Only the shadow knows

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Since coming to office, the Obama administration has launched an aggressive campaign to change the basic tenets of government contracting. In February, for example, Obama introduced a set of “reforms” designed to reduce state spending on private sector providers of military security, intelligence and other critical services, and return certain outsourced work back to government.

The impetus for the policy shift was the explosion of contracting in Iraq and the swamp of corruption, violence and tangled investigations it has engendered. The United States, Obama declared in his February 24th address to Congress, must “eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq.” That line drew one of the loudest and most sustained rounds of applause of that memorable night, reflecting public and congressional outrage over the contracting-out of the US government.

Specifically, Obama has pledged to curtail the use of sole-source contracts and improve the quality of the acquisition workforce – that is, the government employees who are supposed to be supervising and auditing the billions of dollars spent monthly on the contracts. Most importantly, the White House has promised to decide once and for all what work should stay in government and what’s acceptable to outsource. That leap in policy was spelled out in these key words in the introduction to Obama’s budget for 2010, which was released in early March:

The Administration will clarify what is inherently a governmental function and what is a commercial one; critical Government functions will not be performed by the private sector for purely ideological reasons (italics mine).

That last clause must have sent shudders down the spines of many corporate executives in the greater Washington area, who were the beneficiaries of the Bush administration’s largesse and made millions from Bush’s propensity to contract out nearly everything in its militaristic agenda, particularly in the Middle East. Obama’s policies will be released in September, when Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, completes his agency’s development of the “tough new guidelines” Obama has demanded for contracting, both in Iraq and back home.

But anybody who thinks reforming contracts is going to be easy should read SHADOW FORCE, the new book by David Isenberg about the history and scope of private military contractors (PMCs) in Iraq. Isenberg is one of the country’s best military analysts, and is now researching and lecturing about his topic at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (I’ve known him since the late 1970s, when we were both studying at the University of Oregon in Eugene). His book spells out just how far contracting has gone in the US imperial thrust into the Middle East, and provides an important back-story to the entire phenomenon of military outsourcing. Here’s the description of the book from the publisher, Praeger Security International:

Today, with an emphasis on force restructuring mandated by the Pentagon, the role of PMCs, and their impact on policy-making decisions is at an all time peak. This work analyzes that impact, focusing specifically on PMCs in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Isenberg dissects their responsibilities, the friction that exists between contractors and military commanders, problems of protocol and accountability, as well as the problems of regulation and control that PMC companies create for domestic politics.  Isenberg organizes his work thematically, addressing all facets of PMCs in the current conflict from identifying who the most influential companies are and how they got to that point, to the issues that the government, military, and contractors themselves face when they take the field. He also analyzes the problem of command, control, and accountability.

It is no secret that PMCs have been the source of consternation and grief to American military commanders in the field. As they work to establish more routine protocols in the field, however, questions are also being raised about the role of the contractors here at home. The domestic political arena is perhaps the most crucial battleground on which the contractors must have success. After all, they make their corporate living off of taxpayer dollars, and as such, calls for regulation have resonated throughout Washington, D.C., growing louder as the profile of PMCs increases during the current conflict.

As a careful, sober survey of PMCs, SHADOW FORCE is a valuable contribution to the public debate about contracting. It stands in contrast to most of the journalism about military contracting these days, which – because so much of it is political, as opposed to reportorial in nature – is either hysterical or flat-out wrong. From the beginning, Isenberg wants his readers to know he is not a partisan:

This book is simply a modest attempt to bring some facts into view and let the chips fall where they may. Although I do have opinions on the pros and cons of governmental use of private military contractors, I am neither a diehard supporter nor fervent opponent of their use. I have no dog in the fight over outsourcing things that used to be considered governmental functions. As Mr. Spock used to tell Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series, I consider it a fascinating phenomenon, worthy of continuing study.

In his preface, Isenberg spends considerable time trying to ridicule and debunk the argument over whether PMCs are mercenaries or not (a semantic difference that I also avoided in my book on intelligence outsourcing). He then goes on to say:

…As a U.S. military veteran, I believe there is another side to the use of private security and military contractors that few people care to talk about publicly. The reality is that private contractors did not crawl out from under a rock some- where. They are on America’s battlefields because the government, reflecting the will of the people, wants them there….If people don’t want to use private contractors, the choices are simple. Either scale back U.S. geopolitical commitments or enlarge the military, something that will entail more gargantuan expenditures and even, some argue, a return to the draft down the road. Personally, I prefer the former.

In any case, Isenberg wants dialogue:

Still, what I would really like to see is a national debate on this. Instead, we bury our heads in the sand and bemoan the presence of private contractors. That is a waste of time. Private security contractors, after all, are just doing the job we outsourced to them. And, like them or hate them, they are going to be around for a long time.

Isenberg’s arguments are solid. But I think he overstates the case that contracting reflects the “will of the people.” For the most part, high-level contracting has been decided in secret and with little or no public fanfare or input– until revelations about certain companies (Blackwater/Xe, Halliburton), practices (shoddy weapons and supplies) and corruption (MZM/CIA) placed it on the front pages of many newspapers, and turned contracting into a constant topic on left-leaning blogs and websites.

Where he and I agree is on the “bemoaning” part; I too think there is far too much emphasis in the left press about bad actors like Halliburton, and far too little attention to what is to be done about the private military industry. What’s missing from most of the discussion, in my opinion, is a critical step: bringing contracted jobs from the highest levels of national security back into the state. If we as a people are opposed to unrestricted contracting, then we must start talking about de-privatization, which means bringing work (guarding diplomats in Iraq, strategic intelligence, other tasks critical to our public well-being and safety) back into government, to be performed by government workers. And that means nationalization – or the nicer term preferred to its proponents – “insourcing.”

Interestingly, that’s the direction Congress is already taking. Just this week, the Senate passed, and President Obama signed, a bill to temporarily stop the practice of “competitive sourcing,” a Bush policy that required agencies to put out government jobs for bid to the private sector. According to National Journal’s NextGov, the key provisions in the 2009 omnibus appropriations bill

…[prohibit] the use of funds government wide to study or hold a public-private job competition for the remainder of fiscal 2009. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., introduced the measure. Although the omnibus halts job competitions through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, it does not kill competitive sourcing, which would require further legislation.

The bill also requires civilian agencies to review current contracts and issue guidelines for considering whether new projects can be performed by federal employees, or if previously outsourced work can be brought back in-house. Criteria for jobs subject to insourcing include: those outsourced without competition or performed by a federal employee during the past decade, jobs closely aligned with an inherently governmental function, or judged by a contracting officer to have been performed poorly “because of excessive costs or inferior quality.”

The latest provisions don’t apply to the Pentagon. But that’s because a military spending bill passed last year including similar language directed at the Department of Defense. According to my union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which introduced and lobbied hard for the amendments, the changes have already started with the Army, which has insourced almost 1,400 jobs and claims an average savings from insourcing of $50 million per year, totaling $299 million over the program years of the legislation.

But until contracting is rolled back to a manageable level in government, and in particular overseas, the companies that David Isenberg describes in SHADOW FORCE are going to be around. His book should be on every activists’ and researchers’ shelf.

To hear Isenberg in his own words, from speaker’s notes from a talk he gave in February 2009, click here.

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