President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and dozens of pundits reacted with outrage last week when a U.S. diplomatic convoy traveling through Gaza was hit by a bomb attack, claiming the lives of three security guards. What few bothered to mention was that the victims -- John Branchizio, Mark Parson, and John Linde, Jr. -- weren't U.S. soldiers or State Department staff. They were employees of Dyncorp, a Virginia-based defense contractor hired to provide security to U.S. diplomats in Israel.
State Department officials downplayed that fact after the attack, referring to the slain security men as "part of the Embassy and part of the team." Still, the attack in Gaza highlighted a growing trend in federal contracting -- Washington's reliance on "private military companies" to perform tasks once reserved for the military.
Dyncorp's contract in Israel is just one small part of a diverse portfolio that makes the Falls Church, Virginia company the tenth largest government contractor in the nation. Dyncorp is also busy in Iraq, training a new Iraqi police force, and in Afghanistan, providing security to President Hamid Karzai.
Washington has long outsourced work to private firms. What's new is the size and variety of contracts being doled out, particularly by the Pentagon. Private military companies now do more than simply build airplanes -- they maintain those planes on the battlefield and even fly them; construct detention camps in Guantanamo Bay, pilot armed reconnaissance planes and helicopter gunships to eradicate coca crops in Colombia; and operate the intelligence and communications systems at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado -- work that brings the various companies an estimated $100 billion a year.
That figure will have to be revised upward this year, thanks to the occupation of Iraq, which is proving a bonanza for U.S. private military companies like Dyncorp, Vinnell, and of course, Dick Cheney's Halliburton.
In the May/June issue of Mother Jones, reporter Barry Yeoman detailed the U.S. military's increasing use of private companies. Yeoman found that private military companies were playing a key role in preparing the war with Iraq, supplying essential support to military bases in the Gulf, operating mess halls and delivering meals, providing security and maintaining weapons systems. In an all-out war against Saddam Hussein, the military was expected to use as many as 20,000 private contractors in the Persian Gulf. That would be 1 civilian for every 10 soldiers -- a 10-fold increase over the first Gulf War."
And so it has proved. In late August the Washington Post reported that as much as one third of the monthly $3.9 billion cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq is going to independent contractors.
Proponents of military "outsourcing," like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, say using private contractors saves money and frees up the military to concentrate on its core mission. Critics say the use of private companies introduces a host of problems, stemming above all from the fact that private companies are not as accountable as military personnel. Operating outside the bounds of military command and justice, employees of private companies, if they feel an environment is too dangerous, are under no obligation to put themselves at risk. Hence the problem of "no-shows," already seen in Iraq.
In July, Lt. Gen. Charles S. Mahan Jr., the Army's top logistics officer, complained that many civilian contractors had refused to deploy to particularly dangerous parts of Iraq, meaning soldiers had to go without fresh food, showers, and toilets for months. ''We thought we could depend on industry to perform these kind of functions,'' Mahan said. But it got ''harder and harder to get [them] to go in harm's way.''
Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Association, the industry group for private military companies, says the problem of no-shows is overblown. " I'm sure there must be some no-shows," he says. "But I think this is a myth that's been built up. It's not a real issue; it's only an issue in the press. These are risky environments, but these guys are all former military, they know what they're getting into. They're getting paid to do this." And anyway, says Brooks, there are some jobs that are best left to the private sector. "The United States has the best military in the world, but they're not peacekeepers. It's a waste of talent to have these guys, say, guarding a museum. And it's demeaning to have soldiers, with all their training, cleaning toilets."
Hard information isn't easy to come by, but there's at least anecdotal evidence that private military companies are causing headaches in the field. "Iraq is a great illustration of the growth in the scope of activities of private contractors," says Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors, a book about private military companies. " Before the war, they were involved in training and war gaming. During the war they're involved in feeding, housing, maintaining weapons systems. In the post-Saddam occupation, their role is even greater. They're involved in training the police, paramilitary, army. How well are they performing? We honestly don't know, thanks to a lack of accountability and bad accounting. There's a lot of attention on the question of whether soldiers are getting proper support of the kind they got in the past. Soldiers are still eating MREs [meals ready to eat] months after the president declared victory."
It's not clear how the experience in Iraq will shape how the military use private contractors in other contexts in the future." In Iraq they planned for the best and the military is paying the price," says Singer of Brookings. "Look at other scenarios, like North Korea. Iraq is dangerous but you don't have massive casualty figures. If they're having issues with Iraq, maybe the military is getting overprivatized."
But some critics aren't at all optimistic that the correct lessons will be drawn. "I have no confidence that there'll be a reassessment based on the lessons of Iraq," says Deborah Avant, a professor at George Washington University and an expert on private military companies. "The administration is committed to a greater number of private contractors, civilianizing up to 250,000 jobs. The guys sitting there waiting for meals aren't the ones doing the reassessment."
Herewith an updated roster of the contracts awarded to U.S. private companies for work in Iraq:
Aecom Government Services Inc., a Los Angeles-based company, heads a joint venture company called Combat Support Associates, which employs 3,000 workers at Camp Doha, Qatar, a key staging area for the Iraq invasion.
DynCorp won a $50 million one-year contract to send 1,000 ex-cops and security guards to Iraq to help train a new police force. Only a few firms were allowed to bid for the contract. CNN reported that DynCorp's federal contracts in 2002 amounted to just over $2.1 billion, up $700 million from the previous year.
Halliburton, through its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, landed two contracts worth more than $1.7 billion under Operation Iraqi Freedom, for such services as building and managing military bases, providing logistical support for the 1,200 intelligence officers hunting Iraqi WMDs, delivering mail, producing millions of hot meals, and repairing oil-fields. Much of the money comes from an exclusive, no-bid contract. "Halliburton employees and contract personnel," reported the Washington Post in late August "have become an integral part of Army life in Iraq." And Forbes recently reported that "As U.S. involvement in Iraq grows longer and more expensive, Halliburton stands to reap bigger profits."
Vinnell, a subsidiary of Northrop Grummann, has been hired for $48 million to train the nucleus of a new Iraqi army.