Guard work defies easy labels

The question of whether war zone private security is an inherently governmental function is not black and white, a panel of academics, federal watchdogs and industry officials testified on Friday. A host of factors, including cost, agency competency and risk, influence whether guard work is best left to federal employees, witnesses told the congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting.

The panelists agreed that while some private security work should be brought back in-house, labeling all the functions as inherently governmental -- and therefore prohibited from outsourcing -- would unnecessarily strip agencies of decision-making authority and create budgetary problems for the Obama administration.

"While there appears to be a rough consensus that there are some functions so intrinsic to the nature of American government that they should never be outsourced, there is little or no consensus about precisely what those functions are," said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.

In March, the Office of Management and Budget's procurement policy division published a proposal for drawing distinctions among functions that are inherently governmental, close to inherently governmental, or critical, and defined as jobs in which at least a portion of the work "must be reserved to federal employees in order to ensure the agency has sufficient internal capability to effectively perform and maintain control of its mission and operations." The draft regulation also asked for public comment on how to classify guard jobs.

Allan Burman, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and author of 1992 inherently governmental guidelines, argued it would be prudent to designate security as critical, allowing agencies to decide for themselves the best path forward based on internal capability and resources, while ensuring the work is subject to enhanced management oversight.

"There needs to be a judgment made rather than taking an all-encompassing position across the board saying 'this is or is not inherently governmental,'" said Burman, who now serves as president of the consultancy Jefferson Solutions.

At this point, the issue is little more than a theoretical exercise. More than 40,000 private security guards support U.S. operations in Southwest Asia, predominantly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Defense Department has acknowleged it does not have the personnel or the resources to perform these functions, including guarding convoys, embassies and personnel. The State Department's Diplomatic Service -- whose mission most closely mirrors that of private security contractors -- has even less capacity with fewer than 2,000 agents overseas.

"There was, and today still is, no realistic way for the U.S. or coalition forces to provide the necessary levels of force protection for the thousands of projects and tens of thousands of American, Iraqi, and third-country personnel performing the reconstruction and development missions," said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va., contractor trade association.

The witnesses fought back attempts from the commissioners to classify specific functions, such as convoys or personal security, as inherently governmental, preferring to implement a nuanced approach that bases the decision on a host of potential risk factors.

For example, Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College in Vermont, argued guards who protect personnel or convoys on the move are performing inherently governmental work, while those who are static could be contractors.

But Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a federal watchdog group, said the inherently governmental distinction should be based on whether there are laws in place to manage, oversee and punish private security contractors.

"Whether the security is mobile, static, or some other type shouldn't play a role," Brian said. "Providing security to government personnel, facilities and property in areas that are under the rule of law may be done by contractors. Providing such security in areas that are not under the rule of law may not."

Deborah Avant, a political science professor at the University of California, told the commission it should avoid simplistic definitions for inherently governmental that operate in a vacuum irrespective of real-word implications.

"Instead, this judgment should be made by examining the risk factors, including the threat environment, characteristics of the job and level of command and control, that elevate or lower the threat the service poses to private individuals, to the U.S. mission and policy, or to both," Avant said.

The commission's examination of security guards will continue on Monday, with witnesses from the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development expected to testify. A second panel will include executives from four private security firms.

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