Contracting may put feds in harm's way in Iraq

Wednesday - 5/26/2010, 11:42am EDT

Mike Thibault, Co-Chairman, Commission on Wartime Contracting

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

The co-chairman of the Commission on Wartime Contracting tells Federal News Radio, over-reliance on contractors in Iraq threatens both U.S. success there, and the safety of federal employees left behind as troops withdraw.

Mike Thibault just back from a 7-day tour. While there, the team's discussions with security officials from the Defense and State departments, members of the Iraqi government and security contractors centered on the drawdown of U.S. troops in the country and the use of contractors for mission critical tasks.

Thibault said the team's findings are a mixed bag.

The good news is the military planning for the military part of the drawdown, getting the soldiers out on schedule, appears somewhere between solid and exceptional. Really quite impressive.

But the contractor aspects were really lacking both in the private security as well as concern about planning for the drawdown and the use of contractors.

The difference, he said, is "the emphasis by the military is on the military and there's a different group that manages the contractors and the second group isn't doing that well."

The proliferation and the use of private security contractors is dramatically on the upswing because of the military already beginning to drawdown.

Most important from a security aspect, Thibault told the Federal Drive, "is proper authorization of the private security companies coming in." In short, after touring four forward bases, the team found three "significant areas of concern."

Thibault said at one base, there were 17 Iraqi national guards that had been posted for security that hadn't been vetted. At another base, a contracting company with hundreds of employees had been hired to protect the base and it hadn't been vetted.

The contractor company's president flew out from the United States, said Thibault, "and tried to talk the military into posting them anyway."

The problem, as he sees it, is contractors "don't get it."

The issue as we see it that's evolving is they have this expression "lowest price technically acceptable" contracting. Which means they sign find a general way they're technically acceptable, then they take the lowest priced contractor. And then these kinds of examples are starting to occur.

Fixed price/lowest price contracting "contributes to the issue," said Thibault.

Some members of the commission are beginning to question whether private security contractors in a situation like this should even be involved in protecting government employees. My sense is there's probably a middle ground which is best value. But there are some that would say the United States military doesn't have these kinds of problems because their people are all vetted through the process in which they joined the military and their training is without question.

When the military goes home, the State Department has begun planning for functions "that even contractors have never done."

One example of 14 Thibault said the commission came back with, is EOD, explosive ordinance disposal, support. "Who's going to do that? And the only one who could do it under the current arrangement is a contractor," while it's the military who has all the training. Contractors will now "have to catch up on the technology, probably try to find retired or existing military that will come work for them, and it doesn't make any sense at all."

Thibault said contractors will "get up to speed but it's going to take a lot of time and it's silly. Why would you do that? And should they be doing that? And that's the inherently governmental question. Should they be doing it. And under current planning, the military all goes home."