Wasteful spending on the front lines

Now that the Commission on Wartime Contracting has delivered its final report, lawmakers and policy wonks are trying to figure out what to do with the information. Immediate reactions ranged from puzzlement to disgust.

The report, released Aug. 31, says the government has lost at least $30 billion and possibly as much as $60 billion to the unholy trinity of waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The most notable early response is a bill introduced by Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) that would create a permanent inspector general for contingency contracting (a more formal term for wartime contracting), which was one of the commission's recommendations.

As ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Tierney has been pushing the Defense Department to crack down on contracting abuses. In his opening statement during a hearing Sept. 15, Tierney referred to his 2010 probe into a $2.16 billion trucking contract DOD had awarded in Afghanistan, saying, “In plain English: The investigation found that the Department of Defense's supply chain in Afghanistan relied on paying the enemy and fueling corruption in order to maintain our substantial military footprint.”

Writing for Technorati.com, Erica Klemens contrasted the spending in war zones on projects such as an unfinished prison in Iraq, a power plant in Afghanistan that the country can't maintain and money spent on the Afghan National Security Forces to the situation in the United States.

“Meanwhile, U.S. prisons are severely overcrowded, with the state of California’s prison population nearly double its capacity; the government neglects national security domestically along its own borders; and many American soldiers serve four or five tours overseas,” she writes. “Why are Americans paying to build infrastructure in a foreign country that will deteriorate or be destroyed when we cannot afford to maintain our own?”

The profitability of war for contractors is another sensitive issue.

“I have met some contractors who grew attached to Afghanistan, even setting up their own charitable organizations to help,” writes Ben Arnoldy in a blog post at Christian Science Monitor, recalling a visit to Kabul in 2010. “But it is also true that there is a roving band of contractors who are on a circuit of conflict zones, jumping from contract to contract with few institutional or other long-term commitments. Sustainability, sense of mission and quality can suffer.”

But profitability and ethics aside, the report has prompted many people to question whether DOD has given contractors too big a role in military operations.

The contractors are heavily used for “such mundane functions as running the mess halls and laundries and hauling supplies but also for security functions that resulted in what were, for all practical purposes, private armies,” writes the Scripps Howard News Service's Dale McFeatters in an opinion piece published in the Korea Times.

As for the commission's recommendations, “some of them [are] so obvious you wonder why they weren't done years ago,” he writes.

Mark Thompson, writing in Time magazine's "Battleland" blog, also laid the bulk of the blame for misspent money on the over-reliance on contractors.

“Stuff happens in war, and sometimes, like when fighting a fire, some of the water gets wasted,” he writes. “What's more important, as Mike Kinsley pointed out years ago, is that it's not what's illegal in Washington that's surprising, it's what's legal.”

Regarding the latter point, Thompson referred to a case detailed in the commission's report in which the government paid a contractor to provide guards. The government paid $1,700 per guard per month, but the contractor paid the guards only $700 per month. What happened to the other $1,000 per guard? That sum “exceeds even the most generous indirect contract costs,” the commission members concluded.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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