Panel questions cost of contractors in war zones

Army Secretary Pete Geren disclosed Wednesday that there are 196,000 defense contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, a larger number than the 181,000 U.S. military forces there. The figure appeared to be the largest reported to date and prompted House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., to demand a detailed accounting of what they are doing and how much it is costing. "We really need to get our hands around this contractor issue," Murtha said during a hearing on the state of the Army. "This really worries me."

Geren disagreed with Murtha's view that contractors cost more than soldiers because they do not receive long-term benefits, such as retirement and health care. Geren said that because of personnel reductions, the military could not conduct extended combat deployments without contractors. And he conceded that the Army did not do a good job of managing the rapid growth in contracts for the war in Iraq, but has created a command in Kuwait to control them.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., who raised the contractor issue, said contract personnel were eating in taxpayer-funded facilities at a cost of $14,000 a person and demanded to know if that cost was deducted from the contractors' payments. Geren said he did not know but would provide an answer. Moran also tried to get Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, to comment on the opposition to a conflict with Iran that may have led to the sudden resignation Tuesday of Adm. William Fallon as head of U.S. Central Command. Casey praised Fallon but said the approach toward Iran was "very much in the policy realm" and was outside his job. When pressed by Moran, Casey said Iran "was being unhelpful" in its support of the insurgents in Iraq and that dealing with Tehran required "diplomacy as well as strength on our part."

During the hearing, Murtha urged Geren and Casey to provide updated information as soon as possible on what they need to conduct operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and to prepare for the future. Murtha said he wanted to mark up the fiscal 2009 Defense appropriations bill by May but expressed concern that Congress might not be able to approve the Pentagon funding measure this year, apparently because of the election-year shortened session.

"A [continuing resolution] is the worst thing we could do," because it would not allow them to put money where it was needed for the future, the chairman said. A continuing resolution normally continues current lines of spending without program adjustments. Defense and Homeland Security were the only stand-alone appropriations bills approved last year. Murtha also said he was worried that the large war-related supplemental funding packages would be reduced as troops levels drop in Iraq. "We have to speed up funding of new equipment. ... We're trying to get things moving before the money runs out."

Murtha said he was trying to get House leaders to move the remaining $105 billion in the fiscal 2008 war supplemental "sooner, rather than later." He thought the leadership was willing to do that, but they needed to get the latest Pentagon requirements. Geren said the Army needed to receive its share of the war emergency funds by May 30, or it would have trouble funding its operations. A top Army budget official said later there would be some modifications to the supplemental request but could not provide details until they were given to Congress.

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