WASHINGTON (CN) – The Commission on Wartime Contracting on Monday questioned the State Department’s ability to take over duties of U.S. military personnel in Iraq when the troops leave the country by the end of 2011. The State Department assured the committee that it is up to the task.
“You’re going to run the country in a year and a half,” commission co-chair Michael Thibault asked during the hearing called to examine the role of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Can you do it?”
“We are prepared to do it,” said State Department deputy assistant director Charlene Lamb. “I believe that we will,” she said.
The Defense Department is reducing troop numbers in Iraq to less than 50,000 by the end of this year and zero by the end of 2011 before handing off security duties to private contractors hired by the State Department.
There are 19,000 private security contractors currently in Iraq, 14,000 of which are under Army contracts that provide security services for bases and convoys. Another 5,000 work for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, performing embassy and personal protective services. Lamb anticipates that the State Department will need 6,000 to 7,000 private security contractors to continue working in the country.
“We’re not just going to turn the light switch out,” Lamb said. “This is a phased withdrawal.” She said she was confident they could handle the transition, but commissioners were not as certain.
As Lamb detailed the State Department’s plan to reduce security vulnerabilities “as best as possible,” Thibault said, “I don’t think the U.S. Army works to a standard to ‘as best as possible.'”
Thibault expressed concern about transferring to private contractors the government’s duties, such as performing hostage negotiations, recovering wounded personnel and damaged vehicles, returning hostile indirect fire in seconds, and providing security for bases and convoys.
“For taking the wounded out, name a company. We now are combat medics,” Thibault said. He said he worried about “weakly managed contractors performing largely governmental functions in a war zone.”
Part of the mission of the bipartisan eight-member independent Commission on Wartime Contracting, formed in 2008 to oversee federal contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is to determine which security jobs are “inherently governmental” and should not be delegated to the private sector.
“What I fear is that the personnel folks and our static facilities and our convoys are going to be, by default, contractors, even if it is inherently governmental,” Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said. “It’s an alarming thing.”
Speaking to Lamb, he said, “You don’t have the expertise, you don’t have the experience, and I think you don’t have the ability to make sure that the government does it when it is inherently governmental. It would be nice if we were at least honest about this reality,” he said.
The commissioners also were upset at the lack of oversight of private contractors, particularly in the case of USAID.
Commissioner Robert Henke leafed through an Office of Inspector General report on private contracting stating that a third of USAID private security contracts in Afghanistan have no standard security requirements.
“This is pretty damning,” Henke said, quoting a section of the report that said the contracts had “only limited oversight and almost no direction” for security standards.
Henke accused of USAID of wanting to “wash its hands of security contractors” by delegating oversight to contractors rather than providing it itself. “Wouldn’t you really rather wash your hands of it?” he asked.
“We don’t have the authority,” said David Blackshaw, chief of overseas security at USAID, deferring to the acquisition department.
“God forbid something would happen with a violent accident in Afghanistan that would affect our national policy in Afghanistan and you would try that ridiculous line of argument,” Henke said. “It won’t work.”
Henke said that if another “Nisour Square-like incident” occurred, USAID would be at fault, and asked if that was not reason enough for them to “better monitor” their personal security contractors.
The United States has never used private security contractors “on such a scale” as Iraq, Thibault said, and warned that the failure to effectively transfer U.S. military duties to the State Department in the coming months could “undermine” progress made in Iraq.
“And there has been progress,” Thibault said.
The commission’s report is due to Congress in 2011.