I was reading an article about a CIA interrogator who used his mental skills to question terror suspects with great success, leading to the capture of a major figure in Al Qaeda.
     It was not the point that torture is a blunt and inaccurate instrument – I was already convinced on that point – that drew my attention, but a little note in the story mentioning that this highly successful, career CIA man had left the government to work for a consulting firm which had turned him right around and sent him back to the CIA, at higher pay.
     What happened here was that the government and all of us now pay much more for the man’s good work and we also pay an additional bundle to the consulting firm. Far from decreasing the costs of government, as this administration promised and the knock-on Republican Presidential candidate urges, the practice of outsourcing work to private contractors has simply increased the cost of the same work.
     Yet another trick to get government funds into private hands. And reduce accountability.
     For as long as I can remember, mercenaries were frowned upon, if not condemned, as out-of-control soldiers of fortune used by tin pot dictators in Africa and Latin America. But we are now paying private soldiers for so much security work that the notion of employing mercenaries has become accepted, normal, in use by the grand old United States of America on a regular basis.
     And the same is true in the halls of Washington D.C., where lobbyists are so ubiquitous that they and their conflicts of interest affect all candidates, left and right. Private influence, paid-for influence, has always been a big factor in national and state politics, but now it is so pervasive that you cannot see the difference – you cannot find the line – anymore between private interests and the government.
     Perhaps the last bastion of government professionalism and aloofness from the money hustle was the State Department, long dominated by worldly, career professionals who moved from one international post to another every two years, on the same schedule as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper. When our family was in Guinea in West Africa, for example, the ambassador was a friendly character and former publisher who, as is common, was appointed as a political favor. But the charge d’affaires, who was aloof and who was a career diplomat, controlled the staff.
     But now I read in the paper that in Iraq, corrupter of all things, the U.S. State Department officials aided JB Hunt, a political ally of President Bush, in landing a lucrative oil contract with the Kurds, a move that was against official policy. A State Department employee’s email went so far as to identify other business opportunities for Hunt in the south of Iraq and suggest that he pursue them. So a U.S. State Department employee is now hustling for an oil company.
     Underlying the use of private contractors for government work is the notion that the private sector is “more efficient.” You only need to look at the big car companies with their bloated and incompetent managements to know that the notion is not necessarily true. It depends on the company and in particular it depends on the competitive level in that company’s corner of the marketplace.
     But when a contractor does government work, he is not competing. He is just paying people as much or more than the government does – as in the case of the CIA interrogator – and adding a nice surcharge on top in order to do the same work that was being done before by public employees. It does not take a whole lot of fancy logic to realize that such an arrangement cannot be more efficient.
     So what other reasons are there for the Republican administration’s love of contracting. Only two that I can think of, and that are much more likely to be true: push public money into private hands and reduce the government’s accountability to its people.
     The day of reckoning for this administration – and for all its foolish beliefs and arrogant policies – had to come and that day seems to be barreling down on it lately. It is to be hoped that the misguided effort to outsource government will meet a similar fate.

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