iraq? To what extent does the U.S. government or military oversee the work of private contractors?

Wednesday's hearing produced few answers even to these questions.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., tried to discover from Tina Ballard, deputy assistant secretary for policy and procurement for the U.S. Army, how many private contractors are operating in Iraq now. He couldn't get a straight answer.

"Some reports have estimated that there are as many as 50,000 private security contractors in Iraq right now, but I have yet to see the data from the Defense Department. (...) Ms. Ballard, how many private security contractors are there in Iraq right now?" he asked.

Ballard replied: "Congressman, I can take that question for the record. I don't have that number. The security contractors on the ground aren't all for the Department of Defense. There are contractors on the ground providing security for other agencies, as well. So I'd have to take that question for the record. I don't have it for DOD or the total number."

Later, in response to the same question from Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., Ballard said, "Sir, that is a very broad question and I am unable to answer that question. It's a very complex situation on the ground. There are many organizations over there that may have private security contractors, and a lot of these security contracts are subcontracts under primes."

Analysts say the Pentagon has a record only of the prime contracts it issues. A prime contractor can hire out its work to however many sub-contractors it chooses. According to Ballard, the Department of Defense has not devised a system for tracking and verifying the work that tens of thousands of civilian contractors are doing inside Iraq.

In a lawsuit against Blackwater USA, the families of the contractors killed in Fallujah said negligence on the part of the company, including inadequate equipment and incomplete planning, caused the deaths.

Because of the ongoing lawsuits -- Blackwater also filed a counter suit against the firm representing the families -- Andrew Howell, the Blackwater representative at the hearings was hesitant to provide any details about the investigation into the Fallujah deaths.

Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, the mother of contractor Stephen Helvenston, said: "Blackwater has never denied that it was obligated to provide our men with the protections (the company had promised). More importantly, Blackwater has never denied that it did not provide our men with those protections. Instead, Blackwater has simply said that it can't be sued for its conduct, no matter how wrongful or malicious."

It was the first time many members of Congress had learned the way private contractors set their own rules in Iraq and lack basic accountability.

Official DOD records of U.S. casualties in Iraq do not even include casualties suffered by contractors.

"They're so insignificant; they don't even count," said Helvenston-Wettengel.

"We think that it's upwards of about 800, but we can't get an answer," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. She introduced legislation Wednesday that would require the Departments of Defense, State, Interior, and the U.S. Agency for International Development to submit information about contracts that exceed $5 million.

Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., told Wednesday's hearing: "I was always left with the feeling that our government would know who the contractors were ... who got a subcontract from a subcontractor. I just thought it would be intuitive that we would know how many people and so on."

"The fact that once the major contractor subcontracts, they don't care who's subcontracting, is of concern to me. And it tells me that we're not going to have good quality control and that we're going to have pretty serious mistakes," he said.

Source: United Press International

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