Reining In Contractors

The prison scandal in Iraq raises questions about contractor oversight.

When Congress learned that private contractors were implicated in the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, legislators turned to the Pentagon for answers: Why was the military using contract interrogators to question Iraqi prisoners? Could contractors be prosecuted in U.S. courts? And, as Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, asked at a May 11 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, is any government agency responsible for keeping tabs on all the contractors working in Iraq? Army Maj. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of intelligence on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted he didn't know.

As the scandal unfolded, other answers were hard to come by. It took days for the Pentagon to pinpoint which unit oversaw a contract with CACI International Inc., a technology and network services company based in Arlington, Va., to provide interrogators. The military's need for contract support-even for sensitive work such as security and intelligence-long has been obvious to private firms. For example, at the hearing, Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander admitted the service had only 540 active-duty interrogators. But far less obvious are the ways the Pentagon is acquiring such services and the rules under which contractors must operate.

To obtain interrogator services for Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq, for example, the Army used a contract intended for the purchase of information technology services. The procurement was performed on behalf of the Combined Joint Task Force-7, which at the time had operational control of troops in Iraq. The National Business Center, a fee-for-service procurement operation of the Interior Department, did the buying between August and December of 2003. The center had negotiated an open-ended purchase agreement against a pre-existing General Services Administration contract with Premier Technology Group Inc., a technology and intelligence services firm in Fairfax, Va. The procurement was conducted from the National Business Center's offices at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., which is also home to the Army's military intelligence school.

The contract provides a broad range of technology services, including programming, backup and security, maintenance, facility operations, computer-aided design and data conversion. It is a GSA information technology schedule contract, one of thousands awarded to companies GSA approves for use by government agencies. As the user of the schedule, the National Business Center had legal responsibility for the administration of the contract.

The contract first was awarded in 1998 to Premier Technology. CACI bought that company in May 2003 in order to obtain its expertise in "intelligence and military operations," according to Jack London, CACI's chairman and chief executive officer. For CJTF-7, the National Business Center used the contract to procure interrogators, intelligence support-which included intelligence gathering and data entry-and "screening cell support," which a center spokesman defined as "a screening program designed to clear a host country national for access to U.S. military host country base camps." CJTF-7 has been replaced by Multinational Force Iraq, which is responsible for strategic planning, and Multinational Corps Iraq, which is responsible for tactical operations.

The center's description of the work CACI performed shows only tenuous connections to technology. For instance, one order for "interrogator support," issued Aug. 14, 2003, specified "database entry" as part of the task. Workers defined as "intelligence advisers," "intelligence research clerks" and "intelligence and technical support" would gather intelligence and then "update various databases." While that order, worth about $20 million, involved technology devices, another order from Dec. 3, 2003, makes no mention of technology at all. The order for "HUMINT [human intelligence] augmentee contractors" called for employees to assist CJTF-7 and its brigades, and "in performance of HUMINT and counterintelligence missions in secure and fixed locations." A GSA spokeswoman confirmed that three intelligence and interrogator orders, collectively worth almost $45 million, were placed through the CACI schedule. GSA's inspector general has opened an inquiry into the orders.

For critics of Defense contracting, the lack of transparency created by third-party procurement is connected to a larger problem: the government's inability to oversee and regulate the swarms of contractors supporting the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq. "Pending a thorough investigation . . . all contracts with civilian firms for functions involving security, supervision and interrogation of prisoners, should be suspended," wrote Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., in a May 4 letter to President Bush. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pledged to develop rules governing contractors providing security, but it's unclear whether prisoner detention would be covered. Sixty security firms with 20,000 employees now operate in Iraq.

Defense is working on yet another set of rules for "contractors accompanying the force," such as Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the Houston-based oil industry giant. KBR and other logistics support firms have been mainstays since the early 1990s, but observers say more guidance is needed. "Well over a year ago we asked the department to take a look at this," says Allan Chvotkin, counsel for the Professional Services Council, which represents several contractors doing business in Iraq. Chvotkin says guidance on issues such as when contractors can carry weapons and how they interact with combatant commanders simply wasn't apparent before the 2003 war in Iraq.

But critics say Defense has done little to get a handle on its contractor workforce, despite repeated warnings that it was growing rapidly in size and importance without enough oversight. In a March 2002 memorandum, then-Army Secretary Thomas White said the service lacked data to eliminate "unnecessary, costly or unsuitable contracted work." He ordered the collection of data from Army contractors. More than two years later, the Army has yet to gather any data. "Most of the time . . . has involved compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act process," says an Army official.

As the line between contractors and soldiers blurs in Iraq, observers say the need for rules governing contractors is urgent. Says Dan Guttman, a contracting expert at Johns Hopkins University, "There has been a stunning failure to come to grips with the fundamental legal and policy issues raised by such extensive contracting."

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